Chang Cheh was one of Shaw Brothers’ most iconic directors. Working from the late 50s into the 90s, he was extremely prolific (more than a hundred films, eight films in one year at his peak in 1974) and, along with action maestro Lau Kar-Leung, he can claim a large chunk of the credit for Shaws’ reputation as a martial arts film powerhouse. Heavily influenced by Kurosawa’s samurai pictures and Leone’s spaghetti westerns, he brought a dramatic, blood-spattered intensity to Shaws’ action films — leaving the earlier wuxia pictures that Shaws produced somewhat effete in comparison, though I love them too. That’s not to say that Chang’s tales of manly struggle aren’t melodramatic; they are, it’s just that there are fewer magical super-weapons controlled by secret cults and more, well, axes to the stomach.
Heroes Two (not to be confused with Chang’s earlier Heroic Ones, or Heroic Duo for that matter) is one of those eight films from 1974, right at the start of Chang’s Shaolin cycle. All these films from the 1970s focus on the burning of the Shaolin Temple by Manchu invaders and the subsequent diaspora of Shaolin kung fu masters.
In Heroes Two, we have a very early lead performance by Alexander Fu Sheng as the practically indestructible trickster Fong Sai Yuk, a character which many are perhaps more familiar with from Jet Li’s performance in the eponymous film from 1993. Despite the recent destruction of the temple and the scattering of his brothers, we meet Fong wandering though the countryside, seemingly unperturbed. He’s spotted as a man of some considerable martial skill and even more naïveté by scheming Manchu General Che Kang (Chu Mu), and manipulated into helping them to capture a notorious bandit named Hung. Little does Fong know that the perfidious Hung is in fact his injured brother in arms, famous fighter Hung Si Kwan (played by a brooding Chen Kuan Tai).
The tension in the film relies on just how far this little piece of deception can be taken — the audience has to watch Fong Sai Yuk cockily wandering around poking his nose into other people’s business and wait for the moment of realisation to come crashing down. It’s a simple but riveting device, and Fu Sheng is enormously likeable as the playful, confident Fong. Chen Kuan Tai, a solid martial artist who was deservedly omnipresent in Shaws kung fu films, is impressive as always.
All of the standard elements of a Chang Cheh picture are here: the fast pans and zooms, the masculine bonding, a great deal of red paint, and the enormous elaborately-choreographed fight scene at the end. Action choreographer Lau Kar Leung’s hand is visible all over the fight sequences, and there are a bunch of familiar faces from his later films visible as henchmen and fighters, including his brother Lau Kar Wing. Chang pulls out all the stops in the final melee, with Shaolin fighters facing off against the Manchus, supported by four Tibetan martial artists appearing by special appointment. Everyone piles in, the camera weaving between participants and flashing bright red when someone dispatches their opponent — a rather theatrical effect I don’t remember seeing Shaws use in other films.
While it’s not Chang Cheh’s finest work, Heroes Two is notable for Alexander Fu Sheng’s charismatic performance and for the strength of its action sequences.