Fantasia 2022 Meets Shaw Bros Saturdays!
Running a column dedicated exclusively to a single studio’s output may come across as foolhardy to some and single-minded to others. But when that studio is the famed Shaw Brothers, the iconic Hong Kong-based production house founded by brothers Runme and Run Run Shaw in 1958, there is a vast library of films to discuss. From the 60s through the 80s, the studio produced and released over 1,000 pictures. A staggering number for sure. While Shaw Bros. Saturdays has not been updated in several years, the opportunity rang when the most recent edition of the Fantasia Film Festival announced the screening of a remastered The Kid with the Golden Arm from 1979. With most of the Five Deadly Venoms gang participating, including director Chang Cheh, it felt imperative to write a special one-off revival.
Who is The Kid with the Golden Arm?
As most Shaw Brothers projects do, Cheh’s picture sends viewers back a few hundred years to a time when glistening bare-chested, muscular men with unimaginable power strolled the dusty roads, weaponry was devised with the sort of creativity Q Branch is known for in the Bond films, and blood looked like red food colouring. The head of a respected security firm (Chien Sun) is tasked with transporting hundreds of gold taels from one city to another as relief for suffering denizens. Sounds simple enough, except that the main route goes through a perilous stretch of land populated by some of the country’s most vile criminals. Chief among them is Golden Arm (Meng Lo), a seemingly indestructible man with fierce strength and reflexes. He refuses to use handheld weapons, claiming that his body is powerful enough. Rounding out the gang of horrible outlaws are Brass Head (Hsiung Yang), Silver Spear (Feng Lu), and Iron Robe (Wang Lui Wei).
The private firm comes well equipped, however. Li Chin Ming (Wei Pa), a talented but proud swordsman, Leng Feng (Helen Pool), Li’s girlfriend of sorts and equally talented, and the comedic duo of Short Axe (Shen Chiang) and Long Axe (Shu-Pei Sun). The only wild card is the drunkard who keeps picking fights and annoying just about everybody, Sheriff Hai (Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok). Friend, or foe?
An Ensemble Cast Ready for Mayhem
As per the above plot synopsis, The Kid with the Golden Arm (henceforth TKWTGA) features an impressive list of characters. This is par for the course with Shaw films. Most are overflowing with so faces and names that it can get a bit confusing as to who is who and doing what after a while. The key to success is how each role is used. Director Chang Cheh, who churned out an incomparable number of motion pictures for Shaw Brothers, was a seasoned veteran by 1979. That year alone he made 6 projects!
Not all of Cheh’s endeavours are great, but one thing is certain: he knows how to make the most out of each character. That doesn’t mean that they all receive the same amount of screen time, or that each is awarded memorable lines of dialogue. What matters is the impact a given character has on the viewer. Are they memorable, even if it’s one-note? Shaw Brothers productions were made so quickly that there wasn’t much time to dwell on making insightfully deep script choices.
For example, Brass Head does not do much other than practice his kung fu like a shadow boxer in the opening credits and engage in one fight later. In fact, he’s the first of the gang leaders to get killed off. Nevertheless, his shiny gold-plated forehead armour and his forceful headbutts have a lasting impression, both on his targets and the viewer. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous, but then again, a character who apparently fills the role of “sheriff” does nothing but drink when not fighting. He even manages to do both at the time. In that respect, TKWTGA is a strong demonstration of a filmmaker and cast making the most of however little or how much screen time each character benefits from.
Seeing Things You Wouldn’t Believe
Another hallmark of Chang Cheh pictures is delivering unexpected sights and moments. The world in which these stories transpire is a heightened version of the past. People can perform feats no normal human being can replicate. When someone gets stabbed, their physical and mental fortitude has them carry on fighting until they can’t possibly have another drop of blood left in them.
For TKWTGA, the director serves some audacious and just plain weird individual moments of imagination. Picture hundreds of poisoned pins hidden amongst the bushes and dirt at the exact location where the security firm intends on resting, killing unsuspecting guards. How about poisoned wax candles, or poisonous fumes held inside the metal handles that display said candles at an inn? Better still are the tricks Golden Arm has up his sleeve (even though he doesn’t wear any). When fed up with one rival, he simply grabs their sword and twists the blade as if made of cheap aluminum. On another occasion, he reduces a blade to tiny mincemeat portions with his bare hands.
There is no rhyme or logic to how characters pull off these feats. After all, that isn’t the point. Fans of movies like TKWTGA expect something out of the ordinary. Snippets of bonkers action where real-world physics are substituted for the sort of jaw-dropping, borderline comical demonstrations of superhuman prowess.
Keep it Fast, Keep it Moving
Chang Cheh’s movie rarely slows down. Even when the action takes a sidestep in favour of “plot development,” the exchanges are typically colourful, overly dramatic commands and replies. The film is also quite funny at times, often intentionally so, other times…well, who knows what was really intended in certain scenes (although it would be interesting if it were possible to travel back in time and get the pulse of the moviegoers as they stepped out of the theatre).
The Kid with the Golden Arm is big, loud, and fun. Its fight sequences are extended and, as astute fans know, the edits are judiciously made. These actors got ready to genuinely play out the swords and spear fights with tons of choreography. This movie could take the cake as far as elongated, breathless fights are concerned. Really high-quality showmanship.
Another feather in Chang Cheh’s cap.
The 26th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival will run from July 14 – August 3, 2022.