Friday, May 20, 2016

The Devil's Mirror (1972) review


Shu Pei Pei (Bai Hsiao Feng), Liu Tan (Wen Jian Feng), Li Chia Chien (Jiu Shuan Witch), Wang Hsieh (Chief Bai Tien Hsiung), Tung Lin (Leng Yun), Cheng Miao (Chief Wen), Yang Tse Lin (Tu Yuan)

Directed by Sun Chung

The Short Version: Taking over from another director, Sun Chung's first for the mighty Shaw Brothers looks nothing like his later classics bearing his unmistakable style, but is a fitfully fun, fight-filled sword clanger packed with betrayals and spurting blood. It's a simplistic plot moderately sabotaged by a messy script; but you won't notice much confusion what with the three-eyed, sex-obsessed witch woman leading an army of mindless disciples in fright wigs to obtain two powerful weapons--the only means of busting into a mountain tomb of gold to lay her hands on two other weapons that promise even more ultimate power. Secret passageways, fire pits, and Corpse Worm Pills that turn your face into a huge scab are among the elaborate concoctions you'll find in this movie from the director of the classic AVENGING EAGLE (1978).

The Golden Lions Clan calls a conference with all the martial arts factions in Taishan to discuss the disappearance of various reputable swordsmen and the emergence of the evil Jiu Shuan Witch, head of the Bloody Ghoul Clan. She devises a plot to set two righteous factions against the other in an effort to get her hands on two powerful weapons--the Wind and Thunder Magic Mirrors. By bringing them together, she will be able to enter the tomb of Emperor Wu, a mountainous vault made of gold. Housing the fabled Fish Intestine sword and the Thousand Year Ganoderma, the three-eyed, nymphomaniacal Witch Woman will gain both invincibility and immortality once the two items are in her devilish hands. After the fighting clans are decimated, it comes down to a young swordsman and swordswoman to stop the Witch from taking control of the Martial World.

With the advent of CGI Wuxia movies have been the perfect sub-genre in HK action cinema to take advantage of its use. Back in the 70s, there was no computer technology to eliminate pesky wires (ironically, they were more visible in the later flying films of the 90s) and enhanced special effects. Everything was done live on set or with simple in-camera trickery and opticals. 1972 was a big year for the Shaw Brothers with such big budget and classy projects like THE 14 AMAZONS and WATER MARGIN in production. Among the some 40 odd movies they had on their slate that year, one of the more uniquely ingenious was Sun Chung's THE DEVIL'S MIRROR--a low budget movie with big ideas. 

Sun Chung entered the renowned halls of the Shaw Brothers Studio in 1970. He toiled on various projects like the sex comedy THE SUGAR DADDIES (1973); THE CHEEKY LITTLE ANGELS (1974), a Chinese version of THE PARENT TRAP (1961); and formula action pictures like THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972), his first movie for the company. While it was the typical 'clan vs. clan' scenario, Sun's Shaw debut had some things in its ambitious script that set it apart from most others....

Marketed as a "swordplay with a difference", it was truly that with its sex-crazed female villain bearing a third eye in her forehead commanding an army of automatons in red and white fright wigs. Delighting in capturing various martial artists, the Witch force-feeds them 'Corpse Worm Pills' that eats away their faces; she promises them antidote so long as they do her bidding--which often involves slaughtering their own clan members for her insidious purposes. This comes into play when the tri-eyed sexpot sets her sights on obtaining two magic mirror weapons--the Thunder and Wind Mirrors. One is in the hands of Golden Lion Chief Wen; the other with the one-legged Chief Bai. Using them together creates massive cosmic rays that will allow access into Emperor Wu's tomb where lies two more instruments of power--a sword and herb that grant invincibility and immortality respectively. Unfortunately, one of the areas where the film falters is in its title weapon(s).

A lot of emphasis is placed on the magic mirrors although they don't come into play till the end; and their use is short-lived. With the substantial buildup to see them in action it's a bit disappointing they're disposed of so quickly. Further, the script is a bit of a mess in places (possibly due to the change in cast and crew shortly after the filming was stopped--more on that later); including an implausible plot device for a crippled character that serves mainly as an excuse for another shot of gore. Still, there's so much garishly over the top entertainment value it's difficult to hold the fast-paced film accountable for its missteps. 

Aside from the wanton nuttiness and veritable Tsunami of creative ideas kung fu-ing the screen at any given minute, there's an enormous amount of red being splashed around; and in some cases, erupting all over the cast and intricate sets. Dozens of extras are felled in a single shot, heads roll and torsos are run through with abandon... and hundreds of condoms filled with Shaw's trademark blood are exploded at regular intervals. 

This being a Wuxia movie, the characters possess superhuman abilities; the prerequisite being flying and leaping over tall buildings in a single bound. The wirework is plentiful and varied as is the creatively gruesome action choreographed by Tsu Sung Ho and Hsu Erh Niu. Outside of their independent work, both men worked together on a few other Shaw Brothers pictures like the Grand Guignol splatter sword-fest THE BLACK TAVERN (1972), a quasi-sequel to THE LADY HERMIT (1971).

Comparing this early effort with popular entries on Sun's resume like AVENGING EAGLE (1978), THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979), and HUMAN LANTERNS (1982), you'll notice a difference in style. With the exception of guys like Chang Cheh and Liu Chia Liang, most directors working at Shaw Brothers had to do formula flicks before being allowed more flexibility. It would be several more years before Sun solidified his signature style--two examples being his use of editing and slow motion; glimpses of it can be seen in THE DEVIL'S MIRROR--such as his predilection for putting his cast within the wide expanse of the locations. However, Sun Chung wasn't the initial director on this motion picture....

The problematic production began as early as October of 1970 with director Shen Chiang at the helm and I Kuang as scriptwriter. Director Shen was fairly new at Shaw's having directed SWORDSWOMEN THREE (1970) and THE WINGED TIGER (1970) for them. For THE DEVIL'S MIRROR, Shen went through several casting choices for the lead actress before settling on Shih Szu. Pairing her with Lo Lieh, Shen was, at that time, directing them on another picture--the light-hearted, but excessively gory swordplay, THE RESCUE (1971). Before Shih Szu came aboard, Helen Ma (THE SILVER FOX [1968]) was cast, but she was swapped out with Karen Yip (THE 14 AMAZONS [1972]), who was then replaced by Chin Ling (THE SECRET OF THE DIRK [1970]).

Shen Chiang had already done location scouting in Korea when the project was ultimately put on hold and Shen was forced to reshoot most of his footage on CALL TO ARMS (1973), another picture he was working on at that time. Originally starring Chang Yi, the actor abruptly left the studio in late October for Golden Harvest. The female co-star, Hsia Fan, left for Taiwan, but Shaw's was able to get her to return to finish the movie. Shaw newcomer, former Cathay actor, Chang Pin (Chang Chen-wu), was to replace Chang Yi.

When Sun Chung joined Shaw Brothers he was given the assignment of taking over THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972) in the early months of 1971. He recast the entire production save for Tung Lin. Both Shih Szu and Lo Lieh were out, as was other cast members like Chin Chi Chu (KING BOXER [1972]); who, judging by his costume in photos from the time, might have played a role similar to either Wang Hsieh or Cheng Miao. Both Shih Szu and Lo Lieh worked with Shen Chiang (who would leave Shaw's in 1973) on 1973s HEROES OF SUNG (then called 'The Dragon & Tiger Meet') and LADY OF THE LAW (1975) at this time, as well as their own solo efforts in THE BLACK TAVERN (1972) and KING BOXER (1972) respectively. 

Replacing those two superstars was Silver Screen swordswoman Shu Pei Pei and a new Shaw Brothers actor from Cathay, Liu Tan (both pictured above). A new writer was brought aboard, too--Chiang Yang, the scribe on the massive international hit, KING BOXER, alias FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH; as well as the rare Kuei Chi Hung Fantasy THE GOURD FAIRY (1972); and B level bloodletters like AMBUSH (1973) and THE GOLDEN LION (1975) by Ho Meng Hua.

Like everybody in HK at that time, Shu Pei Pei was a multi-tasker, working on other movies when she was assigned to THE DEVIL'S MIRROR; films like the unusual THE IMPERIAL SWORDSMAN (1972), the star-studded THE 14 AMAZONS (1972), and VILLAGE OF TIGERS (1974). A dancer, her graceful movements were ideal for swordplay pictures. She did nearly two dozen films, most of them action pictures, between 1966 and 1973 before she left the industry. 

Liu Tan was a bit more prolific, appearing in some of Chang Cheh's big epics of the day like THE WATER MARGIN (1972) and its direct sequel, ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1975). Some of his modern day affairs included Kuei Chi Hung's incredible PAYMENT IN BLOOD (1973), Cheng Kang's box office smash KIDNAP (1974), Chang Tseng Chai's decent time-waster QUEEN HUSTLER (1975), and a minor role in the Chang Cheh-Sun Chung co-directed THE BLOODY ESCAPE (1975).

This was Li Chia Chien's first of three films for Shaw Brothers studio--the others being the amazing Eastern Western THE FUGITIVE (1972) and Shen Chiang's HEROES OF SUNG (1973). As The Witch, she's appropriately excessive for the material. Caked in makeup and constantly cackling when she isn't trying to bed down men she wants and killing those she doesn't, the supernatural Witch Bitch is one of the film's memorably over the top aspects. Later in her career, Ms. Li found fame on the small screen with cooking shows and other business endeavors.

For an inaugural work, Sun Chung shows an incredible amount of energy, employing some innovative shots and little nuances that, despite the familiar plot, is a refreshing 90 minutes of blood-spattered swordplay. The efforts of he and his crew went unnoticed in Hong Kong this time out, but since the pictures release on DVD in 2006 all its colorful gaudiness, scripting snafus and delightful absurdities can be appreciated by a new audience.

This review is representative of the R3 IVL HK DVD. Specs and Extras: anamorphic 2.35: widescreen; color stills; biography-selected filmographies; running time: 01:26:14
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