Sunday, November 16, 2008
EXPLOITATION DOUBLE FEATURE: CHINESE HERCULES (1973) d. Ta Huang & THE BLACK DRAGON (1974) d. Chin-ku Lu
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Exploitation Cinema is not really what people think it is. Most people would give you a definition that it was sleazy cinematic fare designed to titillate those looking for something lurid and stimulate the testosterone of those looking for something violent. While both of these descriptions are true after a fashion, neither really gets to the heart of what exploitation cinema really tried to be which was an unabashed effort on the part of film makers to cash in on currently trendy fads in popular culture. It isn’t all that much different today other than the fact that “political correctness” keeps most film moguls from mining ideas that would be currently seen as insensitive to diverse ethnicities or gender roles. During the height of the exploitation film craze throughout the late 1960s and all the way up to the early 1980s, every possible inspiration for a motion picture found its way to the Big Screen, from race issues, to sexuality, to drugs and counterculture, and gore/horror/sado-masochism. One of the unintended benefits of the exploitation era was that it familiarized white, middle-class Americans with Black, Latino and Asian culture in ways that had never occurred prior to 1968. As a result, even though producers and distribution companies were more interested in making a buck, what they were doing was tearing down some of the race barriers just by exposing white movie-goers to non-white faces and cosmopolitan cultures. CHINESE HERCULES and THE BLACK DRAGON are two examples of martial arts fare from the early years of Hong Kong’s glory days, when kung-fu films streamed over the oceans in large numbers and were cut, dubbed, re-titled, had new music laid over the original soundtrack and were later reframed and reworked when they hit video by the 1980s. CHINESE HERCULES and THE BLACK DRAGON are the epitome of 1970s exploitation flicks brought to America back in their day to make money for the film company who made the effort to bring them here. Now you can see them nearly as close to how they must have looked in a seedy theater back then.
CHINESE HERCULES is the story of a kung-fu student named Shen Wei Ta, who is haunted by a terrible tragedy of his past. He takes a job unloading cargo from boats making port at a small village. The villagers are tied economically to the commerce of the pier, which gives its pitiless owner too much power over his struggling workers. The situation becomes more troublesome when a syndicate takes control of the pier. The head mobster’s will is enforced by his muscle-bound sidekick, who cracks the skulls and breaks the necks of anyone who tries to stand up for their rights. Shen Wei Ta swore he’d never use the awesome power of his first in anger again, but the deaths of his co-workers force him to take up the challenge.
THE BLACK DRAGON is the story of Tai-Lin and his prodigal brother Chu-Fu Chi, who returns to their small farming village spinning tales of his successes in the Phillipines. Chu-Fu Chi’s grandiose behavior spurs Ta-Lin to follow him to “the Golden Land” where he soon sees for himself the squalor and fetid nature of life in a land where existence is cheap. Tai-Lin soon runs afoul of the criminal underground and is forced to make strange alliances to fight against the slithery tyranny of gangsters. Titanic battles ensue, leading up to a reckoning with Chu-Fu Chi and a true brotherly showdown.
Neither of these films are the classics and/or epics of Hong Kong cinema of yore, but they are still entertaining after a fashion. Both evidence the tried and true story structure typical of martial arts films that blend drama, character development carefully entwined with morality plays, action sequences and long stretches where you wonder whether you’ll see any more fighting. CHINESE HERCULES has a good premise, and while its story concept has been thoroughly tested in earlier films it is none the worse for wear. At times the story drags a bit and crosses into the realm of melodrama. In addition, there are clearly engine-powered boats dating it to modern times, the essence of the plot, the costumes and some of the mores make it feel like an older historical genre piece. The action sequences and set pieces are probably better scripted than THE BLACK DRAGON and are somewhat better shot too. Like THE BLACK DRAGON, the title character of CHINESE HERCULES is not seen nearly as much as one would expect, but at least at the end there is a titanic battle between the irresistible force and the immovable object that is a first-rate pay off. THE BLACK DRAGON has a very simple and transparent story, even sharing the “dock worker” character motif of CHINESE HERCULES, but it is a somewhat better paced film and has a more modern look to it, connecting it in some ways to films like THE STREET FIGHTER which would come later. THE BLACK DRAGON is also a bit more modern in its sensibilities as it is a more salacious flick with actual nudity and more overt and gratuitous sexual themes. THE BLACK DRAGON suffers from some pretty hokey countrified incidental music and scoring at times, while at other times its soundtrack feels like it is right out of LOVE STORY. CHINESE HERCULES has a somewhat more classical set of strains that probably add to its older aura. While each film has its own strengths and weaknesses, this double feature pairing is a pretty thoughtful one and the two movies complement each other nicely.
From a technical standpoint, this is definitely a recreation of “the grindhouse experience” for just as anyone braving one of the old 42nd Street-style theatres would have seen films under less than ideal circumstances, neither of these movies is in pristine condition. Both suffer from print condition problems like colored lines, scratches, splices, inconsistent exposure and washed out color. Some of this is probably due to the original film preservation efforts, some would be due to the condition of the film elements available to BCI Eclipse, some might be transfer problems as well and there is evidence of DVD authoring difficulties too. Of the two films, CHINESE HERCULES is probably in better condition and has brighter color and fewer print problems and artifacts.
What turned out to be more disappointing were the problems with the “extras menu”. The main menu of EXPLOITATION DOUBLE FEATURE: CHINESE HERCULES and THE BLACK DRAGON landed you in a grungy theatre lobby with choices of “scene selection”, “main features” and “extras” represented by three different theatre icons. That was both charming and entertaining to someone who longs for the “old-time theatre feel”. When entering the “projectionist’s booth” for the “extras”, you are given the chance to watch six different trailers. After passing through the doors to the main theatre, you can choose either feature film, and you can also listen to Grand Master Ron Van Clief’s audio commentary for THE BLACK DRAGON. However, there is an option to choose “play the Grindhouse Experience of films, trailers and commercials” which just led me to the audio commentary set up. Possibly I didn’t understand a tongue-in-cheek joke or I didn’t work the command functions correctly, but it felt more like there was an authoring problem with this disc and that I didn’t get to fully enjoy “the Grindhouse Experience”. If that was the case, then it is too bad, for up to that time I was fairly satisfied with my trip back to my youth.
It is nice to see that true exploitation cinema from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s is being revisited in DVD form and that a wide range of companies are trying to both sate the appetites of those who saw it when it was hip and expose it to those who are discovering it for the first time. BCI Eclipse has brought out a wide variety of cinematic fare spanning an even more diverse set of genres and styles, and for that I am very thankful. Some of the films they have brought forth I saw in theatres long ago, or saw on video in later years, or in the case of CHINESE HERCULES and THE BLACK DRAGON I am seeing for the first time. Since I have seen a great number of films like them over the last 30+ years, my experience was more nostalgic than enlightening, but it was still a pleasant one none-the-less. If you are looking for a chance to see something a little different from what most Americans viewed as “martial arts” films then and now, this double feature is worth your time.