Wednesday, March 03, 2010

 Showdown at the Cotton Mill (1978)

"I killed his father in seven strokes. To kill him, three would be enough."

When this supposedly-lost, almost mythically rare follow-up to 'Men from the Monastery' and 'Shaolin Avengers' was discovered by Toby Russell in Taiwan, and released via his Rarescope imprint in 2005, the initial delight of its availability was met in some quarters by disappointment. This was in no small part due to the damaged nature of the sourced print; but now that the DVD has been out some time it can be reviewed on its own terms away from the hype.


(from Abbot White's You Tube channel, made by the Abbot himself - cheers :)

Plot: Right - let's get one thing straight. If you are watching this film for cotton mills, you will be disappointed. According to the box blurb, Hu Hui-Chen (old stoneface himself, Chi Kuan-Chuan) has achieved much fame and glory from smashing the titular mill. But it's nowhere to be seen, or even mentioned. If you can get over this crushing disappointment, though, you're in for a treat.

The Canton/Shaolin population are (as usual) under the thumb of the dastardly Ching/Wutang aggressors. Shaolin student Hu has had his father killed by this regime, and proceeds to batter his way through their number in a series of terrific rumbles (more on those later). Whilst his wife and child hide away, the Shaolin school and rival Chin Lun Wutang school attempt to respectively protect and capture Hu, the Wutang using an ever-tougher cadre of corrupt officials and kickers-for-hire, culminating in Flash Legs Tan Tao Liang himself.

After tricks, treachery, treason and a synonym for kidnap that starts with 'tr-', we're down to a battle for the fate of all Canton - but can a seriously injured Hu prevail...? (Spoiler: Yes.)

Production: It's your typical movie Canton village: dusty main road, teahouse, bookstall, a few alleys and *that* temple. There's some occasional attempts at arty direction with handheld camera (or possibly a drunk cameraman) otherwise it's all done with minimum fuss. There is a recurring theme wherby Hu's challenges to the Wutang are written out on stackable lanterns and hung up all around town - including the forest! Nice gimmick.

The soundtrack is worth mentioning: rather than 'borrow' the cues from a Spaghetti Western, the traditional score rather sounds like how a Spaghetti theme and incidental music would sound if it was composed from scratch with Chinese instruments - very interesting!

The opening credits are stylish and fun:

Fights: Absolute dynamite. Unusually for most good guys in a traditional film, Hu has an aura of sheer brutality, no mercy asked or given.  This suits Chi Kuan-Chuan's stoic demanour to a tee, and he comes across as cold-blooded as a Hwang Jang Lee villain. This lends the fights a real edge: vicious shapes, kicks, ju-jitsu holds and ruthless killer blows. When Tan Tao-Liang hits the scene, it's pure Northern Leg vs. Southern Fist (well, fist - claw - snake - crane) and it doesn't disappoint; Flash Legs delivering his patent left leg multiple turning kicks, jump reverse and devastating sidekick.

 It's not often you see the bad guys showing fear in the fights, but they have it in spades here. The death scenes of the Wutang are outrageously over the top, lashings of slow motion and false-alarm recoveries. There's very little preamble between the fighters too - no pleas-bargaining by the good guy for a peaceful resolution, just get stuck in!

 It's probably no coicidence that in the final fight the bad guy wears white, with Hu donning black threads: he's definitely more anti-hero than hero, and the fights are all the better for it. One curious tactic though: why is Hu fighting with his hair in his mouth...? He deliberately stuffs the end of his ponytail into his gob. Maybe it was soaked in Red Bull?

Note that this may be the only traditional film which features multiple scenes in a teahouse with eating, drinking, but no fights. This is an interesting business model for teahouse owners, and should certainly save costs of replacing crockery/furniture/murdered waiters.

DVD transfer: The sourced print is washed-out, missing frames and shows alarming colour bloom at parts. It seems that parts of the print are missing, which would explain the lack of a cotton mill - also the fact that Kung Fu clichés like the villains harassing a girl in the street appear rushed.

Also the subs are embedded and even when they are readable make little sense at points. But don't let that put you off: it's a widescreen print, and the extras are wonderful, with a 5-animal style demo, star interviews and a Tan Tao Liang/Chu Kong Taekwon-Do demo! Great cover too.

Overall: 4.5 out of 5. The fights are outstanding, and despite the confusion around the minimal plot it clips along nicely. Well worth it for the leads' charismatic performances. A remastered complete transfer would probably get 5/5.

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