August 13th, 2007

Summer with Fu Sheng

While most Americans are spending their summers at theaters with the latest blockbuster sequel or at home with the air oonditioning doing little to alleviate their suffering as they endure the latest director's cut on DVD, I've been catching up on some classic Hong Kong cinema, via Celestial's DVD releases of the remastered Shaw Bros. films.

The Celestial releases are Region 3 encoded (meaning you'll need a region-free player to watch them), but the American label Dragon Dynasty will be releasing about 50 of these on Region 1 DVDs, complete with commentaries by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David Chute and Andy Klein. While these luminaries will hopefully bring some long-overdue critical appreciation to these films, they'll probably overlook the comedies of Alexander Fu Sheng, and that's a shame.

Fu Sheng was a star in both serious and comedic roles on the Shaws' lot while Jackie Chan was still a background stuntman. Like Chan, Fu Sheng was handsome, physically skilled and charismatic; but whereas Jackie's exagerrated expressions can sometimes feel like a hyperactive kid who will do anything to get your attention, Fu Sheng's performances seem to explode out of sheer joy. Many American fans may know him for his dour leading man star-turns in Chang Cheh-directed martial arts films, but I personally prefer Fu Sheng's humorous flicks, like Sun Chung's My Rebellious Son, which I watched last night.

In this one, Fu Sheng plays the kid whose pop is both a famous doctor and the leader of a 19th-century triad society (this is when triads were good things, dedicated to protecting Chinese culture from foreigners). The film included a surprising political angle - the British, in collaboration with corrupt Chinese officials, hire a group of Japanese samurai to steal a precious statue of the goddess Kwan Yin - but the film really soars on Fu Sheng's delightful comedic (and physically astonishing) performance. His face is a thing of wonder - breathtakingly handsome one second, twisted into an insane grimace or twitch the next - and plot becomes virtually inconsequential as you wait to see what he'll do next. Although a scan of YouTube will reveal a fan-spliced montage of the film's fights (and dyaaaammmnnn, Fu Sheng is frigging awe-inspiring in those), you won't find my favorite scene from the film: A brilliant comic sequence in which Fu Sheng simultaneously tries to learn the tango on a crowded dance floor while secretly fighting one of the other dancers. He manages the triple threat of being very funny, offering up some thrilling fight moves, and being wildly sexy all at once.

Sadly, Fu Sheng died at the age of 29 in a car accident. Had it not been for that (and a few injuries along the cinematic way that derailed a few film projects), it's entirely possible that audiences would be marveling at Alexander Fu Sheng in Rush Hour 3 instead of Jackie Chan (not that I'm complaining about Jackie, mind you...). Fortunately, this unique and compelling performer left behind 31 films, all of which I plan on acquiring and enjoying for multiple viewings.