Kao Pao-Shu was not the first female director in the history of Chinese-language film, but she was definitely one of the most versatile. Before turning 21 and committing to screen acting, she had already worked as a reporter and toured with a theater company. She became a contract player at Shaw Brothers in 1958, and as she amassed 80+ roles for the studio, she also revamped their dubbing department and served as assistant director on two projects, before directing her debut film, Lady with a Sword in 1970. She would form her own studio shortly after, adding writing and producing to her resume, until retiring from show business in the late ‘80s. Her reputation is such that in Li Han-hsiang’s 1982 comedy about Hong Kong filmmaking, Passing Flickers, actress Susan Shaw Yam-yam claimed her role as a wily, take-charge director was based on her. More recently, Bosnian designer Naida Begeta named her California-based fashion house Kao Pao Shu, declaring in their website biography, “[The director-actress] represents strength and longevity for women.” And on Tuesday, May 28th, the New Beverly’s month-long showcase of women directors gets a glorious Grindhouse double whammy, with two of Kao’s martial arts adventures getting a rare theatrical revival!
During the Mongol occupation of China in the 13th Century, a mysterious scroll makes its way to spearman of fortune White Dragon (Jimmy Wang Yu). Accompanied by street kid Ni Chiu (Yau Lung), he dutifully sets forth to deliver the document to Prince Ma Tang (Yeung Yeung). However, the prince holds a grudge against White Dragon over an earlier duel the mercenary had with his father, and upon his arrival, dangerously injures him before the note can be handed over. Meanwhile, a band of Mongol marauders, including Kang Fu (Lung Fei), Gold Leopard (Ko Yu-Min), “Prime Minister” Sing Pa Tou (Miao Tian), and turncoat General “Red Wolf” Tai (Yi Yuen), know the truth: the scroll lists all the underground rebel leaders threatening their reign of terror, and they are all also eager to take their pound of flesh from the tenacious fighter. Can the message of liberation be given to the choleric prince in time? Only after everyone has been marked in combat by the Blood of the Dragon, from 1971.
Kao’s first project for Park Films, the company she founded with her then-husband Park Wen-chi, originated as The Desperate Chase. It was the fifth-time pairing of Jimmy Wang Yu and Lisa Chiao Chiao, following their hits The One-Armed Swordsman and Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, both directed by Chang Cheh. Kao, Wang, and Chiao had all broken ties to Shaw Brothers, and the film was shot mostly in Taiwan, likely due to Wang being legally barred from working in Hong Kong after the studio sued him and won. Co-star Lung Fei also made several films with Wang, including Master of the Flying Guillotine, and was one of the fight choreographers on Lee Tso-nam’s Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger, where he also played a fictional version of himself.
An English-language export version of The Desperate Chase was prepared, but when the film was released in America, it was altered to become what is now known as Blood of the Dragon. Michael Thevis, an Atlanta-based pornographer nicknamed “The Scarface of Sex,” had started a record label, GRC, and had begun producing mainstream films, to establish legitimacy. Thevis acquired the U.S. rights to Kao’s film, and hired a then-writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, William Diehl, to supervise reediting and a new dub track. Diehl would subsequently direct two exploitation films, The Secretary and All the Young Wives, and write the novels Sharky’s Machine and Primal Fear, both adapted into Hollywood studio hits. Thevis also enlisted GRC’s recently-signed band Flood, who had shared stages with the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, to compose an original score. Thevis would later produce the infamous abduction drama Poor Pretty Eddie with Leslie Uggams and Shelley Winters before being sent to jail in 1974. After a brazen escape in 1978, followed by a recapture and a conviction on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, Thevis was sentenced to life in prison, dying in 2013.
Tseng Yu (Casanova Wong), an extremely dedicated courier and bodyguard, loses his business and reputation when a priceless treasure he was hired to transport goes missing, and he must hand over his entire life savings to compensate the client. Now spending his days erratically ranting in a local tavern, Tseng’s tale draws the attention of two affable con artists, Lung (Tony Ching Siu-tung) and Li (Meng Yuen-man), who deduce that his client likely double-crossed him, and see an opportunity to boost their own fortunes by helping Tseng recover his own. But Tseng’s mental state is a hindrance, and Lu (Yen Shi-kwan), the treacherous master criminal who swindled Tseng, has successfully taken a new identity and tries to murder all three of them to seal his escape. With some bartered training from local drunken master Beggar Su Hua-chai (Max Lee Chiu-jun), the grifters rally with their hapless mark to take down the crime boss. Vindication will be had when The Master Strikes, from 1980.
Master was an unusually broad comic performance for Casanova Wong, a Korean taekwondo leg-fighter dubbed “The Human Tornado” during his Army service; in an interview with film historian Mike Leeder, Wong cited it as a particular favorite, saying, “I got to work with Ching Siu-tong as both a choreographer and an actor, I really like the fighting in that movie and the fact my character goes mad because of events in the film.” Wong had previously distinguished himself as a featured fighter in Game of Death, Warriors Two, and Avenging Boxer. The aforementioned Tony Ching had already served as choreographer on The 14 Amazons and The Shaolin Boxer before doing double duty here, and would accumulate credits in multiple disciplines for decades afterward, performing stunts in over 65 more films, directing A Chinese Ghost Story and its two sequels, and consulting on Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man and In the Name of the King with Jason Statham. Featured player Meg Lam Kin-ming had previously appeared in Enter the Fat Dragon with Sammo Hung, and would make her own directorial debut in 1982 with the lesbian drama Torrid Wave.
The character of Beggar Su, played here by Max Lee, originates to the Qing Dynasty, and has been a longtime folklore hero first depicted in film by Yuen Si-tuen in Drunken Master from 1978, which was an early starring role for Jackie Chan. Convergently, Max Lee had appeared in that original film, along with the Jackie Chan film that had spawned it, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, while Casanova Wong appeared in The Story of Drunken Master in 1979, one of several projects that were spawned by, but not fully connected to, Drunken Master.
Kao Pao-Shu passed away in Hong Kong on July 23, 2000, but her name lives on among the fiercely fashionable who wear the gear christened in her honor. And soon, we suspect, among lovers of both great action and lesser-heralded female filmmakers, all of whom we eagerly welcome to join us on this last Grindhouse Tuesday in May!