The lure of the impulse buy is a hard one for the film geek to resist. We’ve all fallen prey to those cheap box sets filled with forgotten Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu Films, Horror or whatever 35mm print someone found in their garage and was able to license for 3.97. Most of the time these films sit unviewed on the shelf still in their shrink wrap. Cheap License Theater is a weekly trip dedicated to exploring these cinematic backwaters of the not-quite-public-domain.
What’s The Film? Awaken Punch AKA Village On Fire AKA Shi Po Tian Jian
Who Licensed It On The Cheap? The Martial Arts Essentials Vol. 1
Snazzy Trailer? If it still exists I haven’t found it.
Worth Watching? Sure- with the right set of expectations. Cheap doesn’t have to be a synonym for careless, as the folks from Video Asia prove. The Martial Arts Essentials Vol. 1 collects six of the early films of legendary fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, the choreographer behind the likes of Legend Of The Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, Kung Fu Hustle, Once Upon A Time In China and every other martial arts film you have ever loved. Due to his work on The Matrix, Ping is pretty much single handedly responsible for virtually every fight scene in the 2000’s featuring an eastern influence. Yeah, it’s his fault that the studios of that era tried to convince you that Cameron Diaz knew Kung Fu.
Obviously, the work in a cheap, exploitation programmer like Awaken Punch isn’t going to be as intricate as his work in Man Of Tai Chi, or as impressionistic as something like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or The Grandmaster. But the talent is entirely evident even in such modest surroundings.
Made in 1973, when Ping had been working professionally for less than a year, Awakened Punch’s story is pretty much standard Kung Fu boilerplate. Chang Tai-kang, a talented martial artist, protects the people of his village from bullies and gangs, until he promises his dying father he will no longer fight. No sooner is this vow made when, wouldn’t you know it, a gang working for a corrupt businessman try to run his family off their land.
Chang tries to keep his promise but before you can say, “Well that escalated quickly,” his girl friend has been kidnapped and forced into prostitution, his sister and brother in law have been killed and his house has been burned to the ground. This leaves Chang no choice but to cosplay as Christopher Nolan’s version of Bane and get hisself some vengeance.
The story is standard but the choreography is excellent. The fights are fast pace and intense and look full contact. Awaken Punch is director Lung-hsiang Fung’s only credit and it’s hard to see why. It might not be the most innovative movie ever made, but it delivers the genre goods at a fast pace. There’s a lot to love for fans of the period. In true exploitation fashion the soundtrack is made up of cues from other much more expensive movies, including the usual lifts from Morricone, but augmented with a truly bizarre number of tracks from The Godfather, as well as a chase scene that is choreographed to – and I swear I’m not making this up- Van Morrison. Things hum along smoothly until an ending so abrupt and hypocritical it crosses the line into surreal.
Awaken Punch isn’t a revolutionary film, but for genre hounds looking for something they haven’t seen a thousand times before it’s a good little palate cleanser. It’s safe to say picking up The Martial Arts Essentials Vol. 1 was money well spent.