Guest reviewer Lee Broughton returns with coverage of two well-regarded wuxia films (period martial arts movies set in ancient China). One is an intense action flick from the Shaw Brothers Studio that places a heavy emphasis on bloody and gory depictions of swordplay. The second is a wuxia film with a difference: rather than fancy sword moves or flamboyant punching techniques, the mystical fighters attack each other with incantations and magical musical instruments.
Region B Blu-ray
1967 / Color / 2.35 / 111 min. / Du bei dao / Street Date, 26 March 2018 / £12.99
Starring: Yu Wang, Chiao Chiao, Ti Tang, Chih-Ching Yang, Feng Tien, Yin-Tze Pan, Feng Ku.
Cinematography: Yuan Chen San
Film Editor: Chiang Hsing-Loong
Art Director: Ching-Shen Chen
Original Music: Foo-Ling Wang
Written by Cheh Chang, Kuang Ni
Produced by Runme Shaw
Directed by Cheh Chang
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
The bandit leaders Long-Armed Devil (Chi-Ching Yang) and Smiling Tiger (Ti Tang) are determined to punish the sword fighting teacher Qi Rufeng (Feng Tien) for the part that he played in thwarting one of their robberies. When the villains lead their men in an attack on Qi’s Golden Sword School, the temporarily incapacitated teacher’s life is saved by Fang Cheng (Feng Ku), who is mortally wounded in the process. Before he dies, Fang requests that Qi takes care of his small son, Fang Kang, and trains him to be a master swordsman.
The boy grows into an upstanding young man (Yu Wang) who studies hard but he decides to leave the school after being harassed by his fellow students and pestered by Qi’s amorous daughter Pei (Yin-Tze Pan). Unfortunately, a confrontation with the petulant Pei on the eve of his departure results in her lopping off his right arm. Qi presumes that Fang is dead but the wounded swordsman has been found and spirited away by a passing farm girl, Xiaoman (Chiao Chiao), who duly nurses him back to health. Fang recovers well but he feels useless and emasculated as he can no longer fight and he is forced to settle into a quiet domesticated life on Xiaoman’s small farm.
It soon transpires that Smiling Tiger and his men are in the locality testing a new combat device – the Sword Lock – which neutralises the weapons of those fighters who use the right-handed sword fighting techniques that Qi teaches and leaves them wholly vulnerable to sneaky strikes from close-quarters. Qi’s Golden Sword School pupils – who are easily recognised due to their distinctive looking weapons – are soon being picked off one-by-one. With trouble brewing, Xiaoman reluctantly gives Fang a manual of left handed sword fighting techniques that had once belonged to her late father and he begins training again. But will he be ready in time to foil Long-Armed Devil’s plans to destroy Qi and what remains of his current and former students when they attend the teacher’s upcoming birthday celebrations?
One-Armed Swordsman is a rollicking action flick that is built around a series of melodramatic tragedies, fortuitous coincidences and violent confrontations. The film is noted for being the production that kickstarted a new cycle of wuxia films in Hong Kong by placing a heavy emphasis on extremely bloody depictions of swordplay. Wuxia films in general haven’t been particularly easy to access in the UK up until now but 88 Films have issued a fair number on Blu-ray recently via their 88 Asia imprint. And it’s easy enough to appreciate the appeal of shows like One-Armed Swordsman. Stories about righteous but violent lone heroes who fight against the odds to bring justice to evil wrongdoers always go down well, be they presented as Westerns, urban action films or samurai movies.
Our main character here fits the lone hero part well and actor Yu Wang’s skilfully projected stoicism, his brooding demeanour and his perpetual scowl result in a screen presence that is powerful enough for us to wish that he had appeared in an East meets West Spaghetti Western as an oriental protagonist of some description. Interestingly, the physical impairment that Fang suffers and has to overcome prompts loose comparisons to a number of iconic characters from Sergio Corbucci’s Italo-Westerns. More specifically, shots of the wounded Fang on his knees and struggling to get to his feet while snow falls around him look like they might have informed the final moments of Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968). Additional comparisons to Spaghetti Westerns more generally can be found in the way that the film’s villains are coded as merciless bullies who take obvious pleasure in the heinous acts that they commit and the huge body counts that their despicable actions generate.
In common with a number of samurai films and other shows that focus on the exploits of historical warriors, One-Armed Swordsman possesses an emotionally charged narrative thanks to the presence of a large supporting cast of good, loyal and honourable men who ultimately suffer noble deaths. Indeed, it’s heartbreaking when the pupils of the Golden Sword School start getting cut down in great numbers by Smiling Tiger’s men. The deadly Sword Lock weapon that the villains employ is an ingenious plot device that puts the men of the Golden Sword School at the kind of unfair disadvantage that will have the more excitable viewer screaming at the television screen in frustration as yet another good guy bravely enters into a fight that he cannot win and tragically bites the dust.
The frenetic action scenes that depict the film’s confrontations and fights are really well choreographed and the swordplay on display is convincing. Some of One-Armed Swordsman’s characters are able to effortlessly jump to greater than normal heights but the cinematography and editing that is employed to achieve this effect makes their actions appear perfectly natural. The quite fantastical strength that Fang builds up in his left arm makes for some interesting fight scene content too. Many of the show’s fight scenes are sparked by suitably confrontational dialogue that again puts us in mind of Spaghetti Westerns.
One-Armed Swordsman’s bloody and at times quite gory action scenes are underscored by some really loud, powerful and emotive music that serves to greatly intensify the dramatic effect of the visuals. More gentle but still emotionally charged cues underscore the scenes that chart Fang and Xiaoman’s slowly developing relationship. Some of the show’s louder cues feature a funky late 1960s pop beat that works really well. The film’s period sets and costumes are colourful and lavish and they remain suitably impressive. It’s quite obvious at times that some of One-Armed Swordsman’s ‘exterior’ scenes were shot on grand and well-dressed studio soundstages but this aesthetic look is one that is common to many Shaw Brothers productions.
One-Armed Swordsman is a popular cinema film and a genre film but it’s also a very good quality and highly entertaining production. The acting here suits the material just fine and the show’s narrative remains involving. Noticeably good cinematography, fluid camera moves and thoughtful compositions that make good use of the widescreen frame all work in the film’s favour too and add to its wannabe epic qualities. The variable quality of the old English language dubs that were done for wuxia films such as this invariably resulted in elitist reviewers and smart-ass film snobs dismissing the shows as laughable trash when they first appeared in Western cinemas and on home video store shelves. Thanks to the inclusion of the film’s superior Chinese language dub track (supported by optional English language subtitles) there’s little chance of One-Armed Swordsman being dismissed in such a manner this time around.
88 Films’ Region B Blu-ray of One-Armed Swordsman features picture quality that is very good for the most part. There’s little in the way of print damage here and the show’s vibrant colours are well rendered. The sound quality of the English language and Chinese language dub tracks that are offered here is excellent but the Chinese language option made the best impression for review purposes. The disc’s informative extra features consist of a commentary track by Bey Logan, an interview with David West and a four page booklet written by Calum Waddell.
Legend of the Mountain
Region B Blu-ray + DVD
1979 / Color / 2.35 / 191 min. / Shan zhong zhuan qi / Street Date, 19 March 2018 / £14.99
Starring: Feng Hsu, Chun Shi, Sylvia Chang, Rainbow Hsu, Lin Tung, Feng Tien, Hui Lou Chen.
Cinematography: Henry Chan
Film Editor: Nam Siu and King Hu
Production Designer: King Hu
Original Music: Ta-Chiang Wu
Written by Ling Chung and King Hu
Produced by Chia-Wen Sun, Robert Chan
Directed by King Hu
A lowly scholar, Ho Qingyun (Chun Shih), is employed by the Ocean Mudra Temple to copy the recently translated Great Mudra Sutra. The sutra forms part of a ritual that will release the souls of the soldiers who have perished in battles at the frontier. Ho is sent a great distance to the mansion of General Han (Yueh Sun) at the North Fort in order to carry out his work in peace. However, when he finally arrives there he finds that the fort is deserted. Han’s former advisor, Tsui Hung-Chih (Lin Tung), tells Ho that the General and his troops were massacred by the Xixians and a subsequent treaty has ruled that the fort is now part of a designated no man’s land.
Tsui orders Ho to keep the nature of his work there a secret as the sutra is able to grant its owner the power to navigate the realms of life and death and it would be disastrous if a sorcerer or demon were to take possession of it. Lo and behold, proceedings take a sinister turn when the General’s former housekeeper, Madame Wang (Rainbow Hsu), insists on cooking and cleaning for Ho and introduces him to her beautiful and bewitching daughter Melody (Feng Hsu). The naive scholar soon finds himself married to Melody and it becomes apparent that she is in fact a demon who wants to possess the sutra.
Ho finds himself with no one to turn to as Tsui seems to be under Melody’s spell most of the time, as does his seemingly deranged former assistant, Old Chang (Feng Tien). A Taoist priest, Yang (Hui Lou Chen), has followed Ho to the region and he is doing his best to keep Melody’s demonic activities in check but her mystical powers appear to be much stronger than his and she is able to repel his attacks. An opportunity for Ho to break free from Melody’s grip arises when he meets a sweet-natured tavern waitress called Cloud (Sylvia Chang). However, when Melody finds out about Ho’s contact with Cloud she reveals her supernatural nature to him and forces him to complete the final stages of copying the sutra. With Melody now seemingly all powerful, who will save the day?
King Hu is perhaps best known for his epic wuxia film A Touch of Zen (1971). Sporting excellent production values, likeable characters and wholly impressive action set-pieces, the show had a major second life in the wake of the success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) since established wuxia film fans tended to offer it as a ‘if you like that, you’ll love this…’ type of recommendation when Lee’s film broke big. Legend of the Mountain is another film of epic proportions that sports excellent production values but it’s a much more eccentric and idiosyncratic affair when compared to A Touch of Zen.
Legend of the Mountain is essentially a wuxia film but here the confrontations and fights involving swordplay and martial arts that are typically associated with the genre are replaced with confrontations and fights that involve incantations, magical gestures and supernatural powers. Instead of using fancy sword moves or flamboyant punching techniques, the characters play musical instruments (hand-held drums, cymbals and so on) with a frenetic and increasingly intense dexterity that allows them to build up magical psychic energy that is then unleashed in a physical form when their playing reaches its crescendo.
These confrontations are expertly choreographed and the practical special effects that are employed to represent the effect that the magical psychic energy is having on the person that it is directed at all work remarkably well despite being relatively simple in nature. Indeed, good acting, well-used acrobatic moves, thoughtful editing and striking camera angles all play a big part in making these sequences work so well. Although the special effects employed are physically quite different, the magical confrontations that are seen in Legend of the Mountain possess the same levels of intensity and physical exertions as the similarly plotted scenes in East Asian horror films such as H. Tjut Djalil’s Mystics in Bali (1981). That said, in spite of its genre film status, Legend of the Mountain swings closer to art house-cum-serious world cinema territory as opposed to popular cinema and we’re left feeling that the film is the work of a ‘hands on’ auteur.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way that Hu manipulates his audience by altering the speed at which certain sections of the film play out. Legend of the Mountain was originally issued in an edited version that ran to 112 minutes and I’m presuming that that cut played havoc with the temporal fine tuning that Hu had meticulously employed when assembling his preferred cut of 191 minutes. It’s the longer cut that is presented here. The first thirty minutes of the film play like an exercise in ‘slow cinema.’ Ho’s long walk to General Han’s mansion feels like it’s actually happening in real time and, apart from the intermittent appearance of a flute playing ghost, nothing much happens for the duration of the journey though it should be noted that Hu takes the opportunity to present a series of incredibly painterly shots that show the vast Taiwanese countryside locations where the show was filmed in all of their magnificent glory. Shots of nature and the natural world come to play an important role in the symbolism that Hu employs later in the show.
However, when Madam Wang and Melody are introduced and Ho and Tsui are invited to dinner with them, Hu pulls the rug out from underneath his audience with an overly forceful tug. The show’s narrative proceedings are suddenly unfolding at a rapid pace and Ho is unable to resist the machinations of the overbearing mother, her sly daughter and their young maid Qing due to the speed and intensity of their actions and the rapid fire conversation that they shoot around the dinner table. Both Ho and the viewer know that he’s being manipulated and pulled out of his comfort zone and we really feel for him when he desperately turns to Tsui for a way out only to be told ‘you’ll have to make the best of it.’ Plied with alcohol and under the influence of Melody’s magical drumming, Ho has been bamboozled by the crafty conspirators and he is horrified to catch a glimpse of the Taoist priest Yang seemingly being psychically destroyed on the porch outside before he crashes to the floor unconscious. It really is the dinner party of nightmares and it’s brought to life by some great acting and cinematography.
Things only get worse for Ho when he wakes up the next day. He discovers that he spent the night with Melody and reportedly asked her to marry him. The intensely unnerving way that circumstances run out of Ho’s control here and his inability to extricate himself from scenarios of escalating seriousness prompt the kind of uneasy feelings that are generated by Griffin Dunne’s (Paul Hackett) misadventures in Martin Scorcese’s After Hours (1985). Ho and Melody’s whirlwind romance and wedding are presented via an extended and ellipsis laden montage that also includes shots of insects mating and a spider trapped in a web after having been killed by its mate. The beautiful music that underscores this sequence is periodically interrupted by the sound of discordant and grating strings that bring to mind Basil Kirchin’s experimental soundtrack work. It’s all wholly impressive and effective stuff.
With Ho fully and hopelessly snared, the film’s pace becomes more leisurely again while Melody allows him time to finish translating the sutra. But things speed up again during the show’s final hour when Melody reveals her true colours and intentions and a series of intense magical confrontations take place while Ho tries to escape. Some really effective wire work is employed to show the demons flying during some of these fights. Hu also employs a seemingly endless series of false endings that serve to keep the viewer in a constant state of heightened suspense. The film’s final hour also features a series of flashbacks which explain how Melody became a demon and how all of the other local characters that we’ve come to know are related. It all moves towards a slightly ambiguous ending.
That slightly ambiguous ending is one of several elements that generate something of a cult movie ambience here. Indeed, Legend of the Mountain features a number of enigmatic and idiosyncratic aspects that make the film a quite unique viewing experience. For example, why does Old Chang sport vampire like incisors and other peculiarly feral looking teeth? And how do the anachronistic 16:9-like silk screens onto which Yang projects moving images of Melody’s past misdeeds and the back stories of other key characters work? There’s also striking and original costume designs in evidence when the fearsome ‘ghost wardens’ show up to assess what’s been happening in the region. These entities, who presumably police the activities of the supernatural community, dress in costumes and possess strange accoutrements that bring to mind the cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky. And the soundtrack score by Ta-Chiang Wu features some positively experimental musical interludes. All told, this is a thoroughly compelling exercise in bringing something completely original to the wuxia genre.
Eureka Entertainment’s Region B Blu-ray + DVD features a 4K remaster of Legend of the Mountain that sports excellent picture quality. The aquatic colours that are present during many of the film’s early exterior sequences are rendered perfectly, as are the more traditional colours that are employed for the film’s sets and costumes. The presentation’s sound quality (an original Mandarin language soundtrack is present that is supported by optional English subtitles) is just short of excellent. The disc’s informative extra features include the featurettes Screen Legend: The Magic of King Hu and Tony Rayns on Legend of the Mountain and an illustrated 32 page booklet that features writing by King Hu, Ling Chung and Glenn Kenny.
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
One-Armed Swordsman & Legend of the Mountain
Region B Blu-rays rate:
Movies: Swordsman: Very Good/Excellent; Mountain: Excellent
Video: Swordsman: Very Good; Mountain: Excellent
Sound: Swordsman: Excellent; Mountain: Very Good/Excellent
Supplements: One-Armed Swordsman: Commentary by Bey Logan, David West interview (17 min.), 4-page booklet. Legend of the Mountain: Featurettes Screen Legend: The Magic of King Hu (21 min.), Tony Rayns on Legend of the Mountain (21 min.), image gallery, theatrical trailer, 32- page booklet.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Separate purchases in keep cases though initial editions of both titles are housed in card slipcases
Reviewed: June 10, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Lee Broughton
CineSavant Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson