A wuxia curio: The Delightful Forest (Chang Cheh & Hsueh Li Pao, 1972)

the_delightful_forest

The Delightful Forest is a Shaw Brothers wuxia film that probably won’t win over anyone new to such things. It’s one of several movies the studio made based on the epic Chinese story The Water Margin, a tale easily long enough to support all of these. While the first, The Water Margin (also directed by Chang Cheh and Hsueh Li Pao in 1972) involved a huge cast of characters, TDF focuses on just one of them, acting as a prequel.

Wu Sung (Ti Lung) is renowned for killing a tiger with his bare hands. When he also kills his sister-in-law and her lover, to revenge his brother’s death, he is imprisoned. He is aided by the prison owner’s son, Shi En (Tien Ching), in return for ridding the town known as The Delightful Forest of the brutish Chiang Chung (Chu Mu). Getting rid of Chung isn’t so easy when he has a corrupt official on his side.

While The Water Margin is a film long enough to do its plot justice, TDF feels stretched out, moving slowly, with little sense of tension. Moreover, Song is not a complex character, and his superhuman feats are often rather silly. For most of the film, there’s no doubt he’s going to win every battle.

TDF’s strongest aspect is Lung himself. One of Shaw’s best martial arts stars, he’s pure class, strong both at acting and in action. He wrings everything he can out of the role.

This film is curious for a couple of other reasons. The soundtrack is taken straight from Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. That’s not uncommon for Chinese films of this era, but the tracks are used badly here. Meanwhile, it’s a laugh seeing Ching in this role – he tends to play sneaky characters (including in The Water Margin!) and it’s quite a change for him to have some moral fibre here.

Although most of the fights in TDF are not inspired, and there’s a couple of jarring edits, the last battle is excellent in its own right. It takes place in a wealthy household, with Song fighting Chung, two beaurecrats and a host of guards. Chang Cheh films often show their heroes fighting their way through hundreds of extras, but this is more believable in such close quarters. The fight unfolds with elegance and brutality. It’s a shame that the story has been so thin, without developing any emotional investment.

Song could quite plausibly not walk away from this fight. However, the film ends with him donning the monk’s disguise that the character wears in The Water Margin and its sequel, All Men Are Brothers. And so, TDF fails as a standalone film, ensuring that completionists are its best audience.

Ham-fisted action: The Professional (Georges Lautner, 1981)

the_professional

Not to be confused with Leon: The Professional, this film stars Jean-Paul Belmundo as Josselin Beaumont, a hitman betrayed by his own government. At times, Beaumont almost seems to be framed as the French Rambo, which is rather silly considering that Belmundo was, by this point, 48 years old. Worse, the film itself is meandering, dull and repulsively sexist.

The film has a few interesting aspects that are not well followed-through. The plot begins as a reasonable commentary on France’s post-colonial international meddling: Beaumont’s target is an African president whose political standing with France has little to do with how tyrannically he rules his country. The film also attempts to create in Beaumont a world-weary figure who, having lost his ideals, has no reason to live other than revenge (and getting laid a few last times).

Beaumont is difficult to sympathise with. His insistence on visiting his wife, Jeanne (Elisabeth Margoni), brings her to the attention of Inspector Rosen (Robert Hossein), who Beaumont knows full well will treat her brutally. Elisabeth faces some physical violence and is almost raped by a WPC (a shameless excuse to get the actress naked, and to use lesbianism in a pandering way). Beaumont exacts revenge on her behalf, but the fact remains that she only had those experiences because of him. As he proceeds towards his goal, the film still pretends that Beaumont’s likeable, but guilt doesn’t seem to be reason enough for old and new friends to help him.

Visually, The Professional looks lacklustre, barely above a TV production. This carries through in the action scenes, which are almost all clumsy. The comedic touch they often receive detracts from any sense of tension or from the bleak outlook the film attempts to portray. Beaumont’s original jail break is so poorly staged that it’s complete nonsense. A car chase in which some quite good stunt drivers tear through Paris streets, even below the Eiffel Tower, is the one bit of decent action in the film.

The last straw is that way The Professional uses Ennio Morricon’s “Chi Mai”. It is, in a word, incessant. It might have been enough to ruin the movie – if the movie was any good to begin with.

The death of Dwight Schultz’s film career?: Shadow Makers (Roland Joffé, 1989)

shadowmakers

Shadow Makers isn’t worth your while as a depiction of the Manhattan Project, a portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) or General Leslie R. Groves (Paul Newman), a cautionary tale about the potential misuse of scientific research, or a horror story about the dangers of radiation. Unfortunately, it’s trying to be all of those things.

An imdb reviewer suggests watching Shadow Makers as though it’s one of Lt. Reginald Barclay’s holodeck fantasies, which is actually good advice. I’d only recommend this film to someone who wanted to see Schultz outside of Star Trek: The Next Generation and in a rare leading role. He does, however, seem a bit too much like Barclay in his ‘actor’ mode, knowingly performative, and the similarity makes me wonder how much he actually resembles Oppenheimer.

As well as too many many storylines and ideas, the film has far too many speaking parts. A terribly young John Cusack is supposed to be the emotional centre of the film, but his character is clichéd. Despite having few lines, John C. McGinley steals every scene he’s in, showing a spark of humanity even while delivering exposition. Bonnie Bedelia also gets a couple of nice scenes with Newman that work due to their characters’ begrudging acceptance of each other.

The many scenes of talking heads fail to clearly define the characters’ motivations. Oppenheimer and Groves’ arguments are interminable and constantly miss opportunities to engagingly outline major moral issues. Meanwhile, the film’s action sequences feel like blatant grabs for the audience’s attention.

I hate to say it, but Ennio Morricone’s score is too prevalent, trying to force an emotional reaction to a film that hasn’t earned it. It does work wonderfully, however, in creating the film’s best moment: Oppenheimer’s team makes a breakthrough just as he learns about his lover’s suicide. Never mind that she was poorly introduced, in such a way that leaves us dwelling more upon his wife than believing in this love affair; the moment is still beautiful and sad in that special Morricone way.