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.

Chocolate (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand, 2008)

Zin (Ammara Siripong), the girlfriend of a gangster boss known as No 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong) falls in love with his rival, a Japanese Yakuza named Masashi (Hiroshi Abe). When No 8 finds out he accepts the loss but warns Zin she must never see Masashi again. However when Zin gives birth to Masashi’s autistic child she feels compelled to write to her former lover to let him know. But No 8 intercepts the letter and pays a visit to Zin to cut off her toe as a warning. Years later Zin’s child, Zen (JeeJa Yanin), has developed razor sharp reactions from obsessively imitating the fighters at the gym down the road and the martial arts movies on tv. With childhood friend Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) the pair scrounge a living entertaining passersby on the street with her lightning reflexes. But when Zen’s mother is diagnosed with cancer and expensive medical treatments are required Moom discovers a book detailing just how much the local gangsters owe her mother. It’s money that could fund Zin’s treatment so Moom and Zen set out to collect the debts. The local bosses of course don’t want to pay but Zen’s astonishing martial arts skills prove more than a match and as the young girl cuts a swathe through a veritable battalion of thugs word of her amazing fighting skills draws the malevolent attention of No 8. So Zin sends an urgent plea for help to Japan that brings Masashi back to Thailand for a final bloody showdown with his longstanding enemy.

Really rather charming martial arts action adventure with a fantastically lissom heroine whose autism paradoxically renders her both immune to the corruption and nastiness around her and yet also a formidable fighting weapon that can’t be stopped. The story is simple enough but the advantage of such simplicity is that writer/director Pinkaew gets a lot of really heartfelt emotion out of the setup. We see Zen’s autistic behaviour manifest itself in ways that will pay off later in the story, as well as her friendship with a chubby kid named Moom who looks after her and mother Zin’s enduring love even after the latter develops cancer. That emotional investment in the characters pays off to the point that Pinkaew’s somewhat clunky scene setting is much less of an issue than it might otherwise have been and once the action starts we’re fully in Zen’s corner cheering her on. The film is full of interesting touches such as No 8’s protective posse of butch hitwomen or Zen’s fight with a young boy named Thomas whose own autism levels the playing field between them. There’s even something of a fairy tale quality in this saga of a little girl who defeats the wicked tyrants, who does it all for love of her mother and whose autism seems more like a kind of magic that invests her with the special powers she needs to win. I particularly liked an animated dream sequence in which Zen sees the battle between herself and the local gangsters as if it were a video game. Not because it is, but because that’s how Zen’s autism interprets a complex situation.

As for the star, what can I say? Young JeeJa Yanin has charisma to burn here. Her martial arts expertise is fascinating and often genuinely astonishing. But even when not kicking ass she puts across a fragile, childlike vulnerability that has you feeling quite protective toward her. It’s a sensational combination. The rest of the cast can’t come close to Zen’s charisma but even so they’re not far behind. Siripong as Zen’s cancer stricken mother and the former beauty No 8 can’t forget is very sympathetic (the moment when Zen knocks off the wig her mother’s wearing to hide the affect of her chemo is genuinely jolting) and Hiroshi Abe really comes into his own in the third act as he gets down to business with that old standby of all Japanese action heroes, the samurai sword. Only Pongpat Wachirabunjong as No 8 struggles a bit. The script gives him some motivation in the torment he feels over losing his woman to another man (he even shoots his own toe off to show his ex how much he’s hurting at her loss) but once that’s done he settles into generic villain mode and with his long hair and sunglasses seems more a pose than a character but it doesn’t really matter.

The fight scenes are obviously the main attraction here and they don’t disappoint. Director Prachya Pinkaew is clued up enough not to blow his load with the first fight. He’s very careful to start things off simply and then slowly escalate the fights in terms of intensity, complexity and of course – once the samurai swords come unsheathed – gore. It’s all quite thrilling to watch (JeeJa appears to have a body made out of rubber so astonishingly agile is she) and the climactic fight which begins in a tearoom with an epic slaughter very reminscent of the House of Blue Leaves fight from Kill Bill and ends up with Zen fighting No 8 and his goons outside on the narrow ledges of buildings several floors up from the street is amusingly inventive in the way it presses into painful service the local architecture. Unlike so many modern martial arts action films where the actors can’t do the moves – because they’ve not had the training and therefore the director has to disguise it with a lot of fast cutting – JeeJa has apparently been learning martial arts since she was a child (she was 23 when she made Chocolate) and that training shows itself in longer shot lengths than the norm which only serve to enhance one’s appreciation for the astonishing physical agility on display here. It’s all a bit like going back to the heady days of Shaw Bros when the stars had a background in dance and martial arts and could do the moves without needing tricksy cutting to disguise any limitations. In that respect I think after watching the film you’ll agree it’s a case of mission – quite clearly – accomplished.

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.

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.