“I want to be a cowboy.”
–Chin Hao, aka Shanghai Joe, played by Sessue Hayakawa, aka Chen Lee, The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, 1973
I’ve always said that Silver-Screen Western Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and nationalities. Whether SSWHs are male or female, from the East or the West, they share
- a certain stillness in their being,
- a matter-of-fact acceptance of their high-wattage charisma,
- a keen sense of epically awesome style,
- and kickass moves, from simple squints that become emblematic of showdowns to acrobatic gunfighting skills.
The Bible of SSWH wannabes, Reach for the Skies (ahem, being written by moi because I have so much to share on this topic, being marginally epically awesome myself and always in need of a good role model to inspire me to fake it till I make it), says that a steady diet of westerns will inspire you to step out with the kind of shiny badassitude that Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, and (one hopes) Jamie Foxx have from the spurs to hatband.
And may I add another to the pantheon of SSWHs: the mild-mannered immigrant with fists of steel, Shanghai Joe.
He can not only kill a bull with his bare hand–er, foot–but inspire a beautiful woman in the middle of a desert to wear glam makeup and face down Klaus Kinski and a sneering man with a cockscomb-style topknot. That, in a nutshell, is how to be heroic. But first, the who, what, where, and when.
The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (Il mio nome è Shangai Joe), directed by Mario Caiano and with a classic spaghetti wah-wah-wah soundtrack by Bruno Nicolai, is pure early 1970s glory. Poised between the decline of the popular western and the rise of martial arts flicks, the film combines the dirt and degeneracy of late 1960s westerns, the soft focus of 1970s love stories, and the slo-mo twists and flips and whack! whack! whack! of martial arts films in their heyday. And have I mentioned the bull yet? And the eyeball pulled out of a villain’s head?
Chin Hao travels to the land of opportunity but finds that most avenues to the pursuit of happiness are barred to anyone who isn’t a white male with a gun and a sadistic streak a mile wide. “Chinaman” and other epithets are tossed at him yet he keeps his cool until he sees a despicable group of men selling Mexican peasants into slavery. They come after him when he goes to the law–the law is on the side of the rich, white man, of course–and he must save himself and a Mexican woman (Carla Romanelli) who looks as if she’s just stepped out of a spa. The rich white man throws several villains at Chin Hao, who handily shows them what a disciplined fighter can do when not weighed down by six-shooters and spurs, but then he must meet his age-old nemesis, a fellow student of martial arts. Does he win that match? Does he stay with the beautiful woman? Have I mentioned that glistening eye yet? And how about the fist plunging into man’s chest?
Sessue Hayakawa, acting under the name Chen Lee, has the James Stewart thing going for him. Quiet and with a subtle sense of humor, he waits for racist bozos in clunky boots to rush him before he slaps them upside the head. One villain tries to trick him but Shanghai Joe doesn’t suffer fools willingly, revealing another truth about the Silver-Screen Western Hero: the villain’s the one who chitchats at the moment of conflict; the SSWH is the one who yanks the villain’s eyeball out of his head without comment.
Another villain actually brings Chin Hao to his knees with a few well-placed bullets. “Do you know who I am?” rasps a familiar Teutonic voice. Yes, you’re Klaus Kinski, and you’re eeeeeeeeeeviiiiiiiiiil as a psychopath who scalps his victims. But really, did you doubt the mastery of the SSWH? Kinski gets disemboweled by his own knives, to great audience cheering.
The final villain is the real thing–a former classmate from a mysterious and deadly school of martial arts mumbojumbo. The guy looks out of place in ceremonial robes and starburst-style topknot in the middle of a western town with false fronts, but whatever, his death is perfect. Even the camera must have thought so, taking its own sweet time to focus on the pulsing blood around Chen Lee’s fist through his nemesis’s chest.
ZOMG! And then there was this bull chasing our hero around a bullring! And he slammed it to the ground with a hard right foot to the forehead! And there was–I could go on and on. This film was a cornucopia of luscious weirdness.
Shanghai Joe‘s post-1960s take on westerns suited a newly liberated audience. The villains are white men. The love interest doesn’t care what ethnicity Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome is. Her family in Mexico is the first to greet him by “mister” rather than some racial epithet. A seemingly casual aside from a bit player reveals “a woman’s got just as much right to be satisfied as a man does.” But, like our hero, it takes a bit of stillness to see those egalitarian op-ed pieces in the midst of eyeballs, pits of bloody stakes, and beatdowns.
So, why would I canonize him, along with The Coop and The Duke? Chin Hao believes the West to be a land of opportunity. A modern hero, he resists the fact that the real/reel West was a crummy, dirty, brutal place and makes his own story wherein good is rewarded with good and evil receives justice. He defeats men who sell human beings like cattle and kills men who seek titillation through cruelty. His mission is one of such importance that he can’t stay in Mexico with his lover but instead has to return to America. He doesn’t ride into the sunset but back into the fray. The movie was pretty bad, but for all voodoo that you do so well, Chin Hao, aka Shanghai Joe, I salute you.
“Reward good with good and evil with justice.”
–Chin Hao, aka Shanghai Joe, played by Chen Lee, aka Sessue Hayakawa, The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, 1973