1 Man of Iron: And The Art of Shaw Brothers By Robert T. Tuohey
The classic Shaw Brothers film contains three essential elements: 1) a strong male lead, 2) a simple (i.e. straight-forward, non-convoluted) plot, and 3) sufficient, well-placed, and appropriate action sequences. Now, as these requirements are not only formulaic but even restrictive, you might not think it much of a trick to produce such stuff. However, if the studio in question needs to crank out some 50 or so flicks per year amidst the chaos of the Asian film market, the problem quickly assumes a different hue. Naturally, the only answer is the consistent employment of very talented people. And Shaw Brothers studio certainly understood this.
2 In short, within the action/martial arts genre, over a stretch of some 20 years, using only a handful of directors (Zhang Cheh being top man), and about a dozen male leads, Shaw Brothers produced more classics of this type than any other studio, ever. One of those classics is the 1972 Man of Iron, starring Chen Kuantai.
General Remarks Rather than now launching into the de rigueur, and here utterly pointless, “plot summary” (if you can’t figure what’s going on in this film, you’d better cut back on that Seconal), I’d like rather to give a few general comments, and then highlight some key points in the action scenes. First, while the ostensible theme of this film is the hackneyed “good gangster versus bad gangster”, the viewer is momentarily mislead into thinking this is some form of hardboiled love story: “good gangster” Chen Kuantai falls in love with “high class” hooker Cheng Li, thereby evoking the wrath of “bad gangster”, and sniveling bully, Tin Ching, and his bad-ass gang leader father, Yeung Chi Hing.
3 As it plays out, however, this “love story”, even by HK film standards, is so thin as to rate anorexic. Even though the feeling does come through that the protagonist does care about the heroine while the villain doesn’t give a tiny rat’s ass, still this is not what this film is about. The psychological underpinning of many a Zhang Cheh film (for some reason, Pao Hsueh Lieh is here given a half-director credit), is that of “rebellious youth + tragedy”. Somewhat similar to earlier U.S. films of this type (e.g. Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle), the take here however is not only darker, but also under a heavy façade (e.g. gangster or Ming Dynasty get-up). The basic dichotomy is quite easy to outline: the young, strong, and loyal (here, Chen Kuantai and Cheng Li), in conflict with the old and treacherous (here, Tin Ching, Yeung Chi Hing, and Zhu Mu). With Zhang Cheh, however, his sense of tragedy, his weltanschauung of pessimism, goes much deeper than this. With this auteur, finally, you have a profound existential angst. Key Action Scenes First, it must be understood that the general type of martial arts choreography seen in Man of Iron, when viewed as a stage in the development of Shaw Brothers films, is “transitional”. If we begin 1970 with The Chinese Boxer, starring Wang Yu (often taken to be the first modern representative of this genre), while indeed having all the essential elements, to the contemporary eye, the fight scenes in this film are stiff to the point of robotic. Later that same year, Chen Kuantai starred in his first film, The Boxer from Shantung (incidentally, the companion-piece to The Man of Iron) and while slightly better (Chen Kuantai was a far better martial artist than Wang Yu), it’s more-or-less of a piece actionwise with The Chinese Boxer. With just two years of experience, however, Shaw Bothers is serving up the dynamic, if somewhat unfocused, action of The Man of Iron. By the mid-1970s, the powerful and technically beautiful action of such Shaw classics as The Executioners from Shaolin (1976) is in full career. The first important action scene, then, in The Man of Iron, begins with Chen Kuantai arriving on motorcycle: we move from empty-hands, to an attack with long poles, and finally, the justly famous motorcycle-through-window stunt. For the martial arts student, or, indeed, the action connoisseur, the initial empty-hand action sequence is well-worth breaking down via slow-motion. Note Chen’s emphasis on reverse punches and forearm strikes (trademark techniques with Chen Kuantai), and the pretty combination, found about midway through this scene, of high parry into outside elbow lock into wrist-elbow throw.
4 The gang, now having had it knocked into their collected heads that they are dealing with The Man of Iron, resort to long poles. Chen responds by promptly jumping on his motorcycle and violently driving through them, thus dispersing their ranks. For the martial artist, it’s the principle here that’s important: when attacked, and particularly in a weapons assault, use anything at hand to defend yourself. We see this illustrated several times in this film. Now tossing commonsense to the winds, our hero energetically dive-drives himself on motorbike through the double French doors of the heroine’s residence. Now, if this stunt were stand-alone (i.e. without any follow-up), it wouldn’t amount to much. Chen, however, coolly dismounts the bike, blandly picks out a few shards of glass that have stuck into him, and, with most winning smile, announces, “Miss Chen, it’s so difficult to see you.” Now you gotta admit, that was pretty cool. The second important action scene again finds Chen versus the armed gang, this time, however, using a bicycle as a weapon: block-tangling via the spokes, swing strikes with the entire frame, using it as a general obstruction. The climax of this scene, however, is Chen’s use of the bicycle’s link-chain. A very nice demonstration of the use of a short, flexible weapon ensues. This section is concluded with Chen using the bicycle-chain to capture Tin Ching via a nasty side choke. Our protagonist forthwith proceeds to drag the squirmy dog home to his daddy. This type of pathetic-comedy is Tin Ching at his sniveling best. We come now to the roadside fight, not only one of the most intense action scenes in the entire genre, but also the turning-point in this plot. Again, Chen faces, you guessed it, an armed gang. The stakes are upped, however, in that Chen fights, primarily, unarmed, and is sucker-shotted with an awful stick blow to the back of the head at the beginning of the fight. Struggling to fight on despite this injury provides much of the scene’s tension. For the martial artist, the point here is not so much technical as emotional: despite being out-numbered and seriously wounded, the defender wins out by channeling his sheer fury. Bruce Lee called this “emotional content”. The innovative (and controversial) master Count Dante (AKA John Keehan), remarked that what the Orientals termed Chi (internal energy) he simply called guts. When heroine Cheng Li arrives in nifty auto in the nick to save Chen, a key piece of thematic dialogue occurs when he remarks that in this world “it’s either destroy others or be destroyed”.
5 The final fight scene, as the opening, occurs on Foochow Street. This standard parallel tie-up (entrée – conclusion mirror) is well executed. Using the gauntlet-motif, Chen works his way down the avenue, hacking away at, I guessimate, some 50 thugs. For this style of film, this scene gets 10 out of 10! Naturally, the odds here are utterly impossible – it’s only the very skillful camerawork, the dynamic martial arts choreography, and the intensity of Chen Kuantai that combine to permit our “suspension of disbelief”. One point on the camerawork: a main technique is the systematic alteration of long shots showing the gang moving around Chen (but not attacking), with medium-range action takes (Chen plus four to five attackers) and quick close-ups, that produces the illusion that any of this is possible. Of course, in this universe, it is not ~ but here we have entered Shaw-verse! A couple of realistic points master Liu Chia-liang does, however maintain are 1) he always tries to keep his defender (Chen) with back-to-wall, or moving in that direction, and 2) using circular motion, allowing better evasiveness and hit-and-run tactics. Closing the Theme In short, the hero has gone through three stages in the course of the film. First is the optimism, indeed enjoyment, in the opening struggles (fights one and two). Then, thinking that some agreement has been reached with Tin Qing’s gang-boss father (“honor among thieves”), is shocked and disillusioned after the roadside fight (and hence the quoted comment to Cheng Li). In this final conflict all he wants is revenge, regardless the price, as he is “tired of living in a world like this”. Here Zhang Cheh’s underlying pessimism, remarked upon in the opening of this essay, is overtly stated. The very nature of existence is suffering (confer the Buddha). The original Chinese title of Man of Iron translates into something like “Series of Revenges”. The tragic implication is that the cycle is endless, leading nowhere. This ultimately pessimistic coloring is summed up by the ragged bits of newspaper blowing threw the black, empty street of Foochow: the day’s headline had been the murder of our protagonist. Thus ends just one more repetition of the relentless process. The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)
Conclusion In this, admittedly, somewhat rambling, essay, Iâ€™ve tried to not only give some points on the film under consideration, but also establish that, far from being merely â€œthe best of chop-sockyâ€?, certain Shaw Brothers films do rate as a form of cinematic art. Strong thematic undercurrents, excellent martial arts choreography, and interesting acting and camerawork, all exist ~ to the practiced eye.