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Monday, March 23, 2009

Clutch of Power (1977) review


Chen Sing (Fang Chuen Chang), Meng Fei (Chan Yi), Lung Chung Erh (Fong Fong), Wang Kuan Hsiung/Champ Wang (An Sing Yao), Liang Chia Jen (The Black Meteor), Kao Fei (The Fox), Yen Shi Kwan (Pu Chi)

Written by Ku Lung (Gu Long)

Directed by Chang Pang Yi (as Chang Pong I); Goldig Films (HK) Limited

"There is a meaning to all this. By fighting me, you are privileged to die by my sword."

Sung Dynasty, 1267. Mongolian forces attacked the fortified city of Shang Yang. The Sung military forces sent for help, but the traitorous prime minister Chao Tao sent a false report to the Emperor seriously crippling the Sung forces in the process. Chao made a map of the Chinese defenses and sent a courier to deliver this map to the Mongol hordes. Intercepting the emissary, a heroic patriot managed to foil this plan and instead got word to the Emperor and exposed Chao Tao.

An Sing Yao, known as 'The Sword Spirit', is approached by a mysterious masked man on horseback to stop an important document from reaching the Emperor. Refusing to accept money for the job, the supercilious swordsman agrees for reasons known only to himself. He embarks on a journey cutting down all patriotic Chinese linked to protecting the document. One night, An Sing Yao kills 'The Lone Swordsman', Chan Tin Pang. Exiting the premises, the masked man then enters and slays his wife and daughter. Hearing the commotion, Chan's son, Chan Yi, awakens to find his parents and sister dead. Seeking answers from his master, Fang Chuen Chang, Chan is sent to Tung Hai village in an attempt to goad the powerful Tung Hai swordsman, Wah Lung, out of retirement. Being the only one who can combat the 'Sword Spirit', Chan is given a branch cut from a tree by the 'Sword Spirit' himself, to deliver to the retired sword master.

On his journey to the village, Chan and his companion, Pu Chi, encounter many assassins including the sinister 'Fox'. The masked killer stays close to Chan and also employs 'The Fox' to aid in retrieving the coveted document. Pu Chi is killed and Chan meets up with an unknown swordsman who helps him at an Inn when a group of killers converge on the establishment looking to murder Chan and swipe the map. Sometime after, 'The Black meteor' is killed by 'The Fox' during an attack by a gang of ghoulish assassins wearing white hoods and silver skull masks. With both men poisoned in the fight, the dying swordsman tells Chan to head for The Flower Valley, there Chan will find who he is looking for.

Chan makes it to Flower Valley and is ordered to recuperate first and study the flowers before he learns the Butterfly Stroke, Wah Lung's sword style. In the meantime, Wah's wife is sent to deliver the branch back to 'Sword Spirit' with a letter denoting that the two will duel at Sun Hill on September the ninth. But his wife is secretly in collusion with the mysterious masked assassin that hired 'Sword Spirit', An Sing Yao. Leaving his blind daughter, Fong Fong, to stay with Chan, Wah Lung meets the determined swordsman on the appointed day. 'Sword Spirit kills Wah and returns to the masked stranger and delivers the document to him. An Sing Yao is still discontented as he recollects that Wah never used his lethal Butterfly stroke. Having a drink with the masked man, An soon realizes he has been poisoned. The devilish man removes his mask revealing himself to be Fang Chuen Chang, thought to have been killed by 'Sword Spirit' much earlier.

Opening the map, Fang finds out that it's a fake. 'Sword Spirit' then enters the cave to Fang Chuen Chang's shock, having thought the mighty swordsman dead from the poisoning. The two then fight. Fang is injured in the battle and kills himself and sets off explosions in an effort to destroy An Sing Yao in the process. Later, Chan and Fong Fong are by a riverside when An Sing Yao appears and attacks Chan wishing to challenge him curious if he has learned the Butterfly Stroke from the deceased Wah Lung. Both men engage in an intense struggle with the map of the Chinese strategic defense as the ultimate prize.

Director Chang Pang Yi delivers a stylish indy Wuxia production that's one of the better non-Shaw Brothers adaptations. Written by novelist Ku Lung himself, the film comes off nowhere near as nonsensical as his novel variations made famous at Shaw Studios. CLUTCH OF POWER (1977) never gets too convoluted and only occasionally bogs itself down in characterization. There's just enough players to keep up with without confusion setting in. However, if you're not paying attention, it may require a second viewing to catch all the details.

Chang Pang Yi also directed the terribly complex and bewildering CLAN FEUDS (1982) for Shaw Brothers. Based on a massive novel, Chang attempts to condense dozens of character interplay into a 90+ minute feature. It's one of the most elaborate and best of the 80's Shaw novel adaptations. Chang also directed the fan favorite, SHAOLIN KUNG FU MYSTAGOGUE (1976). That film is brimming with secret weapons and hidden traps. It reminded me a lot of Chu Yuan's awesome and garishly kitschy Wuxia opus, WEB OF DEATH (1976). Chang Pang Yi obviously was in love with these convoluted costume actioners as his resume is dominated by them.

As per these Martial World movies, the plot here is pretty deep with numerous hidden agendas and subterfuge. Elements of the storyline seem familiar from some of Ku Lung's other cinematic versions of his novels although I am unsure if the film itself is based at all on any one of his works, or if it is strictly a script he wrote specifically for the silver screen. Nonetheless, the story is often engaging and contains a grand cast of Hong Kong familiars. Curiously, Champ Wang is fourth billed, yet he is essentially the main character alongside Meng Fei as both get equal screentime, yet it seems Wang may nudge him out slightly.

Wang's character, An Sing Yao, the 'Spirit Sword', is one of the most interesting in the movie. His attire makes him look the part of a sinister sword fighter. In fact, the costume design is also commendable here as well as the set decoration. This film could definitely benefit from a quality restoration and widescreen presentation.

The character, 'The Black Meteor', is arguably the most memorable and the role is ably commandeered by Liang Chia Jen. It's a shame he's only in the film for about 20 minutes. Even still, his fight scenes are some of the best. Also of note, Liang handled the choreography along with co-star, Yen Shi Kwan. Incidentally, Liang knew no actual martial arts aside from what he learned whilst filming. However, later in his career he became close friends with Sammo Hung and even lived with the amazingly agile, yet portly film star. It has been said by many in the HK film industry that Liang (Beardy to fans) was a natural at being shown a technique and picking it up immediately.

Unlike a lot of Wuxia, CLUTCH OF POWER features several scenes of unarmed fighting. One of the best is the fight between Wang and Chen Sing that occurs towards the end. The big brawl at the Inn is one of the best in the whole movie. A combination of weapons and hand to hand combat, Chan Yi and The Black Meteor take on several assassins at once including the deadly 'Fox' played by Kao Fei (Ko Fei).

Also like the Shaw Wuxia mysteries, this film features an array of spectacular weaponry. A hunchbacked character uses a lethal Umbrella style weapon lined with razor sharp prongs. The Steel Umbrella from THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1974) is immediately brought to mind as well as the smaller version seen in Chang Cheh's HOUSE OF TRAPS (1982) Other weapons are retractable swords and spears and one chess playing character even uses fatal feathers as his secret weapon.

Going back to the actors, this film has a lot of familiar faces. However, some of them don't get a lot of screentime to show off their skills. Chen Sing spends the bulk of the film behind a mask killing a number of people using stealth tactics. He doesn't get a good fight till the end. Yen Shi Kwan, whom shows some dazzling work in films like THE FEARLESS HYENA (1979), THE MASTER STRIKES (1980) and KID FROM KWANGTUNG (1982), has a supporting role as Pu Chi, Chan Yi's partner. He didn't get to show his skills till around 1979 despite having been in the business since the late 1960's.

Ko Fei has been in hundreds of movies and has done pretty much everything both in front of and behind the camera. He had one of the most versatile careers of any of the Hong Kong performers. A lot of his films around this time saw him playing a minor villain character or a basic thug. CLUTCH OF POWER (1977) gives him a decent role as one of the main antagonists, 'The Fox'. His character is a bit unnecessary, but any performance by Ko Fei is better than no Ko at all.

Meng Fei was an independent kung fu movie mainstay having gotten a role in the Chang's Company production of FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974) for Shaw Brothers studio during Chang Cheh's tenure of filmmaking in Taiwan. Meng Fei did lots of Wuxia films among his other kung fu credits. Some of his swordplay flicks are SHAOLIN KUNG FU MYSTAGOGUE (1976), SILVER HERMIT FROM SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1979), and MATCHING ESCORTS (1982). He did the kung fu in films such as YOUNG HERO OF SHAOLIN (1975), INVINCIBLE KUNG FU TRIO, THE GREEN JADE STATUETTE (both 1978), and THE UNBEATEN 28 (1980).

The beautiful Lung Chung Erh has very little to do here as the blind Fong Fong. She never fights, but does help Meng Fei out during the final fight. She did somewhere in the ballpark of over three dozen movies. Similar to the troubled life of gorgeous Shaw starlet, Lin Chin Chi, Lung Chung Erh attempted suicide multiple times. Some of her better movies are DUEL WITH THE DEVILS, HEROES OF SHAOLIN (both 1977), THE SMART CAVALIER (1978), DREAM SWORD (1979) and JADE DAGGER NINJA (1982).

CLUTCH OF POWER (1977) is an interesting Wuxia picture boasting a stellar cast and some good set design for what was obviously a low budgeted production. Obviously not as flashy as the Shaw style of operatic studio sets, the filmmakers do well with what they have here. It's definitely worth checking out for Wuxia lovers and the kung fu fans may enjoy this one as well. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

This review is representative of the Far East Flix DVD. It can be purchased below...

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