Friday, September 7, 2012

Man From Hong Kong Revisits The Late Night Kung Fu Classic
SNUFF BOTTLE CONNECTION

Forces of Geek’s Man from Hong Kong, Big Mike Leeder delves back into the vaults for a look back at another slice of classic late night kung fu movie action, Snuff Bottle Connection.  The film stars two of the Jade Screen’s original super kickers, John Liu (Secret Rivals) and the Korean mean machine Hwang Jan-lee (Drunken Master), alongside original ‘gwailo’ Roy Horan (Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow) for a textbook example of classic kung fu cinema, action choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping.

SHEN TUI TIE SHAN GONG
Snuff Bottle Connection


Jade Screen super kicker John Liu stars as an undercover Imperial agent investigating the brutal murder of one of his colleagues, during the course of his investigation, he uncovers a much bigger conspiracy by the Russians who intend to overthrow the Manchu Government and install a puppet ruler under their control. The men behind the plot are the corrupt white haired Manchu general Shantung (Hwang Jan-lee) and his gun slinging kung fu kicking Russian envoy Tolstoy (Roy Horan).


The key to their plot is an ornate jade snuff bottle used as a secret method of identification amongst the various conspirators. Liu seeks help from his younger brother Kao (Yip Fei-yang) a conman and all round scoundrel, and his child protégé (Wong Yat-lung), to aid him in his mission.


Liu and his team find themselves pitted against a veritable army of kung fu kicking bad guys, not to mention the Russians whose rowdiness and bad behavior is matched only by their fierce martial arts skills. As they uncover the truth that Shantung is assisting the Russians, with the intention of taking the throne as their puppet ruler once the Russians have full control of China.


Now, Shen Tui Tie Shann Gong or Snuff Bottle Connection as most fans know it, is a movie that for years was consigned to third generation bootlegs in the West, and the only official HK VCD wasn’t much better either.  It’s a film that happily lives up to the memories I had of watching the film with a bunch of inebriated hard core kung fu movie fans in the UK as a teenager, and surpasses them when I look at it now. The film delivers in every department, from John Liu playing a master bootman hero, Hwang Jan-lee as a superkicking white haired bad guy (Hwang’s always great value, but when he’s got his long white hair and eyebrows. It’s always that much better!), while Hwang’s student Roy Horan (the ‘Russian’ priest from Snake in the Eagles Shadow, and the father of actress/singer Celina Jade soon to be seen in RZA’s Man with the Iron Fists) is the dastardly Russian trying to enforce the Tzar’s ambitions upon the forbidden kingdom.

It is what the great Joe Bob Briggs would happily and quite rightfully refer to as ‘kung fu city!”


The original bootmaster John Liu (Liu Chung-ling) the now reclusive founder of Zen Kwun Do plays the hero, a government assigned kicker given the task of investigating a fellow agents death.  He uncovers the bad guys and their nefarious plans, before taking on Hwang Jang-lee in a blistering bootfest finale. Liu began his career as a closed door disciple of Taekwondo maestro and kung fu movie hero Delon Tan ‘Flash Legs’ (Tan Tao-liang, star of John Woo's Hand of Death, The Fists, The Kicks & The Evils and many more) before making the leap onto the Jade Screen.


Liu is best known for the classics Secret Rivals 1 & 2, Invincible Armour and Incredible Kung Fu Mission, Snuff Bottle and the sheer off the wall cannot be missed madness of an ego-fest that is Zen Kwun-do in Paris/Kung Fu Leung Vs Emmanuelle. (Liu the superkicking founder of Zen Kwun Do, plays Liu the superkicking founder of Zen Kwun Do, who battles a wide array of Karate gi wearing bad guys while every woman falls in love with him, including one who becomes a Nun after being rejected by him, and the incredible training scene where Liu performs a Kata while several European porn starlets of the late 70’s shall we say let their fingers do the walking, so aroused by his skills are they!)

I would say that along with the two Secret Rivals movies, this ranks as probably his best film.  It includes what I would definitely call his single best fight scene in his career, when he takes on a group of corrupt Imperial guards in a beautifully choreographed kickfest which sees him letting loose with axe kicks, roundhouse kicks, spinning kicks, machine gun kicks and jumping kicks to full effect in some very lengthy takes. (OK, as guilty pleasures go the aforementioned training scene in Zen Kwun Do comes close!). The finale of course does see Liu trading kicks with frequent opponent Hwang Jan-lee in a blistering finale which while incredible, serves more as a showcase for Hwang than Liu himself.


Liu made a hell of an impact on kung fu cinema but his own aspirations and ego seem to have been the reason he never went as far as he could have, and shortly after several misguided projects including Kung Fu Leung Vs Emmanuelle, he stepped back from the industry before making a brief return in Toby Russell’s barely seen Trinity Goes East.

Assisting Liu are Yip Fei-yang, whose credits include the classics Dragon & Tiger Kids & the One Armed Boxer alongside the one and only Jimmy Wang Yu! Yip plays Liu’s brother, the all-round scoundrel Han Solo kind of guy, we all know he’s a rascal but with a hidden heart of gold as evidenced that not only does he join his brother on his mission, but also puts up with the somewhat annoying presence of junior thief and acrobat Wong Yat-lung, from the classic Thundering Mantis starring the great Leung Kar-yen. Wong may be an accomplished acrobat and there’s no denying his genuine ability but his character doesn’t really do anything but grate and cause trouble for everyone, and I actually found myself cheering the Russians when he fell foul of their dastardly deeds!

As for the villains, well you’ve got the near perfect double act of the Korean superkicking mean machine Hwang Jan-lee (yes the man who kicked out Jackie Chan’s teeth for real when playing the villain in Snake in the Eagles Shadow), and his Russian sidekick played by Hwang’s real life student Roy Horan (Snake in the Eagles Shadow’s Russian priest with a secret and a sword, and the venison eating madman of Game of Death 2!)  The film serves as a perfect showcase once again as to why Hwang was such a dominant force in the world of Asian martial arts cinema as he lets loose with all manner of incredible kicking combinations as well as some crisp traditional kung fu handwork. He just exudes an evil charm, especially under a Silverfox styled white beard and eyebrows once again!


Hwang continued to work in the Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Korean and independent action film industry until the early 90’s, he even faced off against T2’s Robert Patrick in Cirio Santiago’s Future Hunters, before returning to Korea in the early 90’s, where contrary to popular belief, he never ran a hotel or owned a golf tee factory. I tracked Hwang down some years ago for an extensive interview that resides somewhere in a vault in the UK thanks to Hong Kong Legends, and there’s two documentaries about the man in production including The Anonymous King, while Hwang recently began publicly teaching again and shows that age seems not to have affected his skill set.

Horan, playing the villainous Tolstoy, gets to show some sharp shooting with his handguns as well as some Chinese martial arts styling and nifty knifework. For the UK release of the film a  few years ago, Horan contributed an interview and audio commentary which was a major bonus and really gave an insight into his experiences working on the film and his relationship as both a friend and student of Hwang Jan-lee.

The film also features a veritable array of familiar faces from the world of kung fu cinema, including Philip Ko Fei (The Loot), Yuen Shun-yee (Dreadnaught)and Yuen Biao (Righting Wrongs/Above the Law) who not only plays a supporting role but worked as an acrobatic double and assisted with the films fight choreography. The films two directors keep the film barreling along at a very good rate and there’s not too much time between the superbly choreographed fights to start asking yourself why the Chinese government doesn’t think that it’s worth sending more than a single agent at a time to stop the Russians from taking over the country!

Snuff Bottle Connection has long been regarded as one of the hardest to find cult classics of martial arts cinema, at least in any kind of presentable state with various official and unofficial dvd and vhs releases not serving the film or its cast and crew well in terms of quality presentation. The best DVD release was the official UK release from a few years ago by Soul Blade that features a nicely remastered print, audio commentary featuring Horan as well as an interview with him. There have been several ‘ahem’ unofficial US releases by various companies over the years, but it would be nice to see a properly remastered official release of the film with quality bonus features.


Now the film has long been credited as a Seasonal Films Production, probably due to the sheer amount of regular actors from Seasonal’s stable that appear in the film and Yuen Woo-ping’s name has often been mooted as the film’s director. While in actuality the film was a production of Fortuna Films, while Seasonal Films chairman Ng See-yuen helped produce the film as well as repping it internationally. The film was actually directed by Ting Chin-hu and Lily Lu, while Yuen Woo-ping and Yuen Biao headed the films team of choreographers and really deliver the goods giving all the fighters ample chance to demonstrate their kicking, flipping and weapons abilities to full effect while also delivering a real sense of impact that is often lacking from some of the 70’s kung fu classics.

Snuff Bottle Connection really brings me back to the halcyon days of late night kung fu cinema in the UK and North America, where the audience enthusiasm and participation could often give the Rocky Horror Picture Show a run for its money! Track down a copy, turn down the lights, crank up the volume, gather some like minded fans of action cinema and make some noise!!!


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