Struggle Through Death
"...quality-wise, it lies somewhere between Story of Ricky and Shawshank Redemption (or for another analogy: Island of Fire and Stalag 17)"
- Joseph Kuby
Struggle Through Death (1979)
AKA: Dragon Fighter, Duel Of Death
Director: Cheung San Yee (Chang Hsin Yi)
Cast: John Liu (Chung Liang), Ma Chin Ku (Ma Chiu-Ku), Ngai Ping Ngo (Wei Ping-Ao), Chui Chung Hei, Ma Cheung, Chin Lung, Yue Hang, Ma Yue Fung, Chai Hau Keung, Choi Chung Chau, Ling Fung, Lau Fei
Running Time: 96 min.
Plot: A young man is kidnapped and discovers an evil underground where men are forced to mine gold for a sadistic madman. He soon learns that a man's life isn't worth anything if he can't fight for his freedom. And there's one thing this man can do: fight!
Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com
JOSEPH KUBY'S REVIEW: A classic example of a Chinese Opera-seria. For those not familiar with this term, here is the meaning...
Opera-seria: (esp. 18th-c. Italian) opera on a serious, usually classical or mythological theme.
Thus the classical or mythological theme in this film is how far coarse people withstand (ignore, manipulate or abuse) those with humane qualities.
Granted, there's no singing but there's a certain extravagance with the way the film depicts pathos and the action contains a rhythmic sense of motion which, when combined with the score, gives us an alternative kind of Opera where ballet is replaced by combat and singing is replaced by the vocal sounds made when people fight.
I should point out that the title of this 1979 film is more fitting than the typically bland Dragon Fighter. The original title has more depth as it reflects the film's theme of perseverance. If you were to ask me what's the film's most original asset then I would say that the originality in question comes from this being a prison movie set in period China.
The film begins with some nice symbolism that would make John Woo proud (if he directed it, we surely would have been subjected to his juxtaposition techniques). Heck, you could say that the director for Kiss of the Dragon may have been inspired by the film's opening sequence and with Hong Kong/martial arts cinema being popular in France (Fist of Legend was a huge hit over there), it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest.
With the tense and grim atmosphere notwithstanding, there are some nice comic moments to ease the tension.
There are some well-conceived training sequences, unique camera angles, good one-liners, effective music, very good action and John Liu giving a performance which shows that he's a good actor and not as stiff as some have falsely pointed out.
Unlike a lot of Kung Fu films, this one had a message and then some. It possessed a sense of warmth and humanity that's usually not seen in these films. But beware, this film desensitizes you with its scenes of violence almost like a Kung Fu version of Bullet In The Head i.e. three friends stuck in a prisoner camp that go through endless ordeal.
By the end of it you feel just as abused as they are and the experience is emotionally numbing, optically draining and cerebrally exhausting. Just like in John Woo's films, the violence is done to show you how meaningless it is and why we should stop it. Struggle Through Death plays like a 15 rated version of Story of Ricky with the prisoners being tortured in various inventive ways.
The acting is solid to the point that the dubbing doesn't misguide interpretations of an actor's performance. Although this is a well-crafted Kung Fu prison movie, you're not going to mistake it for the Prison on Fire movies made by Ringo Lam. Then again, Lam's own period martial arts prison movie, Burning Paradise, is fairly dramatized with a stylized take on realism. Struggle Through Death is essentially The Big Boss infused with Papillon. Like The Big Boss, you have to wait for quite a while before you see the protagonist strut his stuff. When he does, it has more impact than if we just see him fight his way through both ends of the running time.
The film strikes a fine thin line between crass and class as, quality-wise, it lies somewhere between Story of Ricky and Shawshank Redemption (or for another analogy: Island of Fire and Stalag 17).
For those who've seen the documentary Top Fighter, this was the film where Liu takes on those thugs near that staircase with the girl standing behind him. But unlike the invincible Tae Kwon Do virtuoso he's portrayed as in that scene, his character is someone who's invulnerable only in spirit as his character is constantly abused which makes him more human and gives the film a stronger sense of reality. The characterization is fully fleshed out in this film so when a character dies, it has impact unlike in most of these flicks where characters are interchangeable cattle waiting to be slaughtered.
But rest assured, there's plenty of martial arts action; though for the first half of the film it's more of a street brawl variety before becoming "chop-socky" in manner. Liu's leg holding ability is impressive though it would be more impressive if he could kick just as good with his left leg as he clearly can with his right - it would give the action more variety and thus make it awe-inspiring. His kicking instructor, Dorian Tan Tao Liang, was the opposite to Liu, to the extent that they should have done a film together called Yin and Yang Legs (perhaps with a storyline involving two men who make a partnership after sustaining injuries in one of their legs).
What does impress without fail or flaw is the middle-aged actor called Chui Chung-hei (who plays the sympathetic if punch-drunk foreman) whose displays of kicks and acrobatics seem miraculous considering his initially harmless demeanor.
As a guilty treat, the main villain (or at least the one who runs the whole gold smuggling scheme) looks like James Hong (Chinese actor usually seen in American films like Big Trouble In Little China).
Though to be honest, my motives for purchasing this film weren't for the morality issues, political parallels or deep symbolism. It was more to do with the cool DVD cover (painted picture) which (besides featuring the likable tagline "He worked in Hell now he must fight like the devil") exaggerates the prison camp in the film. On the UK DVD cover, it's shown as a massive fortress on the edge of this canyon whilst John Liu takes on the James Hong lookalike underneath a red sky backdrop where the sun is blazing - playing up the "fighting the devil in hell" factor.
The Chinese translator from Fist of Fury, Paul Wei, is in this too.
On a final note, the translators working on this film thought it would be amusing to translate one of the actor's names as Fuck.
JOSEPH KUBY'S RATING: 9/10