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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Secret Service of the Imperial Court (1984) review


Liang Chia Jen (Zhao Bu Fan), Liu Yung (Wang Zhen), Lo Mang (Zhao Bu Chin), Ku Feng (Zhao Wu Ji), Hu Guan Zhen (Shu Liang), Pai Piao (Yu Hua Long), Ko Fei (Chao Ji Sheng), Lo Lieh (Zhao Wu Chi), Lung Tien Sheng (Li Jin), Sun Chien (Li Yi), Ku Kuan Chung (Chang Qiang), Liu Yu Pu (Hsiao Nan), Liu Shao Jun (Emperor Ying Zhong), Kuan Feng (Li Zhou Wen), Cheng Kei Ying (Shi Hen), Chan Lau (Gao Shan), Lu Chin Ku (personal guard to Zhao Wu Ji)

Directed by Lu Chin Ku

***WARNING! This review contains pics of nudity and bloody violence***

"The rule here is 'No Mercy'."

Introducing the vicious Brocade Guards

The Ming Emperor, Ying Zhong employs a secret sect of ruthless police officers called The Brocade Guard to eliminate outlaws and traitors to the sovereign's rule. Pushed through a torturous training regimen, the members are brutally trained to not recognize friend or family should one stand in their way of accomplishing a mission.

The cruel Eunuch, Wang Zhen

The powerful Eunuch, Wang Zhen, bewitches the weak minded Emperor with salacious gifts to covertly seize the throne and eliminate anyone privy to his treachery. One member of the Brocade Guard, the virtuous and strong Zhao Bu Fan, learns the truth and soon becomes a wanted man.

Hunted by the vile Eunuch and his sadistic followers, Zhao runs away with his wife and young son. With danger at every turn, Zhao slashes a gruesome path paved in blood and betrayal till he comes face to face with the merciless and formidable Eunuch, Wang Zhen.

Director and frequent action choreographer Tony Lu Chin Ku directs this ominously vicious and gloomily savage swordplay drama. It's based on the oft filmed exploits of real life Wang Zheng, a power hungry (and seemingly superhuman in the film) Eunuch who was the trusted aid to Emperor Ying Zhong (Zheng Tong), who ruled from 1435-1449. The arrogant, self serving and duplicitous Eunuch was responsible for thousands of deaths as well as the capture of his Emperor to the clutches of the invading Mongol hordes. Wang Zhen himself was killed in his birth home of Tumubao in Hebei Province when he led the depleted and confused Ming forces to their doom against the advancing Mongol army.

Eunuch's have been a popular plot device in Hong Kong cinema and are the companion piece to the frequent white haired villains that were popularized in Liu Chia Liang's EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1976). The employment of Eunuchs differed from culture to culture and in Asia, they were often utilized as advisors and high ranking civil servants. The general thought process was, that by taking away their ability to bear children and desire of women, a Eunuch would be less likely to have designs on assuming power and usurping a ruling dynasty.

The cinematic interpretation of Wang Zhen in Lu Chun Ku's movie paints an even more despicable picture of the man. Working on a smaller scale from real life, the canvas is smeared with blood and death. Treachery and deceit are the order of the day. The dynastic rulers in China, as seen through the eyes of the filmmakers at Shaw Brothers, are part of some of the most tumultuous and insidious time periods in mans history. You can just look at somebody in the wrong way and it means instant death to both you and your loved ones. Astonishingly, the cinematic counterparts were sometimes far less barbaric in their shameful deeds against humanity than the true to life individuals the films were sometimes based on.

Yu Hua Long warns the conniving Eunuch

The casualness of Wang Zhen's violence is made apparent near the beginning when one of the cabinet members recognizes the Eunuch's plans. Threatening him with death, the minister states he, nor his family are afraid of death. Wang Zhen summarily smacks the old man with a superhuman slap across the face sending the oldster flying backwards with incredible force killing him instantly. Wang then overbearingly wipes away the blood on his fingers then orders his chief guard, Chao Ji Sheng to "Arrest Li's entire family and his students. Slit them all from their mouth to their ears." His barbarous nature reaches its zenith past the midway point when he proclaims to Brocade Guard leader, Zhao Wu Ji, "I'm telling you...if you don't hand over your son, I'll cook your families as food for you!"

Wang Zhen imagines himself the new Emperor

Even though the main star of this star studded cast is Liang Chia Jen, Tony Liu Yung steals the movie away in every single scene. In his slimy elucidation of the real life usurper, Wang Zhen is the epitome of evil and Liu Yung brings to life one of the most sadistically flamboyant villain roles in action film history. There's another great, but brief scene that hammers home the real Wang Zhen's egomaniacal means of seizing the throne for himself. Once he has seemingly removed any and all threats preventing him from becoming the new Emperor, he sits atop the cathedra and imagines himself the ruler as a throng of worshippers announce his dominion. The camera lens is distorted on the outer edges of the frame alerting the viewer that they are witnessing a dream sequence. Suddenly, Wang is awoken from his reverie to find a mostly empty, half lit room occupied only by a few guards and a messenger bringing him word of Emperor Ying Zhong's capture.

Zhao duels with Chao Ji Sheng

Liang Chia Jen stars with searing intensity as honorable Sergeant of the Brocade Guard, Zhao Bu Fan. Brandishing an imposing and intimidating blade, his unwavering integrity and devout principles are the perfect foil to all the duplicity and disloyalty found throughout the movie. At one point, Zhao is washing away the many bloodstains from his body whilst in the company of his mistress, Lian Lian. She questions his ethics in cutting down supposed enemies of the state. He responds to her, "My blade only kills miscreants!" However, he soon discovers that some of the men he has been ordered to kill are honorable men who have been framed by the scheming Eunuch for learning of his plans.

A father and son discussion

Interestingly, Zhao's father, Zhao Wu Ji is the leader of the Brocade Guard and this causes a lot of tension between both characters. He and his son have several very heated arguments especially when the subject of loyalty to the Guard is brought up--"Being a Brocade guard, one prepares to die for justice!" Since members are trained to become killing machines that don't question orders, they are not to recognize familial ties lest they be killed for disobeying a directive of the Emperor. Even though Zhao Wu Ji seems to be adamant in the notion that he will sacrifice his son if necessary (which he demonstrates in an opening sequence) it soon becomes apparent that even with agonizing and cruel training methods, emotion can't be eradicated completely.

A familial difference of opinion

What's most puzzling is that over the course of the movie and through all the buckets of blood that's spilled, a number of innocent people give up their lives for Zhao and his family so he can avenge himself on the Eunuch, Wang Zhen. His friends, his mistress, the officers under him and even some of his family members die either from the result of an enemy attacker, or from Zhao's own sword. I found myself questioning Zhao's ethics as so many may not of had to die if he'd only given himself up. But then, if he had, then the evil Eunuch would have continued his reign of terror and not only that, there would have been no movie.

Liang Chia Jen had one of the longest and most enduring careers in all of Hong Kong cinema. First appearing as one of the main villains in Chang Cheh's classic, SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974), Liang featured in a handful of other villain roles before going out on his own appearing a string of indy kung fu favorites such as THUNDERING MANTIS and THE ODD COUPLE (both 1979) among many others.

Liang returned to Shaws (of sorts) in the early 80's appearing in some of TVB's (Television Broadcasts Limited, HK) most memorable TV serials like RETURN OF THE CONDOR HEROES (1983). He also featured in a handful of Shaw Brothers Studio productions at the tail end of their run before closing up their theatrical branch in the mid 80's. He was most memorable in a few of Shaws violent modern day thrillers like DANGER HAS TWO FACES, THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS and HONG KONG GODFATHER (all 1985) in addition to a brief role in the classic, NEW TALES OF THE FLYING FOX (1984).

Former star in a string of kung fu movies featuring a group of actors affectionately known as 'the Venoms', Lo Mang plays the role of Zhao's brother, Zhao Bu Chin. At the beginning, Zhao Bu Chin is ordered to slay a man purported to be a rebel. After slashing him and the resulting geyser of blood splashing him in the face, Zhao becomes disenchanted with the whole idea of 'Murder For Justice'. Ordered to be put to death for his disobedience, we naturally assume that Zhao Wu Ji has ordered the death of his son. Towards the end of the picture, a plot twist is revealed and Zhao Bu Chin turns out to be very much alive when he saves his brother from certain death.

Zhao Bu Chin, the martyr

Lo Mang had a nice career at Shaw Brothers and he continues to act today. Formerly an accountant at Shaws, Lo was soon put into some of Chang Cheh's movies as an extra before gaining prominent supporting roles in films such as CHINATOWN KID (1977) and LIFE GAMBLE (released in 1979) before co-starring alongside the crew that would become known as 'The Five Venoms' outside of Asia. Oddly enough, the Venom movies were much more popular outside of Hong Kong especially in America. When the Shaws split them up, Lo Mang went on to do movies on his own. Sometimes, his co-star, Sun Chien, would feature in a smaller role as he does here in SECRET SERVICE.

Ku Feng showcases immense acting skills in his tortured performance as the leader of the Brocade Guard, Zhao Wu Ji. Displaying a full range of conflicted emotions from one scene to the next, Ku Feng shows why he is arguably one of the best, if not the best character actor to ever emerge from Hong Kong. One of his best scenes takes place near the end when he must display the head of one of his family members before the Emperor, much to the delight of Wang Zhen, who has spent a lot of the movie ridiculing him. For his deed, Zhao is rewarded with $10,000 taels of gold. After a few seconds, tears begin to run down his face profusely. Wang Zhen then questions why he should cry after being awarded such a prize and the elder Zhao replies that they are tears of joy, but we know otherwise.

To list just a few of Ku Feng's credits would be doing the man a serious disservice, as he appeared in so many quality productions. He was easily the most prominent figure in Shaw Brothers pictures appearing in literally dozens upon dozens of movies for the company. Ku Feng also did a lot of indy movies and was without doubt, like his colleague, Lo Lieh, one of the busiest actors working in Hong Kong. Ku Feng's career reached a highpoint when he earned a much deserved Best Supporting Actor Award for his performance as the put upon diminutive brother to Ti Lung's character in TIGER KILLER (1982).

The cast of SECRET SERVICE is made up of a boat load of seasoned veterans and recognizable faces from the esteemed Lo Lieh, to Taiwanese actor, Lung Tien Sheng, who enjoyed a very brief run after starring in Chang Cheh movies like FLAG OF IRON (1980) and the troubled TEN TIGERS OF KWANG TUNG (1978-1980). The distinguished Jason Pai Piao is on hand as an ethical military officer and the prolific and frequent antagonist, Ko Fei is on hand playing another bad guy.

The Emperor enjoys some candy

There are also up and coming stars and starlets such as Liu Shao Jun as the immature and careless Emperor Ying Zhong and the pretty Liu Yu Pu as a doomed lovely. The dependable screen fighter, Kuan Feng is also on hand for a couple of scenes to help propel the story along and frequent comic relief, Chan Lau also stars in a serious role as one of the framed officers. Interestingly, Chan Lau always played a serious role in his Shaw Brothers movies. Whereas he portrayed bumpkins or brain fried outcasts in indy movies, Chan Lau frequently portrayed villains or, on this occasion, a righteous soldier.

Director, Lu Chin Ku

Director Lu often had cameos in his pictures and here is no different. Lu can be spotted in several scenes playing a guard to Zhao Wu Ji. Lu Chin Ku became a promising action film director during the late 70's through the 80's. He began his movie career as an actor, a sometimes writer and also an action choreographer. In his LADY ASSASSIN (1981), Lu plays the fearsome ninja character that is brought in to deal with the title female. Speaking of ninjas, Lu Chin Ku was fascinated with Japanese cinema. Many of his movies feature a subtle hint of Japanese cinematic stylings. Whether it be in costumes or in the way a scene is shot, Tony Lu had an appreciation for Japanese filmmakers.

Actor, Ko Fei

In SECRET SERVICE, the most obvious Japanese influence comes during the duel between Zhao Bu Fan and Chao Ji Sheng (Ko Fei). Their swords clash in a typical HK style sword battle. Suddenly, the two face each other and charge. The camera displays a wide shot as we see both men cross each other. We hear a sword slash but can't discern who has been cut.

A very Japanese style finish to a HK style duel

The camera cuts tighter in as both fighters have their backs to one another. Then, a geyser of blood erupts from Chao Ji Sheng's chest. He then falls over dead. Very reminiscent of Samurai movies, Tony Lu also pays tribute to Japan's famed LONE WOLF & CUB series. Zhao carries his son with him on his road to retribution and the little boy bears witness to all the bloodshed around him.

In keeping with the tradition of extreme blood and violence in most Shaw Brothers productions, Tony Lu infuses his film with a barrage of bloody stabbings, decapitations, dismemberments and, at one point, a character is split in half lengthwise. This film rivals FLYING GUILLOTINE (1974) in how many heads roll. Over a dozen come off during the first few minutes alone. There are also a great many massive, and wholly unrealistic arterial sprays of blood seen throughout the picture; another nod to the comic book gruesomeness of the series of ultra violent Japanese Chambara movies.

Also of note is the cinematography by Ma Kam Cheung. He helmed the camera on several of Tony Lu's other productions. Here, like in those other films, Ma fills the frame with lots of extreme close ups reveling in the characters emotions. There are also a plethora of swirling tracking shots that circle a character accentuating the dramatics of the scene. Ma also employs an interesting camera motion that moves back and forth from one side of the screen to the next during conversations involving two characters usually depicting topics of importance to the narrative.

The rapid fire editing (Lu's frequent editor, Liu Shao Guang is one of three editors on this film) would become a mainstay in later HK action films. It's sometimes so hectic, you often don't have enough time to soak up the ambiance of some sequences. Where certain scenes are allowed to breath, others are virtually choked of all their substance and depth.

The set design, for the most part, is quite striking. This is especially notable for a Shaw production from this time when they were struggling to stay afloat against powerful opposition from Golden Harvest and the formidable indy company, Seasonal Films. A lot of Shaw pictures from the mid 80's had a very low budget look that sometimes lends them a TV Movie image. Some of the sets appear hastily put together, but the main hall and some of the Emperor's dwellings have that Shaw Brothers touch about them.

Also, there is a dream-like quality to a lot of the sequences in the film. For some shots, instead of walls, there is usually a bright light that is engulfed in a sea of fog that remains in the background. This motif is relegated to the scenes of the Brocade Guards in the Torture and Interrogation chamber. It also surfaces again later in the film when Zhao must fight his uncle played by Lo Lieh on a set that can also be seen in DISCIPLES OF THE 36TH CHAMBER (1984).

The script (co-written by Lu) also hearkens back to two other popular Shaw Brothers productions already mentioned above. FLYING GUILLOTINE (1974) and KILLER CONSTABLE (1980). Like the hit film about the deadly flying head chopper, SECRET SERVICE featured a secret elite group of killers for the Emperor who recognized no kin nor friend. KILLER CONSTABLE had a righteous, yet at the same time, somewhat bloodthirsty hero who killed only evil men; or so he thought, much like Liang Chia Jen's character.

Also of note, the same imposing sword prop from KILLER CONSTABLE is used here by lead actor, Liang. SECRET SERVICE also shares the same doom laden tone of CONSTABLE. One of the most interesting things about this production is that Lu Chin Ku had stated in interviews that he much preferred directing action movies with comedy in them as they were far more profitable at the time. Considering all his comedy kung fu movies were very successful, it's perplexing why Shaws would stick him with such gloomy and pessimistic material.

Zhao meets Wang for the first time

The film, while incredibly downbeat and possessing an unusually relentless tone even by Shaw Brothers standards, is symbolic of where the company stood at the time. Having been seriously crippled at the Hong Kong box office by chief competitor, Golden Harvest. By this point in the game, Shaw Brothers movies lost a lot of the pizazz their productions contained in years prior. There were still some nice production design, but nothing compared with what they were doing ten years earlier.

Lu Chin Ku preferred his action movies (his 80's output) to be heavily undercranked and this film is no exception. There is also enhancement in some scenes with the burgeoning use of wirework which was quickly becoming all the rage in HK. The film also sports an original soundtrack that is well put together and features a theme song that is sung by a woman. The somber tune coincides with the onscreen actions and feelings of lead character, Zhao Bu Fan.

The end was nigh, yet SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984) was one of the best of their last films to go theatrical. Around this time a number of their movies were never released to theaters in Hong Kong. Even so, the film fared poorly at the box office wrangling barely $HK1.4 million. By 1984, this type of picture was relegated primarily to television where such things could be seen for free, albeit without the extreme level of violence found here. A modern style approach to film and a handful of hungry new wave directors successfully put an end to Shaws 'old fashioned' way of moviemaking.

It's apparent from the overall production, that this film was meant to a picture of importance from the Shaws Studio, but the audience just wasn't interested, at least not in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984) is an incredibly violent and gory good time highly recommended to Shaw Brothers fans and an obscure gem well worth rediscovering.

This review is representative of the IVL region 3 DVD from Hong Kong (OOP).

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