Sunday, July 10, 2011

King Drummer (Hong Kong, 1967)

I've jawed on at length about Shaw Brothers director Umetsugu Inoue elsewhere, so I'll keep it brief here. Inoue, out of all the Japanese directors who jumped over to Shaw during the 60s and 70s, was both the most prolific and the most distinctive. Yet his career in Japan was equally distinguished, especially in terms of his work for Nikkatsu.

Inoue's 1957 film The Man Who Caused a Storm, a vehicle for Nikkatsu's then top star Yujiro Ishihara, was a massive hit for the studio, and went on to become so iconic that Nikkatsu later remade it in 1966 as a vehicle for its then current top dog Tetsuya Watari. The following year, Inoue, having established himself at Shaw with the success of his candy coated musical trifle Hong Kong Nocturne, created his own remake in the form of King Drummer, though this time in Mandarin and with a cast of Shaw contract stars familiar to the Hong Kong audience.

It's Hong Kong in 1967, and apparently the whole city has gone crazy for drum solos.  Young people flock to nightclubs to see swinging combos like The Sparks, but in this crazy, upside-down world, it's not the singer or lead guitarist, but the drummer who takes home the choice groupies at the end of the night. (Sorry, drummers. I can never resist a dig at your expense.) And of all these stick men, none holds the female populace in more of a dreamy, eroticized thrall than The Sparks' own "Golden Arm" Charlie Zhao.

Charlie is played by regular Shaw bad guy Chen Hung-Lieh (Come Drink With Me, Fearless Fighters), and as such is not above following the money to greener pastures and, in the process, breaking the heart of The Sparks' manager Li Zhen Huang, played by Inoue's, and my, favorite Shaw leading lady Lily Ho (Angel with the Iron Fist, The Brain Stealers). This betrayal is orchestrated by Li Yuan Ming, a powerful music critic (just savor that current oxymoron) who wants Charlie out of the way so that he can woo Li Zhen himself. Thus does Li Yuan entice Charlie into the fold of the more than a little sketchy seeming mogul Jiang Da Chen, leaving a vacancy in The Sparks that Li Zhen is desperate to fill.

Enter The Sparks' resident songwriter Yi Qiang (Yan Fang), who introduces Li Zhen to his brother, Zhi Qiang (Chor Yuen regular Ling Yun), a rough-edged young merchant seaman who entertains local beachcombers by banging away on oil drums on the deck of his old boat. The product of a poor family, Zhi Qiang has long struggled to support his younger brother's musical studies, and, by doing so, help Yi Qiang realize his apparent dream of becoming Hong Kong's answer to Gershwin. (Throughout the film, we hear snippets of Yi Qiang's masterwork in progress "Hong Kong Symphony".) These efforts, good hearted as they are,  have earned Zhi Qiang the resentment of their mother, who wants her favored youngest to pursue a "respectable" profession, rather than just being a no good bum of a musician like their father was.

Li Zhen sees a raw talent in Zhi Qiang. A debut gig with The Sparks proves successful, and earns Zhi Qiang the stage name "Thunderbolt", but Li Zhen decrees that he needs to spend more time honing his skills before he can earn a permanent place in the band. She also decrees that this time should be spent within the confines of her opulently appointed home, and so the young drummer is moved in, traps and all. Though Zhi Qiang's brawling, hard drinking ways prove an obstacle, he nonetheless dedicates himself to the task, no doubt spurred on by the budding affection between him and Li Zhen.

And soon, in little more than the space of a montage, Zhi Qiang has become the beater to beat -- a fact not lost on Charlie, who, at the urging of his handlers, challenges him to a drum-off to determine which of them is the "king drummer" of Hong Kong. This competition is the central show piece of King Drummer, allowing Inoue to give free reign to his taste for dazzling musical pageantry. The use of moving drum risers and counter tracking camera movements gives the appearance that Charlie and Zhi Qiang are circling each other predatorily as they trade off wild solos, albeit while seated on what look like garish giant birthday cakes. On the eve of the event, Jiang Da Chen's goons have made sure to lure Zhi Qiang into a fight that has left his right hand crippled, but he nonetheless secures the win by, at a crucial moment, throwing down his stick, grabbing a mike, and crooning out a catchy tune about what an awesome drummer he is.

Of course, Zhi Qiang's victory only fuels the resolve of those opposed to him, a group which now includes, in addition to Charlie and Jiang Da Chen, Li Yuan Ming, who is jealous of his romance with Li Zhen. This seedy gang's efforts to bring Zhi Qiang down lend the film a noirish element that no doubt played well within the Nikkatsu version. Meanwhile, alongside this plays out the family drama of Zhi Qiang's quest to gain his mother's approval. This finally starts to happen when the younger Yi Qiang's opus is chosen by the stuffy representatives of a British musical foundation for their next big concert. Yes, indeed, the hipster Zhi Qiang is ultimately redeemed by the classics -- which makes King Drummer, despite its flirtations with youth oriented rebel histrionics, pretty stodgy in its politics in the long run.

With his love of frothy spectacle, Inoue is a director especially suited to the Shaw's trademark use of bright Eastmancolor and wide screen Shawscope presentation. Given this, and the fact that Nikkatsu's output is today so disproportionately represented by its black and white crime thrillers, it's tempting for me to imagine him feeling hemmed in by that studio's austere house style. However, the clips of The Man Who Caused a Storm that I can find reveal that it is every bit as panoramic and colorful as King Drummer, and, furthermore, that some of its scenes appear to have been fairly faithfully recreated in the latter. This makes King Drummer, in addition to being a giddily enjoyable film in its own right, a compelling advertisement for its predecessor, and ensures that I'll be hasty in correcting my error of not seeing the original.

The Man Who Caused a Storm appears to have been a film very close to Inoue's heart. Or, at least, one would hope so, as it seems he was unable to escape it. In 1983, he again remade the film, this time for Toho, under the title Arashi O Yobu Otoko. And all these years later, the original remains enough of a pop cultural touchstone to have been the basis of a recent Kirin beer ad campaign. For those of us outside it's cultural sphere of influence, a once removed film like King Drummer might not explicate the movie's enduring appeal. It's nonetheless worth checking out, however, if only for how it so successfully immerses us in Inoue's alluring world of backstage glitz, flush faced melodrama, and fanciful urban fairy tale. That applies doubly if you're a drummer.

Scenes from The Man Who Caused a Storm (1957)

King Drummer (1967)


Radio Schmaydio said...

Oh fuck yeah! Look at that art direction. I must own this.

Immediately shoots into the top ten list of Groovy Mod Op Art-ish Set Direction masterpieces of the sixties, no?

Todd said...

Hmm, maybe not quite top ten, but only because I haven't been able to see Inoue's spy spoof Operation Lipstick yet.

Marshall said...

I remember when Celestial was putting out these Shaw titles, I was snapping up the Umetsugu Inoue movies as each one emerged. They definitely started with the best ones first. By the time they got to KING DRUMMER, I can't remember if I even purchased it (although after seeing those screenshots just now, I *did* order it.) The thing that really sucked was they never got to the two titles I was most intrigued by: OPERATION LIPSTICK and THE BRAIN STEALERS. Am I correct in continuing to believe that those never emerged on home video? If so, what a tragedy.