Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Cinema of Excess: Chang Cheh & His Films Part 5

Jimmy Wang Yu in THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967)


With the popularity of ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) creating a new style of male dominated action film (Yanggang) and cinematic violence, the Wuxia genre was off and kicking with a renewed interest and style all its own. With so many other directors handling their own swordplay adventures, Chang Cheh forged ahead with a handful more in a similar vein till he ultimately got bored with the genre due to the flooding of the market with similar movies. The ambitious director did return to Swordplay cinema during the end of the 70's and into the 1980's with a new series of Wuxia features of varying quality.

Wang Yu about to slice his face off during the finale of THE ASSASSIN (1967)

During his heyday, Cheh created a lot of memorable heroic swordsman movies which soon morphed into a more modern, but equally violent style. The director followed up his career making effort with what I feel is his best picture. Entitled THE ASSASSIN (1967), it told the true story of a famed assassin from China's ancient history some 2,000 years ago. The real life assassin, Nie Zheng was played by Jimmy Wang Yu whom Cheh had turned into a huge star playing a one armed warrior. He had also taken the starring role in the less violent TRAIL OF THE BROKEN BLADE (1966) and also shared the screen in the adventurous THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO (1966).

Huang Chung Shun (in red with feathered headdress) as the treacherous Prime Minister. In real life, Huang ended up marrying Chiao Chiao, co-star and love interest to Wang Yu's character in THE ASSASSIN

The story of Nie Zheng makes up one of the famous chapters in the book, 'Biographies of the Assassins' written by Sima Qian, an historian from the Han Dynasty. Cheh's movie retains many aspects of the original tale while holding true to the thematic representation of the selfless hero who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good of the people. Nie Zheng was ultimately befriended by an official named Yan Zhong Zi who has designs on eliminating the treacherous Prime Minister of Han, Xia Lei. Possessing a lot of money, but unwilling, or incapable of doing the job himself, he learns of the skills of Nie Zheng, now working incognito as a butcher.

Nie Zheng discusses his life ambitions with his lover, Xia Ying (Chiao Chiao)

Nie longs to make something of himself in an effort to be remembered for doing a great and righteous deed. He even puts aside a future with the love of his life, Xia Ying (played by the elegant Chiao Chiao) till he accomplishes whatever goal in life he is trying to achieve. Nie's newfound friend promises him that opportunity. He wishes for him to assassinate the duplicitous Xia Lei, but careful measures are to be taken before such a feat can be realized.

Not all of Chang's heroes were concerned with country affairs. Some of them were only interested in bedding down a pretty woman for saving her younger brother like in THE FLYING DAGGER (1969)

This attitude of the altruistic hero thinking only of one's ideals and country epitomizes the classic Chang Cheh hero. This ideology was featured most strongly in his 60's and 70's output and gave way to comic book style action at the dawn of the 1980's. His later Wuxia movies were also less inclined to showcase similar heroes as the choreography took precedence. It also is one of the components that causes a great amount of misrepresentation with a number of "critics" who claim to see homoerotic tendencies in the protagonists of his films.

What makes these Chang Cheh heroes so interesting is the conflicting nature by which they live. They are dying for a worthy cause, which is deemed as being their noble duty. However, these typically stubborn men are blind to the burden and sorrow they will bring to those that love them. In Nie Zheng's case, it's Xia Ying, the woman he loves. She tries desperately to deter him from his dreams of historical significance, but he will have none of it. Furthermore, in what is a rarity of Chang Cheh heroism, Nie decides that before he pulls off this seemingly impossible feat, he and Xia Ying should live out the next few days as if they were years.

Nie Zheng gets inside the Prime Minister's fort and lays waste to his troops to get to him

Mission accomplished, it's time to do for the typical Chang Cheh hero

When the time comes and Ni Zheng has penetrated the Prime Minister's fortress, he kills his quarry and cuts down a large number of his soldiers. He then takes his own life by first disemboweling himself, then cutting up his own face so as to remain unrecognizable. This is yet another sacrifice as he remembers his sister, Nie Rong back home; this being a way to save her from execution. In another grand alteration from Cheh's popular rendition of the sacrificing male protagonist, the women sacrifice just as much, if not more.

Women also sacrifice just as much in THE ASSASSIN

Journeying to see if the dead assassin is indeed her brother, Nie Rong finds that it is definitely him. Realizing that if he remains an unknown hero, than his dedication towards a virtuous cause will have been for nothing. She identifies him and in turn, kills herself as well in an act of both sorrow and dedication.

Xie Ying mourns the loss of her lover who has left her a single mother destined for a life alone during the closing moments of THE ASSASSIN (1967)

But Xia Ying also made a sacrifice possibly even more noble than either Nie Zheng and his sister. Determined to remain eternally faithful to her lover, Xia Ying is carrying Nie's child and for this, destined to remain a single mother for the rest of her life. The final shot of Xia Ying amidst a field of growing flowers is a beautiful final shot in an otherwise classy and classic movie. Yet again, Cheh was dissatisfied with the finished product stating that it was possibly too talky for the viewing public. It was still a big hit riding the coattails of his previous moneymaker starring the 'It' man of the time, Wang Yu.

Cheh's next venture would be a sequel of sorts to a classic King Hu movie from 1966 entitled COME DRINK WITH ME. This new production was titled GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968). Cheng Pei Pei would return as the title swordswoman, but the Drunken Knight character previously essayed by Yueh Hua would be replaced with Silver Roc portrayed by Jimmy Wang Yu. Pei Pei was already in Japan having been sent there six months prior by the Shaw's to study dancing. While she was there, Chang Cheh took his crew for two weeks to shoot exteriors for GOLDEN SWALLOW and another movie, FLYING DAGGER (released in 1969), that would be shot simultaneously.

Wang Yu (left) and Lo Lieh (right) from TIGER BOY (1966)

Joining the powerhouse pairing of both Pei Pei and Wang Yu was Lo Lieh, an actor who joined Shaw's at the same time as Wang Yu. Lo Lieh was a handsome actor groomed for leading man status and excelled at playing either good or bad guys. His working relationship with Chang Cheh began with Cheh's first (partial) directing gig with THE BUTTERFLY CHALICE (1965). He also appeared in the directors first ever solo effort, the action film, TIGER BOY (1966). This experimental Wuxia movie was a big step in the directors career. Shot in black and white, it was a trial affair to see how well he could do in the action arena. Lo was then cast alongside Jimmy Wang Yu and Cheng Lei again for THE MAGNIFICENT TRIO in 1966. GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968) was the film that reunited Lo with explosive newcomer, Wang Yu.

GOLDEN SWALLOW confronted by the Golden Dragon gang

Originally, the main focus was to be on Xie Ru-yan, the Golden Swallow character. Revisions placed more emphasis on Wang Yu's Silver Roc, Yen Hsiao Peng. However, Swallow remained the central focal point of the tale being the object of interest for both Wang Yu and lovelorn Lo Lieh as the Golden Whip, Han Tao. Interestingly, promotional materials listed Lo Lieh as the 'Drunkard Knight'.

Captives have their hearts removed and bisected by guillotine like blades in one of the more gory scenes from GOLDEN SWALLOW

Regardless of the shift in character emphasis, GOLDEN SWALLOW is still a great romantic swordsman movie, albeit an incredibly violent one. Chang Cheh was fascinated with showcasing the most gruesome demises imaginable and he utlizes his playful morbidity for this film as well.

Silver Roc mows down hundreds of killers in a vendetta against his parents murder

While the movie has its legion of fans, it also has a fair number of detractors because of the shift towards Wang Yu's seemingly unstoppable, TERMINATOR like chivalrous knight. If one watches COME DRINK WITH ME, the film isn't totally about Swallow, either. About halfway through that film, Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua) takes over for much of the remainder of the picture.

Golden Swallow and Silver Roc say their goodbyes, but Han Tao, knowing her heart belongs to the venerable swordsman, remains by her side

Pei Pei didn't enjoy shooting this one as much as the King Hu film as Chang Cheh was against her participating in the action scenes in the capacity of the male characters. Still, Ni Kuang wrote the script and it was Cheh who instilled the love triangle between the three main characters. With Golden Swallow taking something of a back seat in her own movie (at least in relation to the action), it wouldn't make much sense for the man who had just changed the face of HK cinema by placing importance on male dominated roles to take a step backwards.

Golden Swallow may not be shown as the fighting female warrior as she was in King Hu's movie, but she IS the movie. Both Silver Roc and Han Tao's motivations are built around her. Without her character, there would be no GOLDEN SWALLOW. It's easily one of the directors best movies and benefits from some choice location shooting in Japan. Like ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN and THE ASSASSIN, GOLDEN SWALLOW was another box office record breaker for the esteemed director.

THE FLYING DAGGER (1969), shot at the same time, isn't as successful. It's still a good movie for fans of the director, but outside of a lot of gory violence, it's just not as memorable as its support feature. Playing out as a run of the mill swordplay picture, if it weren't for an occasional Chang Cheh flourish, there is little to differentiate this one from the dozens of other similar movies flooding the market at the time. Here, Pei Pei is the star who has about as much to do as she did in GOLDEN SWALLOW. It is her actions that set the film in motion. Lo Lieh returns to play another chivalrous knight who aids Yu Ying (Pei Pei) and her family against the vicious Green Dragon Clan who are chasing her out of vengeance for the death of the leaders son. She does get to fight, just not to the extent of Lo Lieh's swaggering bastard of an anti hero, Yang Ching.

The violent opening sequence that sets up the plot of the film

The movie benefits from one of the best and most brutal opening sequences of Chang's career. It's all in black and white and immediately changes to color when blood splashes on the screen during a gore soaked attack on a rival clan by Jiao Lei, the Flying Dagger of the title.

Lo Lieh as the confident and arrogant anti hero

Wong Chi Ching (left), a veteran player of villains who later would appear in dozens of Shaw movies as storekeepers and other minor roles. Wu Ma (right) was in hundreds of movies and an AD of Chang Cheh's. He also had a career as a solo director.

Wong Chi Ching, who played the main villain in THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), is suitably sadistic, but lacks verve as a predominantly knife throwing killer. He has no compunction about butchering women or children. The brutality of the Green Dragon Gang is reminiscent of the sadism meted out by the masked gang in Cheh's later Venom era production, MASKED AVENGERS (1981). Lo Lieh, of course, is highly memorable and imposing as the swordsman and knife thrower Yang Ching. The opening theme song is very good (accompanied by Chinese lyrics) and definitely has a Japanese flavor about it. Fans looking for lots of gore and sword fights will no doubt be entertained.

Ku Feng (right) dies another gory death before going onto an extremely successful career as a character actor winning awards along the way

Lo Lieh as the honorable constable, Tieh Wu Ching in THE INVINCIBLE FIST

In 1969, Cheh shot one of his most proud productions with THE INVINCIBLE FIST (more on the film in part 2 of this series). Again starring Lo Lieh, this production contained elements that, whether intentional, or otherwise, were mindful of the spaghetti westerns that were popular at the time. Mainly with the shots of extreme close ups, sweaty brows and facial stubble, this was a gritty tale of a determined constable, Tieh Wu Ching, the 'Invincible Fist' of the title, out to catch a gang of gold robbers at any cost.

David Chiang (right) had a mega successful career as an actor and also became a good director in his own right

Another actor who appears in a supporting role who would go on to a massive degree of popularity as a leading man was Chiang Ta Wei, alias David Chiang (or, as he's now known, John Chiang). Here, he plays the brother to Tieh Wu Ching, Tieh Er Long. Making a strong showcase here, Chiang was previously a stuntman and had roles as thugs in other films such as the ultra violent THE SWORD OF SWORDS (1968) and wonderful Wuxia swordplay fantasy TWELVE DEADLY COINS (1969). Chiang was also one of the main supporting villains in THE WINGED TIGER in 1970 which featured frequent heavy, Chen Hung Lieh as the hero! Another aspect of this production that is interesting is that it was released after he had already made an impression in films such as THE INVINCIBLE FIST and HAVE SWORD WILL TRAVEL (both 1969).

Lo Lieh and popular 'Baby Queen', Li Ching (right) playing a blind girl

Lo Lieh is extremely impressive in his role as the unwavering constable and Chang Cheh enjoyed shooting the film. He was hopeful it would be a success, but the film failed to capture a lot of interest. With the box office disappointment of both this film and THE FLYING DAGGER, Chang Cheh's run with Lo Lieh was over. The actor would then move on to doing movies with other directors. Meanwhile, Chang Cheh was ready to unleash THE RETURN OF THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1969).

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