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Friday, December 17, 2010

Oath of Death (1971) review

OATH OF DEATH 1971 aka THE ARROW & THE HEART (tentative English title)

Lo Lieh (Jin Liang), Tien Feng (Ma Ching Ting), Wei Hung (Xiang Du Bu), Chang Pei Shan (Hao Da Hu), Yang Ai Hua (Yu Gu), Ling Ling (Shum Yi Xia), Bolo Yeung (Officer Shi), Li Yun Chung (Hong Zhang Chung), Wang Ping (Princess Shabelian)

Directed by Pao Hsueh Li

"Cruel death may befall the one to violate the oath!"

The Short Version: Pao Hsueh Li's gore lavished swordplay exploitationer is wildly over the top featuring a relentless barrage of blood and guts savagery and plentiful sex and nudity provided by one of Shaw's resident starlets, Ling Ling. Serious fans of Chang Cheh's more serious treatment of this story may feel indifference, or disdain for this production, but there's no denying the plethora of low brow entertainment peppered with some occasionally astonishing photographic touches.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

Lo Lieh (left), Tien Feng (middle), Frankie Wei Hung (right)

Three Sung loyalists decide to become blood brothers to fight the tyranny of the Tartar invaders. They build a stronghold and christen it 'The Flying Dragon Fortress' up in the hills. Gathering together a devoted army of followers, the three brothers wage war against the Tartar defense. Desiring to oust the oppressors altogether, Ma Ching plans to coerce an ally, Hong Zhang Chung to release the kidnapped Tartar princess in what initially seems a strategic and civil effort to gain points with the court. Not long after, it soon becomes apparent Ma desires both a great position and power and is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to get it.

Accomplished cinematographer and assistant director to the revered Chang Cheh, Pao Hsueh Li delivers one of the more despicable Wuxia exploitation movies in the Shaw Brothers lengthy cinematic canon. It starts off like any other swordplay picture of the time, rife with gory violence, dutiful honor and heroic speeches. Aside from its spectacularly over the top, ridiculously overwrought brutality, OATH OF DEATH is notable for its association with the true case of a military assassination during the Qing regime. This tale is told with considerably more flair in Chang Cheh's version as THE BLOOD BROTHERS (1973), one of his most famous productions itself remade in 2007 as WARLORDS starring Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Chang Cheh also produced a television series based on the same story during the latter part of his career.

OATH OF DEATH was heavily promoted alongside Chang Cheh's THE DEADLY DUO and Cheng Kang's THE 14 AMAZONS (which is currently being remade) before its release in December of 1971. The movie failed to garner much of an audience. Chang Cheh's approach to the same story appeared in theaters a little over a year later in 1973 and became an award winning and critically lauded production, but was more of a dramatic feature than a gore drenched action film. This was ironic considering Chang Cheh was the progenitor of all this creative bloodletting that was being spilled onto cinema screens in Hong Kong and on the international circuit.

Speaking of Cheh and critics, they often give him a hard time regarding zooms, but Pao Hsueh Li, not to mention other directors such as Chang Tseng Chai (THE FUGITIVE), can often times abuse the use of them to the point of overkill. The use of the zoom in OATH OF DEATH is one such occasion. The script by Chin Shu Mei is a mix of Chang Cheh style bravado, Wuxia level treachery and 'B' level exploitation elements that, when put together, create a bizarre cornucopia of carnage that will likely baffle and put off serious martial movie fans, but cater to the slobbering legion of gorehounds who like their martial entertainment on the gruesome side. The brotherly triangle is treated in a much more "adult" fashion in Cheh's interpretation of the famed tale, but Pao's version fails to build up to the breaking of the brotherly triangle in a realistic fashion in his production. It's pretty much foreshadowed before it even happens.

One of the numerous and cool 60s/70s era Shaw credits sequences. Lo Lieh's portrait is actually on the right side of this photo.

Tien Feng, who plays Ma Ching Ting, had already amassed quite a career playing the most insidious and hated villains imaginable. One only needs see his nasty roles in films like SWORD OF SWORDS (1968), RETURN OF THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1969), Lo Wei's BROTHER'S FIVE (1970) and THE BLACK ENFORCER (1972) to name just three to know what kind of devil Ma will turn out to be. By design, his "plan" to barter with his friend, Hong Zhang Feng for the safe return of the Tartar princess, Shabelian (basically a cameo for the pouty and gorgeous Wang Ping who would shortly be leaving Shaw studio) is evidence of his subsequent deception. Tien Feng also displayed a liking of the whip as a choice weapon in Cheng Kang's THE MAGNIFICENT SWORDSMAN (1968). The ultimate use of the whip as gory method of dispatch belongs to Ku Feng's 'Terminator' like performance in the champion gore extravaganza, THE BLACK TAVERN (1972).

Prince Shaluweimu offers a place in the court for anyone, Han or Tartar, that manages to rescue the princess; The problem being Ma's supposed friendship with her kidnapper, Hong Zhang Feng. A number of Sung heroes set off for Fort Feng Lei to rescue the princess. Ma states that a letter from Hong requests they come to his residence to discuss the situation. Ma relates to his two brothers, Jin and Xiang that they should use this opportunity to persuade Hong to release the captured Tartar princess. Xiang seems happy with this plan as he worships his elder brother and oblivious to what lies ahead. Jin, though, is noticeably wiser and dislikes the idea. Forseeing trouble ahead, Jin returns to their now disbanded headquarters and urges his fourth brother, Hao Da Hu to take his sister and return to Feng Yang town to start a new life.

Things come to a head when Jin and Xiang save a seemingly innocent woman from highway men on their way to meet with the now Darth Vader-ized Ma Ching Ting. Almost immediately, the naive Xiang and the seductive Shum Yi Xia plan a quick wedding. Having been married for what is assumed a very short time, Shum's true colors come to the fore once they reach Ma's extravagant dwellings. She is just as duplicitous and manipulative as Ma is. It's here that the film turns into a sordid display of sex and gore conventions that culminate in one of the wildest Wuxia conclusions ever conceived.

"For a heavenly cause, we must march into Hell if need be."

In spite of all the blood splashing and spraying across the screen, Pao's picture manages some striking visuals that manage to add a slight and fleeting air of polish to the proceedings. There's a brilliantly lit shot of a devastated Lo Lieh contemplating what he must do to set things right. Another beautiful shot has a visually obscured Lo Lieh thrusting his hands into a big tree while blood drips down a vine in the foreground as a rousing stock musical cue plays on the soundtrack. The gore and sheer absurdity overpowers whatever respectability the film may have wanted to attain. But, unlike so many similar sword movies, Pao's injection of some photographic nuances elevate his film above other exploitation fare.

It all reaches an alarmingly ludicrous level during the last fifteen minutes when Lo Lieh trains himself in learning the "Million Arrows Strike the Heart" (a reference to the films Chinese title) technique. It's here that Pao's movie takes a detour into hilariously depraved territory. Feeling the only way he can assure vengeance is by severely disfiguring his body, Jin (Lo Lieh) thrusts a red hot stick of wood into his mouth and brutally burns his face with scalding hot water. Prior to burning his face, Jin does something both startling and rather unnecessary. Earlier in the movie, Jin catches a group of birds in a show of skill and then lets them go, but later uses a bird to test the potency of this bubbling, steaming pot of water. Of course, the small bird dies within seconds of hitting the water thereby letting our hero know that his skin will be melted away to his liking.

Prior to this, Jin tortures himself by steadfastly punching through a tree, hands outstretched in an effort to learn a form of the Iron Palm, the "Million Arrows" mentioned earlier. We see the gore addled result of his training with the maiming of his hands, a scene that was possibly inspired by a similar occurrence in Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO (1966), wherein the title hero has his hands mangled by trampling horses. The shot of Lo Lieh's noticeably disfigured appendages would turn up again in the international sensation, KING BOXER the following year in 1972. A pair of pounded hands also turn up in Liu Chia Liang's silly, but well liked MAD MONKEY KUNG FU from 1979.

With his hands now able to crack boulders in two and his fingers powerful enough to carve in them tribute to his dead brothers, Jin then tortures himself some more by tying his leg back behind his knee and forcibly banging it into the ground, the reason of which is revealed during the final moments. It should be stated that the stand off between the two former brothers in arms is without doubt one of the most jaw droppingly insane endings to any movie. Inciting either disgust, or an eruption of laughter, the last 30 seconds features a handful of splattery "money shots" that will surely delight gorehounds everywhere and is definite comedy gold.

Lo Lieh does wonders whether he's a good guy, or bad guy. His devout demeanor displayed here serves him well amidst all the tragedy surrounding him. Everyone suffers in this movie, good and bad. The camera manages to capture some stark portraits of Lo's intimidating features. Frankie Wei Hung oddly plays against type as the unsophisticated Xiang Du Bu. He made a career out of playing the slimiest characters in Asian films from action to horror to erotica, so it's highly unusual to see him in such a simple minded role. Chang Pei Shan also takes a decidedly noble role here as Jin's one true friend, Hao Da Hu. Jin is very close to both him and his sister and seeks consolation with them when he worries about his careless and duplicitous blood brothers respectively. Chang normally played villains such as in ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) and INVINCIBLE FIST (1969) among others.

The allure of Ling Ling is extremely evident in her role as the busty and conniving nymph, Shum Li Xia. This type of character suited her guileful beauty. Her well endowed bosom was one of the biggest of the Shaw starlets that didn't mind bearing it all and this movie is possibly the shining example of her ample attributes. Interestingly, her character dies in a similar, bloodily ritualistic fashion in Chang Cheh's THE WATER MARGIN (1972) for the same crime committed here. She did redeem herself in the equally gruesome THE RESCUE (1971), also with Lo Lieh, as a prostitute with a heart of gold.

One of the most curious Shaw 'B' pictures, Pao's blood stained swordplay opus alternates between serious melodramatics and irrefutably kooky martial insanity. Compared with Chang Cheh's more accurate version of this story, OATH OF DEATH is definitely the inferior product. Taken as mere exploitation with a sprinkling of professional sheen, it's 95 minutes of mindless mayhem for those seeking the plentiful fights and free flowing blood that is lacking in Chang Cheh's more well known and respected feature. For those willing to take the OATH, you're in for a curiously ghoulish treat.

This review is representative of the HK region 3 IVL DVD


R.A.M.'67 said...

Looks we both put out reviews of Lo Lieh movies within seconds of each other, venoms5!

Some solo efforts by Pao Hsueh-li do come off as "Chang Cheh Lite", but he's decent, if not consistent! The Shadow Boxer (1974) is one under-rated gem of his.

Interesting about this being promoted alongside TDD and TFA; talk about competition!

As for Cheh's "remake", does OOD compare favorably to The Blood Brothers?

venoms5 said...

If you're wanting to see a lot of action and blood, I'd say go for OATH OF DEATH. If you're looking for something far more substantial, Cheh's version is infinitely better. Still, seeing both would prove beneficial.

R.A.M.'67 said...

I already have TBB, so I'll definitely seek out OoD in the new year!

Franco Macabro said...

Sounds like a gory good time! A lot of these martial arts films have a subversive angle to them, always having to do something with the peopple versus the oppression. I'd love to see both of these back to back, see how they compare!

Thanks for the informative review!

venoms5 said...

Cheh's version is miles away the better mounted production, but it's not really an action film, at least in my opinion. It's more of an historical drama with fighting in it.

Pao Hsueh Li was an amazing cinematographer and co-directed a Cheh film, or two. His solo career was, for the most part, unmemorable. Damn good cameraman, though.

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