Monday, May 21, 2018

Chang Cheh at the Quad: House of Traps

In 1982, the Shaw Brothers released two films based on the classic Chinese novel, The Seven Heroes and the Five Gallants. Cat vs. Rat starred Kara Hui, whereas Chang Cheh’s version had no women roles whatsoever. It’s still fun anyway. Chang’s House of Traps, fondly remembered as the last time he assembled his so-called Venom Mob (from The Five Deadly Venoms), screens as part of the Quad’s upcoming retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore, co-presented by the New York Asian Film Festival.

It is Kung Fu versus booby-traps and a rather nasty thief. Yan Chunmin is the honest scholar crime-busting judge Bao Zheng has appointed Inspector General of Xiangyang, the seat of rebellious Prince Zhao Jue’s power. The line between hero and thief (or grifter) is rather porous throughout the film, as a con man becomes the scholar’s protector and two thieves ostensibly aligned with the Prince will eventually face-off against each in the climatic battle.

Along the way, hidden allies will reveal themselves and the four surviving Gallant “Rats” will rally to the loyalist cause after one of their brothers is killed in the Prince’s titular “House of Traps.” It is there that the Prince stores several significant stolen works of art as well as the dishonor roll of all who have sworn allegiance to his uprising—sort of an early version of the NOC List.

Basically, House of T is Kung Fu with a touch of Rube Goldberg and some costumes worthy of Evel Knievel or Liberace (but seriously, what’s with those knit bonnets?). It seems like a simple story, but Chang and co-screenwriter Ni Kuang manage to complicate the heck out of it. There is an unwieldly large cast of name characters, who are constantly coming and going, like characters in a screwball farce. However, Philip Kwok and Lu Feng certainly show off the martial arts chops the Venom Gang were famous for.

There are plenty of fan-pleasing fight sequences, plus a few rather striking visuals. However, what really sets the film apart is the goriness of the deaths inside the Prince’s house of pain. Stuff happens there that is worthy of the Saw and Final Departure franchises, but Chang manages to keep the overall tone brisk and upbeat. Sure, it is goofy and bloody, but it is still good clean fun. Recommended for fans of the Shaws and the Venoms, House of Traps screens this Thursday (5/24), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.