FIT 728x90 Film Society of Lincoln Center

Kaiju Shakedown: Angela Mao

By Grady Hendrix on July 22, 2014 in Film Comment, Kaiju Shakedown

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High-powered Hollywood execs may claim that making a Wonder Woman feature film is “tricky,” but China doesn’t give a damn. It’s been putting ass-kicking women on screens since 1930 when the country’s first major movie star, Chin Tsi-ang, starred in a series of swordswoman flicks. Famous for doing all her own action scenes, she went on to produce Hong Kong’s first kung fu film (The Adventures of Fong Sai-yuk, 38) and action ace Sammo Hung (she’s his grandmother). 

But by anyone’s standards, the Queen of Action is Angela Mao, famous in the West for her brief role as Bruce Lee’s sister in Enter the Dragon. Trained in hapkido, wushu, and taekwondo, Mao made almost 40 flicks before retiring in the early Eighties, but her true legacy lies in the 11 movies she made for Golden Harvest with Sammo Hung from 1971 to 1977. And now Shout! Factory has sent six of them storming onto DVD in one butt-kicking box set.

BROKEN OATH (77)

Broken Oath

With action pioneer Chung Chang-Wha (director of Five Fingers of Death) directing this Chinese remake of the 1973 Meiko Kaji revenge picture Lady Snowblood, Angela Mao attacks her role like an Olympic athlete trying to take home the gold. After her dad is killed by a team of synchronized assassins and her mom is framed for a crime she didn’t commit, Angela is born in prison. Mom promptly dies and her aunt, a pickpocket genius known as 1000 Hands, turns Angela over to some Buddhist nuns to raise, hoping that they’ll meditate the violence out of her. But Angela just sticks around for the kung fu instruction and rolls her eyes during the speeches about ending the cycle of violence. After she kills three bandits, the nuns kick her out into the world. “It’s fate,” they shrug. “She’s violent.”

Sporting Princess Leia buns, Angela tracks down the five men who killed her parents, murdering them with scorpions she keeps hidden in her bra. Bruce Leung (a Bruce Lee imitator who would go on to become a star in his own right) teams up with her, and the two become the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of vengeance. For once, Sammo Hung doesn’t choreograph the fights for this movie, but action director Yuen Wo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, The Matrix) brings his own gothic sensibility to the proceedings, which feature a freaky pair of bodyguards (one played by Sammo Hung, the other one a fire breather) and a final showdown with a gaggle of chortling, identically masked opponents.  

WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES (73)

When Taekwondo Strikes

Directed by the man who discovered Angela Mao, Huang Feng, with action by Sammo Hung, and co-starring Carter Huang (Thunder in Big Trouble in Little China), this flick goes great with a case of beer. Case in point, the opening credits show off co-star Jhoon Rhee, father of American taekwondo, wearing a white jacket that says “Tae Kwon Do” on the back as he does taekwondo. Set in occupied Korea during the 1930’s, Carter Huang gets mistaken for a Korean resistance fighter and is chased by the evil Japanese into a church where a George Lucas lookalike is preaching. The Japanese act all sneery about Christianity, so Jhoon Rhee has to show up and dish out a great big helping of pain. Turns out he’s the rebel they’re actually looking for. 

It’s a cheese fiesta. Ann Winton does bell-bottom fu, the Japanese keep tying people to their Torture Crucifix in the dungeon where they dispense topless floggings, and “Thus Spake Zarathustra” booms on the soundtrack every time a fight breaks out. Angela finally shows up to save the day, both for the Korean revolutionaries and the audience. She and Sammo are clearly having a blast in their scenes together, and the finale rolls out Hwang In-shik, a truly intimidating Korean screen fighter (he took on Jackie Chan in the climax of several movies). His fight with Angela is a thing of beauty. “There’s no need to thank me,” she says when it’s over, surrounded by dead bodies. Oh, yes, there is.

STONER (74)

Stoner

Originally envisioned as Bruce Lee’s follow-up to Enter the Dragon, Stoner was supposed to star Lee, Sonny Chiba, and Mr. Temporary James Bond himself, George Lazenby. But after Bruce Lee died, Chiba bailed and Golden Harvest slashed the budget. The result is a thankless slog enlivened by some funkadelic Seventies kitsch as evil drug dealers use computors to create “Happy Pills,” a female Viagra that is somehow worse than marijuana and LSD combined. Lazenby shows up to shut it all down, as does Angela. Bruce Lee’s mistress, Betty Ting Pei, cashes in on her 15 minutes of fame to play a drug dealer’s girlfriend who drinks brandy from a champagne coupe like trash.

Lazenby’s enthusiastic leg flails are all over the finale, and, despite having Huang Feng and Sammo Hung on hand, no amount of revolving desks, 11-year-old sex club bouncers, or blondes carried into orgies on giant platters like honey-baked hams can redeem this turd.

A QUEEN’S RANSOM (76)

A Queen's Ransom

After Stoner flopped, Lazenby (playing a bad guy this time) and Sammo teamed up with Jimmy Wang Yu to make The Man from Hong Kong for Golden Harvest, which hit big. Trying to replicate its success, Golden Harvest cast Lazenby as a baddie again with Sammo and Jimmy in A Queen’s Ransom, a film about an IRA plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II on her 1975 visit to Hong Kong. Despite being loaded with surreptitiously shot footage of QE II and her actual security detail, it isn’t very memorable. Angela Mao barely appears, the Lazenby flail is in full effect, and the only person who seems to be having a good time is sex star Tanny Tien Ni, who plays Jenny, a hooker and police informant. After bouncing across the screen with a sexy grin, she publicly denounces Queen Elizabeth: “This is a city of crime, and she’s its queen!” An Oscar for Tanny, demerits for everyone else.

THE HIMALAYAN (76)

The Himalayan

This was the final movie Angela and Huang Feng made for Golden Harvest, and the second-to-the-last they made together. Once Golden Harvest has congratulated itself in the opening voiceover for traveling all the way to Tibet to shoot the movie, things kick off with plenty of dramatic ambition. The first half is a showcase for the under-rated Chan Sing, one of the great sneering bad guys of Hong Kong film, having a ball playing Gao Zhen, the oldest brother of a shabby Tibetan family who wants to get his hands on the Ceng family fortune. Plan A: marry off his youngest brother to Lady Princess Ceng (Angela Mao). Little brother balks, so he goes to Plan B: kill little brother and replace him with a double. 

Plan B works, but the marriage hits a snag when it turns out that Angela is in love with a stable boy, played by super-kicker Tan Tao-liang. Cue Plan C: frame Angela and Tan for murder and take over the family after they go on the run. Angela and Tan wind up learning real kung fu from the Eagle Lama (played by director Huang Feng), but that means it takes the entire movie for the two of them to unleash hell because they’re supposed to have started as kung fu idiots. Fortunately, Chan Sing is delightful as a human bulldozer, beating everyone down with overacting and some seriously painful-looking kung fu. Good things come to those who wait, however, and when Angela and Tan return for the final showdown, they give us one of the best final fights ever put on screen. Tan shows off his insane kicking skills, but the movie hits Kickass Overdrive when Angela sends him to the sidelines and goes head-to-head with Chan. Taking repeated punches to the face, she demonstrates that while she may be a Princess, she can save herself, thank you very much.

THE TOURNAMENT (74)

The Tournament

Four of these movies are directed by Huang Feng, and star Angela Mao, with Sammo Hung on action (alongside his stunt crew that’s a gallery of future directors and stars like Eric Tsang, Yuen Wah, Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, and Ching Siu-tung). So what makes The Tournament such a cut above the rest? More than any other title in this box set, this movie showcases Angela Mao not so much as an actor but as a force of nature. The story: Carter Huang and another Chinese guy go to Thailand to make money in the Thai boxing ring. One winds up dead, and Carter comes home humiliated, which drives the Hong Kong Martial Arts Association bananas. Stupid Thai people have embarrassed Chinese kung fu, and they blame Master Liu, Carter’s dad and kung fu coach. In a fit of shame, Master Liu hangs himself, and that would be the end of the movie—if his daughter wasn’t Angela Mao.

Marching over to the Hong Kong Martial Arts Association HQ (which, in a bit of bad taste, seems to be 41 Cumberland Road, the house where Bruce Lee was living when he died) she announces that she’s heading to Thailand to learn muay thai. The Martial Arts Association gets all spluttery and indignant. How dare she suggest that muay thai is a “real” martial art! Is she looking down on Chinese kung fu? “That’s right,” she says. “I look down on it. I’m going to go master Thai boxing and use it to take care of you old fools.” And she does. Sammo Hung is a master of high-impact fight choreography, and every punch and kick in this movie hits like a Mack truck. Hwang In-shik rips up the screen as an arrogant Japanese martial artist, and Angela is human tornado. First she mops the floor with some karate chumps, then she beats down the Hong Kong Martial Arts Association, then she hands Thailand its collective ass on a platter, and finally, for dessert, she lays into a white guy. A true star, she sends electricity vibrating through the screen every time she appears. 

So in order of quality:

Broken Oath - Best All-Around Movie

The Tournament - Most Righteous Non-Stop Mayhem

The Himalayan - The Final Fight from Heaven Award

When Taekwondo Strikes - Cheesiest Guilty Pleasure

Stoner - The George Lazenby Trying Really Hard Merit Badge

A Queen’s Ransom - Best Appearance By Queen Elizabeth II in a Supporting Role

There are no links to other news this week because right now there’s only one thing that matters. This past Sunday, one of cinema’s great talents passed away. Thailand’s Panna Rittikrai, director, actor, and action choreographer, died from liver and kidney failure. He was 53 years old. 

Panna Rittikrai

Born in Northern Thailand’s Issan region, Rittikrai talked about his early career in an email interview I did with him a few years ago. “My first step in the movie business was to apply for the stunt position at Coliseum Film,” he wrote. “At that time, Mr. Kom Akkadej wanted to shoot a film called Petch Tud Yok, and he hired me as a stunt man and assigned me to teach kung fu to Sureewan Suriyong, who was considered the Queen of Action Movies. Then, I became a stunt choreographer for the film called Phayakyeegey. Last but not least, I became the director of my own movie called Born To Fight in which I also played a leading role.” 

Early on, Rittikrai was making movies that were, essentially, released on VHS, but he was already building a stunt team and making a name for himself as one of Thailand’s most innovative action directors. He aimed high. 

“My action style was influenced by Bruce Lee,” he wrote. “My early works were also influenced by Akira Kurosawa.” Rittikrai’s philosophy was straightforward. “For my style of choreography, I try to make the most of natural abilities. I prefer realities to techniques.” 

He eventually discovered future star Tony Jaa and tried to make a movie with him. “It was a low-budget movie,” he wrote, “in which I wanted to mainly present Tony Jaa. However, I could not wrap up the project because of the shortage of financial support. I also thought that [the] movie lacked uniqueness.” Soon afterward, he teamed up with director Prachya Pinkaew and choreographed the action on Ong Bak (03). “When I made Ong Bak, I realized that the uniqueness that I had looked for is Muay Thai.” 

What followed was a series of action movies that became international hits and rewrote the rules of action choreography: two sequels to Ong-Bak (08 & 11, which Rittikrai directed), two Tom Yum Goong movies (aka The Protector, 05 & 13, which he choreographed), Chocolate (08, choreographed), and a remake of Born to Fight (04, directed).

Everything that made Rittikrai great was in full effect in the last movie he directed and appeared in, BKO: Bangkok Knockout (2010). Although the story was slight (a bunch of kids are trapped in a warehouse and have to fight their way out) the action is non-stop. Rittikrai himself plays an unstoppable asthmatic killer, and the stunts have to be seen to be believed. The best thing you can do right now is head over to Netflix and watch the whole movie. If you can get past the first 20 minutes of setup, you’ll be in for one of the most hard-hitting displays of ass-kicking you’ll ever see. The fact that the movie was designed to showcase Rittikrai’s team of stuntpeople and students makes it all the more moving, turning it into a showcase for the unsung heroes who double the stars and do the dangerous stunts but whose faces never get to appear on screen. 

His influence has been tremendous. Every time you see someone take a knee to the face in a movie, or an elbow to the top of a head, that’s Rittikrai’s influence. But he did more than just add some muay thai spice to action choreography. Panna Rittikrai changed action in movies forever, bringing a more realistic approach to stuntwork at a time when CGI was taking over. In a world that was in danger of turning entirely digital, he reminded everyone that nothing could beat the thrill of analog. A true badass, and by all accounts a real friend and mentor (he’s the guy who pulled Tony Jaa out of the darkness when the star was threatening to destroy his own career around the time of Ong Bak 2). Rittikrai’s death robbed the world of all the movies he might have made. We’re left poorer by this loss.

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