Fangs Of The Cobra (Sun Chung, Hong Kong, 1977)

Tang (Hua Tsung) returns home to take over his father’s farm and falls in love with the pretty Ah Fen (Yao Hsia). When the villainous Brother Hu (Hung Wei) attempts to ensnare Tang in the clutches of his glamourous but devious girlfriend Cousin Man-ling (Danna) he only succeeds in drawing Tang and Ah Fen even closer together. With marriage in the offing Brother Hu lays plans to make Tang a widow on his wedding day so Man-ling can get at him. But both have reckoned without the protectiveness of Ah Fen’s childhood friend – a fully grown cobra named Xixi!

A girl’s best friend is her snake. That’s the motto of director Sun Chung’s likeable and hilarious charmer which benefits from a sweet chemistry between its two human leads and the outrageousness of its central idea that a fully grown cobra could be anything other than a dangerous menace. In this case Xixi (pronounced “Sisi”) is both cute pet and fierce protector to Ah Fen and so intelligent she can figure out a way to save a wedding party from being blown up in their car, stop the predatory Man-ling from seducing Tang, obey her owners command to attack and – in a climactic fight with a mongoose – slither up on top of a table to tip a jar of boiling water on its enemy’s head. I mean we’re talking one seriously smart snake here (probably graduated summa cum laude from Snake University). This is sort of like the Shaw version of Lassie with the sweetness of a human to human love story plus added sleaze and violence. I thought it worked really well but in a way it does so because it goes against the grain of what a Shaw movie usually is. Instead of tons of plot with fights and chases every few minutes the burgeoning love affair between Tang and Ah Fen comprises probably 2/3 of the movie. Yet watching these two never feels like a chore because the script has some nice touches such as Hu’s botched kidnap which sets the stage for a heretofore suspicious Ah Fen to recognise Tang’s sincerity toward her – exactly the opposite of what he’d planned. Tang’s hatred of snakes (his own mother died after having been bitten by one) means Xixi ends up banished from the house even after she’s saved him from some thugs and it’s interesting how bad we feel about that. As much as we don’t want anything awful to happen to Tang or Ah Fen we’d be really sad if Xixi got hurt. I also liked the way the script structures a bomb attempt on Ah Fen’s wedding convoy, leading us to fear the worst before revealing – in a terrific little flashback – just how everyone’s lives were saved by Xixi.

Speaking of Xixi, her performance is quite excellent. She straightens up on command, hisses when told, moves in the right direction as required and even lets Ah Fen stroke her in a most convincing owner/pet manner. If there was an Oscar for Best Snake performance (even in a competitive year) Xixi would slither away with it. She’s really good and I loved the way director Sun Chung keeps showing us Xixi watching over her mistress. There’s a scene here where the pair are lounging at the beach and Ah Fen tells Tang she’s pregnant. As Tang jumps for joy the camera zooms out to show this bloody snake watching them from the clifftop! It’s hilarious and yet at the same time there’s an oddly compelling quality about it. As for the rest of the cast they’re effective too with Hung Wei suitably shifty as our hero’s unscrupulous foster brother and Hong Kong actress Danna a hoot as the pouting sexpot. Danna’s got a good body and gives her softcore scenes a charge, not least on account of those amazing nipples of hers (like bullets they are). The film works up to a strong climax with Hu taking revenge after Tang sacks him by releasing a mongoose to kill Tang’s newly born baby boy. The resulting reptile vs animal smackdown is well staged with the pair snapping ferociously at each other and both Hu and Man-ling end up getting their just desserts as an enraged Xixi gives the lovers some lovebites of her own. Also of note is a neat little plot twist connecting the loathsome Brother Hu with the snake death of Tang’s mother. The film looks good too with evocative studio sets – such as Ah Fen’s shack on the river complete with ducks paddling by – and some quite spectacular location footage of the characters up in the mountains. Great closing scene too as Tang and Ah Feng, now family because of their baby, go looking for Xixi only to be greeted by the spectacle of.. well, see if you can guess!

Dream Lovers (Tony Au, Hong Kong, 1986)

Two Hong Kong residents, a musician named Song (Chow Yun-Fat) and a young woman called Cheung (Brigitte Lin) are haunted by dreams of each other as lovers during the Chinese Qin dynasty 2, 000 years earlier. After the two meet and spend the night together Song must face Cher (Wah Lei) his heartbroken fiancé of eight years and revelations from Cheung’s father and his business associate Li Chang (Chung Lin) regarding their involvement in the excavation of an ancient terracotta statue that is not only the spitting image of Song but raises questions about the mysterious fate of the ancient lovers.

It’s always a pleasure to go into a movie with no great expectations and end up very pleasantly surprised. Case in point being Dream Lovers which turns out to be a compelling treatment of the reincarnation theme and a bittersweet look at love in any age. Part of what makes it notable is that it treats the subject realistically, establishes firm ground rules right from the off and then sticks to them. For starters, Cheung and Song aren’t possessed by the spirits of their former selves (there are no 2, 000 year old warriors stomping around modern day Hong Kong) but are simply ordinary people whose fragmentary memories of their final night together in their former lives are so intense that their mutual attraction seems less about chemistry than it does destiny. Moreover, the film is interested in examining how two people might believably react in such a situation and the effect of that on those closest to them. The tone is unusually non-melodramatic and the film treats its fantasy elements – such as Cher’s grandmother who’s able to discern Song’s past life with little more than touching his face and asking a couple of questions – with a brisk matter of factness. If that all makes Dream Lovers sound a bit dull far from it. The three leads are sympathetic and charismatic and we feel most involved with all of them. Lin and Yun-Fat convey the conflicting emotions of shock, bewilderment and acceptance with a quiet conviction that’s easy to go along with. Both actors are also really good in the flashbacks. Yun-Fat in particular subtly imbues his Qin warrior with a natural authority that his modern self completely lacks.

A sub-plot/flashback in which we learn how Cheung’s father and his business associate were responsible for discovering the terracotta statue 28 years before contains a marvellous moment underlining Song and Cheung’s future together. But the film’s realistic view of the love triangle Song finds himself in also means that we won’t get any kind of romantic feel good ending. We end up so drawn into this love triangle that the parting scene between Song and fiancé Cher – so well played by Wah Lei and Yun-Fat – is painful to watch. The sharp screenplay complements the will-they, won’t-they attraction between Song and Cheung by using the flashbacks of the two lovers as intriguing puzzle pieces whose true nature and meaning are only fully revealed right at the end. When it is we realise how the tragic events of the past have been echoed yet again in the present. The dilemma is perfectly summed up in one character’s devastating line, “8 years or 2, 000, it’s still love.” Tony Au’s direction keeps such a tight focus on the characters it’s as if the outside world barely exists and he and cinematographer Bill Wong have an impressive knack for conveying the inner feelings of the characters through discreet lighting effects that at times feel almost on the borderline of an arthouse pic. The bleak, sparse apartment that Cheung is supposed to be moving into with Cher and which provides the setting for some of the film’s strongest moments is a potent setting for individuals whose lives have been put on hold. There’s another strong contribution from composer Law Wing-Fai whose award-winning score blends modern and traditional instruments thus embodying the clash between past and present.

Killer Constable (Kuei Chih-hung, Hong Kong, 1980)

In 19th century China a massive gold robbery at the court of the Manchurian Empress sends Constable Leng (Chen Kuan-tai) – a man with a well earned reputation for unsparing brutality when it comes to dealing with lawbreakers – and his squad on a hunt for the culprits, members of the despised Han minority. But the villains, led by Fang (Feng Ku), prove more cunning and formidable than expected and as Leng’s men are steadily cut down he has to contend with both an assassin (Jason Pai Piao) hired to kill him and the revelation that the real mastermind behind the robbery is none other than the Manchurian security chief who hired him.

Bloodthirsty Shaw Bros entry with a clever script by On Szeto (Big Bad Sis) that at first looks like a morality play with Kuan-tai’s remorseless killer chided by his brothers for indiscriminately killing unarmed criminals when they could just as easily be taken prisoner and tried. As the hunt for the gold robbers gets underway one after another of Leng’s squad die horrible deaths and just as it seems that Leng’s brutal methods were right all along our hero discovers who the actual ringleader of the gold robbers is and with it the realisation that he’s been the unwitting enforcer of a thoroughly corrupt system that’s left the despised Han minority no choice but to turn to crime because it’s the only way they can survive. So there’s a race/class war aspect to this film that’s subtly handled, indeed very well disguised at first because the villains are so incredibly vicious and cunning that it takes a while for us to realise that they’re only this way because of how terribly they’ve been treated. That implicit empathy for the Han crops up throughout the film in different ways but is most obvious in the increasingly sympathetic portrait of Ku Feng’s villain in the scenes of him with his blind daughter. As for Chen Kuan-tai, he’s a handsome and imposing lead and really dynamic in the fight scenes but for all that the film has a weakness that I think holds it back from the first rank of Shaw films and that’s our lack of an emotional connection with him or any of the characters. Aside from hints that Leng is troubled at the kill crazy accusations levelled at him by his compatriots he’s otherwise far too formidable a swordsman – and too formal with both his fellow officers and even his own brother – for us to care all that much about him.

That weakness aside – and it is a big one given the bleak worldview on offer – the film really delivers with a fast pace and a decent plot. There’s plenty of gory, well done swordplay action using a mixture of location work and a succession of increasingly atmospheric studio sets beautifully lit by ace cinematographer Li Hsin Yeh. The staging of a sequence in which Leng’s brother is killed by enemy archers on a denuded forest set complete with torrential rain and swirling mist has a distinctly Japanese Samurai feel to it that feels atypical for a Shaw entry and yet entirely appropriate for the feudal world depicted here. There’s also some really effective impressionistic moments, such as when Leng – having learnt that the mastermind behind the robbery is his own boss – finds the body of his brother shrouded in the mist and as he kneels next to the corpse the rain comes pouring down which not only clears away the mist but seems to symbolically purify Leng, transforming him from a figure of cruelty and oppression into one of righteous justice. What then follows is the best fight sequence in the film, a thrilling and rousing battle as Leng takes on his boss, bodyguard and dozens of his troops in a 20 minute long slaughterfest. The sheer inventiveness of the staging here – at one point Leng deliberately impales himself on his adversary’s sword to block the other guy from causing any more damage with it! – is quite thrilling and the film ends with a poignant shot harking back to a solemn promise extracted from Leng by a dying Fang which suggests that for the persecuted Han nothing has changed. This may not be one of the great Shaw films but I’ll tell you something – it’s a damn good one.

Big Bad Sis (Sun Chung, Hong Kong, 1976)

Ying (Chen Ping) beats the crap out of a garment factory’s resident dyke when she tries to rape newbie Fong (Chong Lee) in the toilets. Fong and co-worker Sai (Siu Yam-Yam) befriend Ying and move in with her. After hearing of their tragic histories at the hands of sex-crazed stepfathers and lusty relatives Ying agrees to train the two girls in street fighting but refuses to open up about her own life. But when another female employee is kidnapped and forced into prostitution the three girls set out to rescue her but in the process Ying is brought face to face with her past as a mistress/protege of local gangster Boss Dai (Wang Hsieh) and how the intervention of chivalrous restaurant owner Brother Shing (Chen Kuan-Tai) saved her life when she tried to quit. As Ying renews her friendship with an old flame still in Dai’s employ named Brother Wai (Wong Chung) the garment factory is threatened with closure by Boss Dai and Ying is kidnapped by his men. It’s up to the girls, plus Brothers Wai and Shing to save Ying from certain death!

Snappy, vivid and charming Shaw Bros mixture of melodramatic pulp and Women’s Lib with Chen Sing, Siu Yam-Yam and Chong Lee all easy to like as the gal pal workers who bond, share the same flat, then pour out their hearts to each other about the men who’ve done ’em wrong (in a delightful moment Ying tears open her blouse to reveal a garish tattoo on her left tit while declaring herself a fallen woman!) and who go on to form a kind of unofficial gang to protect themselves and their fellow workers from all those men who’d do them harm. Pretty soon Ying is teaching the girls the art of self-defence in a series of training montages and then away we go as the trio come to the rescue of various girls needing their help. The funniest of these is the humiliation of a chancer named Master Chiu who’s already got one of the factory girls, Siu, two months pregnant while seducing another with promises of marriage. By this time in the film it seems like half the girls at the factory are in on the fun and it’s a great moment when they swarm Chiu at the beach, strip him naked and have Siu come at him with a pair of garden shears as the girls all chant ‘Cut it off! Cut it off!’. Being a nice girl she of course doesn’t but the solution, with Ying reassuring Siu that if the father is so useless then all the girls will help bring up the boy, goes to the heart of what makes Big Bad Sis so likeable. The camaraderie and courage of the girls always wins through and in essence the film has a delightfully innocent charm to it. Strip out the sleazier aspects and it really could be one of those old British movies in which a group of enthusiastic youngsters get together to save a beloved institution – it has that kind of feel to it.

On Szeto’s script is pretty terrific. It gives the characters entertainingly colourful backstories, grounds the action in reasonably plausible character motivations and lets the girls punch back twice as hard at the men making their lives hell. Although the good guys in the shape of Brother Shing and Brother Wai get in on the action in the big finale the girls pretty much save themselves here. I particularly liked the scene in which Ying describes her upbringing at the hands of the evil Boss Dai as the film cuts between her being tattooed and her learning how to cheat punters at gambling. It’s as if the deeper she becomes mired in corruption the more these tattoos seem to spread across her body. Sun Chung’s energetic direction really sizzles in the action scenes. The sequence where Ying discovers that her employer owes Boss Dai money and visits the latter’s office to retrieve his debt note is a case in point. What does Ying do? Politely and patiently plead her case like a good girl should? Hell with that. She drenches the Boss with petrol then lights up a blowlamp before any of his goons can move and threatens to torch him unless he hands over the note. To which all I can say is Fucking A! It’s exhilarating scenes like this that make the film such a blast and to his credit Sun Chung also brings some depth to quieter scenes such as the doomed attraction between Ying and Brother Wai, the man who once took a beating from Boss Dai in order to protect her and yet out of misplaced loyalty can’t bring himself to leave his employer.

The big showdown, a massive scrap with Ying and Brother Wai fighting off Boss Dai and his men in and around a construction site is really something. There’s an exciting motorbike/car chase, while crowbars, hooks, spades and just about every other implement you can imagine on a building site are pressed into service here as a game Chen Ping – who really does seem to be doing almost all her own stuntwork – batters her enemies senseless whilst taking a hellacious beating in the process. To say the least, throwing yourself around on an actual building site carries no small degree of risk (it really does seem as if poor Chen Sing took a kick in the face for real at one point) and you have to admire the almost suicidal bravery of some of these stunt guys. Sun Chung’s direction really socks over the sense of a second by second fight for survival here and I was very impressed by the rhythm of his staging. He’s able to raise the stakes as the battle progresses to the point that we’re mightily relieved when the cavalry arrive in what literally seems like the nick of time. Thankfully it all culminates in the villains getting their just desserts and when Ying is taken away by the cops it’s to a rousing chorus as her fellow workers chant, in her honour, ‘Big Bad Sis! Big Bad Sis!! BIG BAD SIS!!!’ Right on, baby!

The Sword And The Lute (Sui Jang-Hung, Hong Kong, 1967)

Under instructions from the Scarlet Maid (Ivy Ling-po) Kuei Wu (Jimmy Wang-yu) and Lien Chu (Chin Ping) are escorting the deadly dart-spitting Phoenix Lute to be destroyed when Kuei unwisely uses it to defend themselves from an attack by the Flying Tiger Clan. But so powerful is the weapon that one of the Clan steals the Lute and led by the villainous Wei Feihu (Miao Ching), whose own son is slowly dying from the Lute’s poisoned darts, the Flying Tigers attack and slaughter the Shen family who they believe are hiding the only cure, known as the Seven Stars Stone. But the Stone turns out to be elsewhere so Feihu tricks the Shen family’s sole survivor, wounded Shen Shuwen (Yueh Hua) into escaping in the hope he will lead them to the Stone’s true location. En route,and Shen is rescued by little Hsiao-Ling (BoBo Fung) and her faithful servant Daixin (Peng Peng) the Tiger Clan plot to steal her indestructible Fish Intestine Sword too. But their attempts are frustrated by the arrival of Tu Ying (Lieh Lo), a stranger who has his own hidden agenda. At the Quin mansion the Scarlet Maid uses the Stone to save Shen Shuwen’s life but an attack by the Tigers results in more lives lost including that of Wei Feihu’s son and leads to a showdown at the Flying Tiger Clan’s mountaintop home as Feihu invites all the clans in the territory to submit to him and hand over 50% of their earnings or face death from the deadly Phoenix Lute.

The third in a trilogy comprising Temple Of The Red Lotus and The Twin Swords and for me the best of the bunch. The idea of an all powerful weapon which falls into the wrong hands is a good one (there’s even a thematic point made here about how you can go too far with killing!) and the Lute itself – a musical instrument that can also fire wave after wave of lethal needle darts – is an original creation. It’s entrusted to Kuei Wu and Lien Chu for destruction by none other than the Scarlet Maid which I suppose could be taken to imply that this was never a weapon intended for use by mere mortals. That both heroic Shen Shuwen and villain Wei Feihu’s son end up poisoned by the Lute lends the story an urgent emotional undercurrent but unlike the first two films it doesn’t allow these developments to bog the pace down with overwrought melodramatics. In part this is because the young lovers Kuei Nu and Lien Chu drop out of the story once Shen Shuwen comes on the scene and don’t really crop up again until the climax. The bulk of the story is concerned with Shen Shuwen’s journey to the Quin mansion, aided by BoBo Fung’s child Hsiao-Ling, her faithful servant Daixin and a mysterious stranger Tu Ying (Lieh Lo) who tags along after selling Hsia-Ling his horse. This mid-section is by far the best part of the film. All four characters prove highly engaging and freed from the presence of Kuei Nu and Lien Chu, who even after two movies were never a terribly interesting couple, director Jang-Hung has lots of fun with repeated attempts by the Flying Tigers to steal little Hsio-Ling’s indestructible sword as the travellers stop off at various inns. At the same time he gets to play up the mystery of Tu Ying whose own agenda links to something we saw happen in the second film of the series.

Of the large cast the standouts here are BoBo Fung, Peng Peng and Lieh Lo. BoBo was only about 12 when this was made but she gives a confident and enjoyable performance and she has nice chemistry with Peng Peng’s loyal servant. Lieh Lo of course has charisma to burn as the scruffy, devious but ultimately decent Tu Ying. So much so that one doesn’t really mind the extremely contrived reason for his appearance. We’re just glad to see him back. Unfortunately the director does struggle a bit with some of the supporting cast. As the villains, the likes of Lily Ho, Lee Wang Chung and a returning Yuen Siu-tien (as the leader of the Red Lotus Clan) never get enough room to develop their roles so the big showdown in which they meet their end has a somewhat perfunctory feel to it as if the sheer number of characters needing to be dealt with overwhelmed the director. The fights here, if anything, look slightly less polished than what we saw in the first two movies. There’s lots of ducking, jumping, thrusting and parrying with swords but the martial arts skills one would come to associate with the genre (leaping up onto balconies) are conspicuous by their absence and you can sometimes see the performers freeze in their movements as they wait for their opponent to catch up with them! And yet the advantage is that the fights are at least grounded in what feel like high emotional stakes. An assault on the Quin mansion in which the Scarlet Maid operates on a dying Shen Shuwen with the Seven Stars Stone as a massive fight rages right around her is a clever and involving bit of staging. As in the first two movies Ivy Ling Po’s Scarlet Maid turns up at the end to set matters right and deliver a cautionary warning to Hsiao-Ling about the perils of bloodlust. It’s a satisfactory conclusion to the trilogy with its strengths comfortably outweighing its weaknesses so making it – for me at least – the best of the three.

Broken Oath (Jeong Chang-hwa, Hong Kong, 1977)

Burning with rage a young woman named Jie (Angela Mao) sets out to take vengeance on four ruthless killers and their master – the corrupt Prince Kui – who murdered her parents 20 years before. Armed with her own formidable kung-fu skills and a collection of deadly scorpions, Jie is helped in her quest by a mother and son team of pickpockets, Thousand Hands and her son Ah Shu. But as Jie wreaks bloody revenge on her enemies her journey is shadowed by a mysterious martial arts expert named Master Yuan and assorted fighters who have their own hidden agendas.

Made by Shaw rival Golden Harvest and one of that company’s best films, this is a cracking martial arts adventure with a decent story, likeable characters, terrific action scenes and a fabulous lead in Angela Mao. The basic setup for what subsequently transpires here is clearly, shall we say, ‘borrowed’ from Lady Snowblood (1973) but that aside, plus the reuse of a couple of third act plot elements involving a double for the bad guy and the wounding of our heroine, Broken Oath is very much its own thing. Angie Mao might be a pint-sized heroine but she’s an incredibly athletic and agile figure, able to kick and punch and even fight with a pole to quite thrilling effect. For this viewer martial arts heroines are anyways just about unbeatable in the genre but Angela is one of the best. It’s not just that she’s pretty and can kick ass with such ferocity, it’s that her characters feminine wiles are equally well deployed in the service of revenge. A chiffon scarf Jie coquettishly waves in the face of her enemies lets her drape them with deadly stinging scorpions! A brothel Jie needs to be sold into so she can get close to one of her targets has her proudly asserting her own price after a pimp tries to purchase her for a pittance. At every point writer/director Jeong Chang-hwa’s satisfying script finds new ways to showcase Jie’s power and independence. Our heroine is supported in her quest by her late mother’s former cellmate Thousand Hands, her son Ah Shu and a sympathetic Abbess who runs the monastery Jie was raised in, a likeable supporting cast we’re always pleased to see come to Jie’s aid. It’s a lot of fun and a much warmer, more emotionally open film than Snowblood.

The plotting credits the villains with cunning, intelligence and toughness – Jie’s carefully planned seduction of Boss Hao, the first on her hitlist, seems to be going swimmingly until Hao quite unexpectedly turns the tables on her – and they’re a reasonably colourful bunch of bad guys equipped with distinctive weapons and fighting styles. Sammo Hung has a supporting role as a baddie who nearly strangles our Ang with a chain and he’s given an especially memorable sidekick who wears samurai armour and finishes off his enemies by spitting fire over them from a pouch of alcohol he keeps on his waist. His demise is, as you might expect, agreeably explosive. I also liked the smaller touches such as the spectacle of Boss Hao sporting an outrageously blingy eyepatch made from a gold coin after losing one eye to Jie’s mother whom he’d tried to rape decades earlier. One of the other appealing aspects of Broken Oath is that it manages to find room for plenty of typically slapstick Hong Kong humour. A sequence in which a spy tries to force a messenger to hand over a confidential letter is really very funny as is an early bit of scene setting in which pickpocket Ah Shu goes up against Jie before realising he’s met his match. It all makes for a nice balance with the action. The direction by Chung-hwa (who also directed 1972’s King Boxer, the film which almost single-handedly sparked the martial arts craze in the West) shows real skill in both the blocking and editing of the action sequences. Distinctive visual flourishes – such as a judicious use of slow motion in the climactic battle as Jie brings down a couple of jumping bad guys by hurling both her swords up to impale them mid-leap, plus a really striking moment when the solitary figure of the evil Prince Kui appears and suddenly eight identically dressed figures pop out from behind him – really enhance the action and yet this isn’t one of those martial arts movies solely defined by its setpieces. It’s just a good movie in which most everything works well and boasts at heart a heroine who makes an indelible impression on the viewer.

Erotic Nightmare (Wai-Man Cheng, Hong Kong, 1999)

Cracking, sexy variation on the old ‘dreams can kill’ scenario with the great Anthony Wong as a sexually frustrated husband (wife has a heart problem) stitched up like a kipper by an occultist who offers him sizzlingly hot erotic dreams for a price. At first it’s great fun for our Anthony but corpses soon begin to turn up around the house because the occultist turns out to have complete control over Wong’s actions in his dreams. He can force the guy to do whatever he wants and ends up blackmailing our hero for control of his business. Poor Anthony doesn’t have a chance. So it’s up to Wong’s brother and the occultist’s much battered female assistant to take down the bad guy and save the day.

So what can I say about this delirious slice of highly enjoyable sleaze? Well for starters the girls are hot, hot, HOT! It’s softcore but the sex scenes are pushed about as far as they can and unlike the usual joyless/embarrassing/tedious excuse for humping that passes in so much of genre cinema the dreams – in which Wong is seduced by some willingly submissive schoolgirl babes – manage to be really erotic and really hilarious. The POV blowjob amused me no end and I couldn’t stop laughing at the scene in which Wong is a PE teacher urging the line up of luscious babes in front of him to bend lower so he can cop a better eyeful of their gorgeous tits practically bursting out of those tight gym tops. With blood soaked dismembered corpses and sexy dreams that always end badly for Anthony (in one memorable scene his shagging is interrupted by an old lady who charges him with a pair of garden shears determined to cut off his knob) it’s classic Hong Kong exploitation cinema, wild, demented and yet somehow just holding together through sheer zest. It’s also a winner because not only do the actresses seem up for a laugh but Anthony Wong shows just why he’s so damn good in this sort of stuff. He can play it straight and serious but beneath the surface one senses a gleefully devilish streak in him that’s clearly loving every second of it. Equally effective is that the villain turns out to be a right sadistic sod in torturing and beating the shit out of his assistant so much that when the tables are turned and it’s the occultists’s turn to be put to sleep – even as he fights desperately to stay awake – his assistant’s crooning of ‘Go to sleep little baby’ proves a delightful, delicious moment of well earned revenge on a creep who ends up trapped in a dream hell being fucked in the ass by a couple of big black dudes for all eternity. Serves him right!

The Twin Swords (Sui Jang-Hung, Hong Kong, 1965)

In this sequel to Temple of the Red Lotus eloping lovers Kwei Wu (Jimmy Wang Yu) and Lien Chu (Chin Ping) are fooled into attempting the rescue of four ‘maids’ (in reality members of the evil Red Lotus Clan) from a Buddhist temple the Clan have tricked out with all manner of deadly traps. Kwei escapes but Lien is captured. When Kwei pleads with Lien’s family for help they refuse. With Kwei locked up an admirer of Lien’s (Lieh Lo) attempts a one man rescue but it goes disastrously wrong and prompts Lien’s family to launch an all out assault on the temple to rescue her. But the Clan’s all powerful leader proves impossible to beat in combat… at least until the arrival of the mysterious Scarlet Maid (Ivy Ling Po).

A noticeable improvement over the first film with some livelier characters, more varied and interesting action (poor Lieh Lo doesn’t half come a cropper in this) and the introduction of plot elements such as the deadly musical lute and the cut-through-anything Fish Intestine Sword (great name, that!) around which the story of the last film in the trilogy The Sword and the Lute (1967) would be built. As with the first installment The Twin Swords has long sequences hampered by overdone melodramatics. Jimmy Wang Yu does a great deal of pleading, begging and sobbing in his efforts to persuade Lien’s family to rescue her. He’s very good at it but the scenes drag on too long and in any case the family’s reason for refusing to help Lien (she broke the rules in leaving home without permission) seems dramatically feeble. These sort of emotional displays would be greatly toned down once these Shaw adventures found their feet even if they never entirely shed their distinctive melodramatic nature (which in any case is part and parcel of their appeal). On the other hand the backstories of characters such as Lieh Lo’s, whose private thoughts are conveyed through choral song, represent a hangover from Chinese musicals that would very quickly vanish. Of the other cast members Ivy Ling Po (in the first film her character was called the Red Lady but she’s renamed here as Scarlet Maid for reasons never explained) gets a pleasingly expanded role in which we get to see her home, an idyllic paradise on what looks to be the top of a mountain plateau up in the clouds, to which she takes Lien after saving her from the monks. In one memorable scene we see her leave home in a series of gravity defying leaps down the side of a cliff face. If not a goddess the implication seems to be that Scarlet Maid’s kung fu powers are so supreme she exists on a plane of existence above that of mere mortals. Indeed, she can even understand messages relayed by birds!

And if the Red Lotus Clan are just as anonymous a bunch of baddies as they were in the first film it’s made up for by their devilishly ingenious temple of death. With pits full of spikes, a staircase guillotine that chops bodies in two, ceilings that can lower themselves to crush the enemy and all sorts of other delights it’s practically a character in its own right and inarguably the star villain of the show. The highlight of the film is when our heroes invade this temple of death only to quickly find themselves trapped. About to be squashed flat they’re saved when the family’s youngest member, little Fung Bo Bo (now about 11 years old) breaks into the control room and calmly slaughters the baddies operating the deadly traps with the Fish Intestine Sword recently gifted to her by grandma. You think about that Indiana Jones film Temple of Doom (1984) and how you could just tell the kid wasn’t going to be allowed to kill anybody because he was just a child and his innocence had to be protected. By contrast there’s no such timidity here. With the Fish Intestine Sword Bo Bo cuts her opponents swords in two, slices off an enemy’s hand and then runs the baddies through with her sword. What’s more, she can’t wait to tell her family all about it afterwards. Typical kid! That emphasis on family unity is what always strikes me about the Shaw films. Although these movies are routinely described as ‘epic’ I think that description is often misplaced. More than anything they always strike me as essentially intimate because the focus is so strongly on narratives of familial bonds tested by love or betrayal. We see that here in the final battle when Jimmy Wang Yu’s quest for revenge turns up both the culprit and an unexpected family survivor who turns out to be none other than… well, see if you can guess! There’s more vigorous swordplay in this one albeit in much the same style as the first film but also a bit more martial arts. Not only is the big villain able to blow a hurricane force gale from his mouth but in her climactic battle with him the Scarlet Maid can move with such speed she literally vanishes in the blink of an eye from one place to another. Both of these represent new additions to the genre that audiences hadn’t seen before.

Temple of the Red Lotus (Sui Jang-Hung, Hong Kong, 1965)

A young swordsman Kuei Wu (Jimmy Wang-yu) on his way to Jin Castle to meet his fiancee Lianzhu (Chin Ping) and avenge the murder of his family is witness to a robbery that implicates the head of his betrothed’s family, Dragon Jin. Although injured in the robbery Kuei’s life is saved by the appearance of the mysterious Red Lady (Ivy Ling Po). On arrival at Jin Castle Kuei’s suspicions about his new in-laws prove mutual. However the real culprits turn out to be the evil Red Lotus Clan who’ve taken over a temple and are posing as monks. After Kuei and Lianzhu elope in the face of objections from her family they investigate the temple and are captured by the Red Lotus Clan. After a series of escapes and fights the Red Lady reappears and helps the lovers defeat their enemies.

This is a handsome looking production with picturesque outdoor locations and lavish indoor studio sets but for all that it’s also a rather turgid melodrama. It starts off promisingly but once Kuei arrives at the Jin’s castle to meet his fiancee it practically grinds to a halt over long-winded family disputes about whether the young swordsman can be trusted. When Kuei and Lianzhu are forbidden from leaving their decision to elope results in them having to do repetitive battle with virtually every female member of the family in order to escape and it always ends in the same way; Kuei hopelessly outmatched by the superior swordsmanship of the ladies, Lianzhu stepping in, declaring how much they love one another and winning their release. Look, I’m as susceptible to sincerely wrought declarations of true love as anyone but by the same token you don’t need to keep seeing it over and over. The villains are even blander, a mob of schemers dressed as monks all indistinguishable one from the other. There’s a great lack of genuine drama underpinning the action here – it’s all melodramatic posturing with little to truly anchor the emotions. Intriguing characters, such as the Red Lady, get introduced and then vanish without explanation. To be honest I found Temple of the Red Lotus more interesting for both the similarities and differences with the genre as it would become. This was Shaw Brothers first martial arts movie after more than a decade spent making romances and musicals and its success would send the company down a path that would make it famous around the world.

Just from a historical perspective there’s the attraction of seeing how some well known genre faces began their career. Jimmy Wang Yu of course is best known as the intense, one man killing machine of One-Armed Swordsman (1967) fame but here he plays a hero as quick to sob for a fallen comrade as he is to draw his sword. There’s a certain amusement value in seeing just how babyfaced and cleancut he is here given how Wang Yu would redefine the martial arts hero role just a few years later. On the other hand you do have a prevalence of martial arts heroines, one of the enduring attractions of Shaw Brothers movies. Apart from child star Fung Bo-Bo who comes into her own in the sequel the rest of the female cast here swing a mean sword. It’s fun to watch the ladies do their stuff and Ivy Ling-Po (a huge star of the period) looks so dazzling in red and so imposing a figure – you can just feel the star power radiating off her – that it’s frustrating she’s so little used. As for the actual swordplay it consists of a lot of frantic parrying, thrusting and dodging around reminiscent of American swordplay movies such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), albeit one with martial arts trimmings, e.g., the characters can jump up onto walls or roofs in a single bound and there’s the occasional glimpse of a severed limb or a bloody stab wound. The fights are filmed mostly in static long shots with the camera only moving to follow the stars around or tracking in on them from a wide angle to a mid-shot. It’s not the style as it would later become – although the editing of the action scenes is already noticeably faster than it was in its western equivalents – but it is typical of these early ones. Popular enough in its day that two increasingly better sequels would follow; The Twin Swords (1965) and The Sword and the Lute (1967).

The Shadow Whip (Wei Lo, Hong Kong, 1971)

When pretty Kaiyun Yang (Cheng Pei-pei) uses a whip to break up a fight in the village guesthouse she works at her exceptional prowess attracts the interest of swordsman Wang Jianxin (Hua Yueh), formidable Kung Fu master Hong Dapeng (Ku Feng), some thugs known as The Serial Trio and a gang called the 16 Bandits of Yanyun. All four come to believe Yang’s Uncle must be fugitive Fang Chengtian (Tien Feng), a notorious criminal they’ve all been chasing who 15 years before slaughtered an official’s family and bodyguards with a whip and made off with some priceless jewels.

A modestly satisfying Shaw Brothers entry distinguished by the charisma of stars Pei-pei (looking fantastically cute in a fur trimmed winter cape) and Yuah of Come Drink With Me fame, the striking snowbound setting and a plot that offers enough twists and turns (the introduction of Hong Dapeng, walking across snow without leaving any footprints is an especially nice touch) without overcomplicating itself. Despite some rather feeble wirework and ill-advised overcranking in order to speed up some of the action most of the fight scenes are energetically staged and an impressive showcase for the agility of Cheng Pei-pei. She’s a real star; burning with righteous indignation at the aspersions cast on her Uncle and kicking serious ass – with a whip no less (a refreshing change from the standard swordplay stuff). It’s fun to watch Yang wrap her whip around a foe’s sword or spear and pull it from his hands straight into the body of another luckless adversary. More than once we see Pei-pei fight off dozens of adversaries in lengthy single takes that are a testament to just how fit and well trained these Shaw players needed to be. It’s so different from modern action movies where everything is broken down into itty-bitty little cuts because the actors aren’t fit enough or trained enough to do the moves. Also of note are the striking snowbound, mountain locations which make a spectacular backdrop for the action. And I love the music cues ripped off from late 60’s James Bond movies. Appropriately enough for a snowbound adventure like this some of John Barry’s marvellous score from OHMSS crops up here. There’s a real adrenaline thrill in the way these cues are combined with the sometimes razor sharp editing that more than compensates for Wei Lo’s workmanlike direction.