Friday, November 11, 2011

Shaw Brothers Marathon: The Avenging Eagle

The Avenging Eagle (1978, Chung Sun)

With the Shaw Brothers marathon winding down (only a few films left after today’s article), we have arrived at a point where, if you have been following along, the popular trends and storytelling techniques can be easily discerned, with the same going for sequence or directorial choices which surprisingly go against the grain. Those instances when a film from this studio provides a different flavour are not terribly frequent given how the people behind the films had to remain true to the Shaw Brothers image, but they are refreshing. The Chung Sun directed The Avenging Eagle does, in fact, indulge in some small surprises, most of which are readily welcomed, even though they may not pay off as handsomely as one would like.

The Avenging Eagle is a tale that frequently flip-flops between whatever present day the characters live in and their pasts. It mostly concerns the redemptive journey of one Chik Ming-sing (Ti Lung), who, as an orphaned boy, was brought under the guiding wing of the vile, borderline maniacle Yoh Xi-hung (Ku Feng), leader and trainer of a ruthless band of thieves and killers who show no mercy and little emotion other than the joy of killing and robbing. His elite squad is named the 13 Eagles, of which Chik was once a part of. However, a life altering episode, involving a woman of course, following a severe injury has caused Chik to change his ways and leave the 13 Eagles, much to the irritation of Yoh and his now former brothers in arms. Yoh has his deadliest men trace Chik to either kill the escapist or bring him back to home camp. As Chik flees for his life he makes the acquaintance of Cheuk Yi-fan (Alexander Fu Sheng), who, it just so happens, has a score of his own to settle with Yoh Xi-hung and the rest of the Eagles. Together to partner to destroy their common enemy, but will their respective pasts tear their newfound alliance apart?

From the description above one can surmise that The Avenging Eagle is about two very different people forming a friendship when in need to repel a common foe. That notion in of itself is true, although it does not do full justice to the actual film director Chung Sun has created. Both Chik Ming-sing and Cheuk Yi-fan bring different personalities to the story, with the former being more sombre and ashamed of his past crimes and the latter being oddly playful and positive minded despite the treacherous and dangerous mission he has tasked himself with. Their partnership would seem unlikely, but as is so frequently the case in films of this ilk, they do eventually get along together. The deeper psychological character traits of each add entirely more compelling layers to the story however. Chik, who has in fact committed heinous acts, is driven by a desire to escape his past yet remains constantly haunted by it, not only because the Eagles are physically tracking him down but because he has admitted to himself his horrific mistakes. Life will never be the same for this man, not to mention that his few attempts at being noble have proven fatal for the people he loved. Conversely, Cheuk Yi-fan, who is out for revenge for what the Eagles did to his family, seem practically chirpy in comparison.  The events which have befallen his closest loved ones were tragic, but his attitude is unexpectedly jocular. His personal mission remains at the forefront, and when confronting Eagle members his tremendous skills are on full display, yet he decorates it all in a sardonic sense of humour. To top it off, neither is aware of the very specific historical links which tie the two together and will ultimately challenge their friendship. Some credit should certainly be awarded to the filmmakers for the way it was decided to structure the characters as well as their place within the story. 

Many of these Shaw Brothers films relish in the action, with only a select few even attempting to construct set pieces of a different kind. The Avenging Eagle goes the extra distance, to an extent, not merely by telling much of the story through flashbacks, but also creating a memorable scene filled with laughs and tension. It arrives the latter half of the picture, when Chik and Cheuk enter a small, seemingly deserted town. They choose to rest and freshen up at one of those famous diner inns which appear in almost every Shaw Brothers film. The trouble is that there remain a few of Yoh’s top soldiers hot on their trails who, sooner rather than later, shall arrive at the inn. Our two protagonists take upon themselves to trick and catch their pursuers off guard with Cheuk pretending to be an employee of the inn while Chik waits upstairs to finish them off one by one. After so much bloodshed and tragic deaths, it is a little bit strange for the film to suddenly go for such a different tone, yet the results fully pay off given how well acted and directed the sequence is. It is, arguably, the best sequence in the film, in part because it feels so different from what has come before and what will follow. It does not last more than a few minutes, but it brings something fresh to the table, with a bit of comedy mixed in with suspense, for the viewer naturally does not want Cheuk and Chik to be found out before they are fully prepared to strike at the Eagles.

Director Sun embraces some peculiar editing techniques at various times in the film, in particular when the protagonists are vanquishing the Eagle members. At specific moments the picture will freeze frame, giving the viewer a nice view of, for example, Chik avoiding an enemy’s sword by a hair, or someone falling to their death. Other times slow motion is employed to highlight a death, with a couple of those opportunities truly enhancing the grisly nature of said death, such as when Chik uses his three-sectional-staff to squeeze somebody’s neck, which oddly enough produces the sound of leather tightening. These are flourishes rather than significant moments in the movie, but their effectiveness should not be overlooked.

What sometimes brings Shaw Brothers films down a few notches is the script, The Avenging Eagle being victim of at least a few inconsistencies and moments when the characters behave in ways that might not be logical yet serve to propel the story forward. Chik explains to his new friend how he was under the fierce and unforgiving tutelage of Yoh from a very early age, which made him into a superb killing machine, yet in a matter of two months while spending time with a family who cured his injuries, he can be the nicest guy. This is in addition to the fact that when he wakes up in the family’s home for the first time, he is incredibly polite and very good natured...This is the super killer? The script plays it fast and loose with the character traits sometimes. One minute Yoh will tell his Eagles that he loves them and yet the moment Chik shows any signs of mercy Yoh will scorn him for showing emotion. The secret which binds Chik and Cheuk together is also kept incredibly poorly, thus spoiling the moment near the end when both characters are surprised to learn of it. These details are the sort aspects one needs to forgive in order to enjoy a Shaw Brothers movie sometimes, although it would have been nice if they had been worked on more properly.

The Avenging Eagle is quite entertaining despite the flaws which plague the storytelling. Most importantly, it presents its central characters in very interesting ways which help separate it from the hoards of other martial arts films.


Anonymous said...

I agree for the most part with your review, but they didn't really play that fast and loose with the characterization - Ming Sing says outright that he's never seen kindness or known family life, and he's learned "new ways of living" after a short time with his rescuers. The whole film revolves around Ming Sing's upbringing as a robber and killer, versus his kind and merciful nature which has all his life been literally beaten down.
SPOILERS FOLLOW! it: Ming Sing and Yi-Fan do NOT learn each other's true identities at the same time. In fact, Chik Ming Sing's name is spoken at the beginning of the first fight scene, and Cheuk Yi-Fan even says "If you're Chik Ming Sing, that makes me the accomplice!" When the story is finally told of what happens to Cheuk Yi-Fan's family, HE knows who his wife's killer is, but Ming Sing is still in the dark until they get to the Iron Boat Gang's HQ. Again, a major theme of the movie is that Yi-Fan IS using Ming Sing, but as they spend time together fighting for their lives, Yi-Fan sees Ming Sing's inherent goodness and comes to respect him. He ALMOST warns him near the end, 'member?

Anonymous said...

These are the reasons it's such a great story - Ming Sing doesn't just flip a switch and become a good guy. It's a long, painful journey to seeing "right and wrong." Also, Yi-Fan has every reason to hate him, and every right to avenge his family, but he comes to understand Ming-Sing and even forgive him ("my enemies are all dead"). And then, of course there's the ending - think you'd see anything like that in a Hollywood "villain turns hero" story?

morpheus said...

It may appear that Chi Min-Sing changes character abruptly, but there are events in the film that state otherwise. Firstly, the scenes involving Chi and the Iron Boat Clan are flashbacks. He has left that lifestyle behind, although remnants still exist due a lifetime of cruel treatment -as when he leaves Chou Yi-Fan a lame horse and takes the water and food as well- all after the latter chooses to "help" him for ulterior motives. After being seriously wounded, he is helped by Wong On. The healing time here was sped up for purposes of film length. It is a given fact that such a wound, coupled with loss of blood and lack of modern medical knowledge would take months to heal. It was during that time Chi Min-Sing first experienced kindness, and it changed his heart. While we are told about the transformation of Chi Min-Sing, it is Chou Yi-Fan who ultimately changes. He come to an understanding of the truth behind his family's murder and forgives the very person who killed his wife and child. Had this been given a larger budget perhaps more time could have been spent during the flashbacks. But as is Avenging Eagle is one of the best Shaw Brothers films in terms of story line, acting and action.