I love the way that a movie studio’s logo sets the tone for what is to follow. The 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare, the roaring Leo the lion, even the beeping of the RKO radio tower…it’s a fun way to start a film watching experience. But no other company call sign juices me up more than the iconic blue logo and fanfare of the Shaw Brothers. Hong Kong’s largest film studio, they brought the wonders of martial arts cinema to the world…and I love them for it. Their films are artistic, complex, and incredibly exciting. To fans of the martial arts genre, calling any of their films “forgotten” would be heresy. But the fact of the matter is, most casual movie goers ignore these type of films. So let’s take a look at one from 1979, “Ten Tigers of Kwangtung.”
The film begins with two mysterious characters lurking about a gambling establishment. They are obviously plotting something. They have a particular interest in a group of young men who are enjoying themselves gambling. Before long, one of the young men is dead at the hands of these two mystery men. It turns out, that these two men are the brother and son of General Liang (Wang Lung Lei), who was defeated by a group of ten men many years ago. Their prey are the disciples of these men. As the remaining disciples regroup, they tell the story of the original “ten tigers.”
Now the movie goes into an extended flashback. It concerns an anti-Ch’ing revolutionary leader Chai Min Yu (Ku Feng) being protected from General Liang by a pawn shop owner, and former Shaolin, Li Jen Chiao (Ti Lung). As Li Jen Chiao hides Chai Min Yu in the back of his shop, he sends his brother Tan Ming (Fu Sheng) out to assemble a group of other men trained in kung fu. This premise definitely brings to mind memories of the gathering of warriors in films like “Seven Samurai” or it’s American remake “The Magnificent Seven.” Tan Ming is a fun character, cocky and arrogant, which means he feels the need to fight every other potential candidate he meets. Ultimately, action is what we want to see in a Shaw Brothers film, so I have no problem with that. Eventually, the team of ten is assembled and they confront Liang and his guards in a large kung fu battle on the docks. In the end, Liang ends up dead.
This takes us back to the story we began with, as Liang’s brother and son are hunting down the disciples of the original ten tigers. The fight sequences that follow are the highlight of the film. My favorite, involves Liang’s brother, Tung Chi (Wang Li), battling one of the disciples in a restaurant. The disciple uses various items such chairs, benches, an umbrella, and even noodle bowls as weapons. Another fun sequence follows as two of the disciples toy with Liang’s son, who they know is plotting to kill them.
When watching a Hong Kong film in dubbed English, you’ve always got to figure that something is lost in the translation. That is certainly the case here. It takes awhile for us stupid Americans to wrap our brains around the plot…and I admit, with such a large number of primary characters, all of whom all have Chinese names which are difficult for my brain to keep track of, it was tough to remember who was who. But as the film progresses, the plot does begins to make sense. But, of course, the action is what we really want to see, and the film does not disappoint in that department. There is a definite progression to the fight sequences…beginning with battles that, though impressive, are somewhat simple, but them moving on to very complex sequences as the film moves toward it’s conclusion.
“Ten Tigers of Kwangtung” is probably not the best film to start with if you’re new to martial arts cinema. But for the patient viewer, it pays off in big ways.