July 18, 2011

Tang Shan Da Xiong (1971)

Without a doubt, one of the most (perhaps THE most) influential actors and directors of action films was Chinese American martial artist Bruce Lee. Native of San Francisco, the young Lee began to train martial arts after his family returned to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Lee appeared in several films as a child (mainly because his father was a famous Cantonese opera star), but he abandoned his acting career in favor of studying martial arts. However, when Lee returned to United States, cinema found him again when he was invited to play a role in the TV series "The Green Hornet". As the hero's sidekick Kato, Lee began a career in America as supporting actor and fight choreographer; however, he was unhappy with his lack of lead roles, so once again he returned to Hong Kong. There, he discovered that his popularity as Kato was extremely high, and producer Raymond Chow offered him the chance to star a film about martial arts. "Tang Shan Da Xiong" was the final result and the movie that started Lee's path to become a legend of celluloid.

"Tang Shan Da Xiong" literally means ""Big Brother from the Tang Mountains", but it is better known as "The Big Boss" (and "Fists of Fury in the U.S.). The film tells the story of a young Chinese man named Cheng Chao-an (Bruce Lee) who travels to Thailand to meet his distant cousins, and with the goal of finding a job. After a life of constant street fights, Cheng has promised his mother to not get involved in fights again, and is decided to start a new life at Thailand. Cheng joins his cousins at the ice factory where they work, and soon he finds in them a new family, developing a close friendship with Hsiu Chien (James Tien) and a big affection for the beautiful Chow Mei (Maria Yi). However, things get complicated when one day, two of Cheng's cousins discover that the factory is actually the front for drug traffic. After they refuse to cooperate, they get killed. When Hsiu Chien disappears while trying to find his brothers, Cheng will have to break his Oath in order to unveil the mystery behind the disappearance of his new family.

Written and directed by Wei Lo (who would also discover Jackie Chan), "The Big Boss" meant a breath of fresh air to Chinese martial arts films as it moved away from the historical fantasy themes and instead showed a young hero in a modern, gritty setting. The story has a pretty interesting premise, and showcases a good handling of suspense; also of interest is the fact that it makes the bold move (for an action film) of having the main character out of any fighting during basically the first half of the film, as Cheng must avoid violence at all costs due to his oath. Unlike the majority of martial arts films, there are relatively few scenes of action in "The Big Boss", as the screenplay is more concerned with trying to develop its story (as simple as it is), though it makes a great job at building up the anticipation for the climatic battle. This allows for better character development, specially for Cheng, whom we see not as the perfect hero of classic martial arts films, but as a more human, flawed one.

In many ways, "Tang Shan Da Xiong" can be seen as a film of transition, as not only it meant the introduction of Bruce Lee as a rising action star, it was the transition to a new way of making action films in Hong Kong as it was one of the first films by Raymond Chow's new independent company, Golden Harvest. Even when director Wei Lo was already a seasoned filmmaker, "The Big Boss" shows a shift to a less restrained, increasingly dynamic visual style for action (no doubt influenced by its highly energetic young actor). While as written above, the scenes of action are relatively sparse, when they actually take place the style is explosive, fast-packed, and with greater attention to the details of the fight. "The Big Boss" has a very raw look that is probably the result of its low budget, however, this adds a certain dose of gritty realism to the images captured by Ching-Chu Chen's work of cinematography, specially since it also contains a high amount of graphic violence (it is probably the goriest film in Lee's career).

Acting through the film is a mixed bag, with some effective performances and some other being not really good. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: Bruce Lee's screen persona oozes a natural charm and vibrant energy that truly fills the screen with his presence. While this is something that had already been hinted by his American work (His Kato in "The Gree Hornet" is unforgettable), it is in "The Big Boss" where that magnetism can be truly be felt at its best, in a lead role. In "the Big Boss", Lee looks pretty natural in his restrained role, still not the fighting machine of posterior films, but more of a common man who just wants to live peacefully, and his talent is showcased in many scenes of Cheng simply enjoying his new found family and struggling with his own vices. The rest of the cast ranges from average to just fine, with James Tien being amongst the best as Cheng's older cousin Hsiu. However, it's fair to notice that the poor dubbing, typical of movies of the era makes a bit difficult to judge the cast's performances fairly.

Amongst the unfortunately brief filmography of Bruce Lee, "Tang Shan Da Xiong" or "The Big Boss" tends to be considered as the weakest of all, and not without some reason. Certainly, it lacks the fast-packed action of posterior movies, and it may even feel slow due to the film's pacing and the way the story is built. As written above, this was one of Golden Harvet's first films, so the low budget is often noticeable. The acting, with the exception of Lee and Tien, is not exactly amazing; and finally, director Wei Lo's odd inclusion of some silly comedic effects feels terribly out of pace in what otherwise is a remarkably violent, dark and gritty action film. Nevertheless, "Tang Shan Da Xiong" should be seen as the first of the revolutionary films that Lee would craft during his career. It is tacky in its craftsmanship, however, it could be seen as the seed of that style of action films that Wei Lo, Bruce Lee and Golden Harvest would keep on polishing, a style that would be further completed in the following Lee's film ("Jing Wu Men", or "Fist of Fury").

To summarize, "Tang Shan Da Xiong", or "The Big Boss", is a terrific film by its own right, filled with suspense and action, and showcasing a pretty good first glimpse of the talents of young Bruce Lee as a martial artist. Its handling of Cheng's oath and the way tension is raised by his decisions are fine examples of pretty good filmmaking, and its explosive climatic battle is a true joy to watch. Together with "Jing Wu Men" ("Fist of Fury") and "Enter the Dragon", a basic film to understand Lee's career and the development of martial arts films during the 70s. It may not be a true classic of the genre as the films mentioned, but "Tang Shan Da Xiong" was just the beginning of the legendary Bruce Lee.


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