Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Bells of Death (1968) review

Chang Yi (Chang Wei Fu), Chin Ping (Hsiang Hsiang), Lin Chia (Tso Ching Lung), Tien Sheng (Ye Ying), Ku Feng (Yang Chang), Chao Hsin Yen (Chang Wei Yun), Yang Chi Ching (Elder Swordsman), Wu Ma (Yuan Ke), Sammo Hung (Thug)
Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng
The Short Version: Simply put, THE BELLS OF DEATH is one of the most astonishing and eerily macabre martial arts films from Hong Kong you're ever likely to see. The plot is simplicity, but everything else surrounding it is a buffet of sights and sounds these films were seldom ever afforded. It's not only a fabulous accomplishment of novelist-turned-director Griffin Yueh Feng, but also director of photography Pao Hsueh Li--who would begin a directing career of his own two years later. It's violent, bloody, exceedingly bleak, and highlighted by some of the greatest visages of villainy the genre ever incorporated. Yueh's BELLS herald an eccentric and distinct swordplay film unlike any other.

Wei Fu, a young woodcutter, returns home and finds his family massacred and his sister kidnapped by three bandits he met on the road. Seeking retribution, he runs across an elder swordsman killing multiple foes. Wei Fu follows the old man for miles, begging him to teach him the art of the sword. Taking him as a student, Wei hones his skills and tracks down the men that killed his family and took his sister. Along the way he rescues a young lady sold into prostitution after her father was murdered. She travels alongside her savior, who wears his dead mother's bracelet of copper bells--heralding death upon his family's killers.
THE BELLS OF DEATH or, as it's known in Chinese, THE SOUL-REAPING BELLS, began shooting in January of 1968 under the direction of revered filmmaker, Griffin Yueh Feng. The film was completed approximately one month before its June '68 release. Easily one of the sleekest of all Hong Kong Swordplay thrillers of the industry's Golden Age, director Yueh wanted to go in a different direction from the normal genre outing; he more than surpassed expectations. 
Yueh wanted to go beyond the standard Wuxia sword-clanger and delve into unexplored areas that paid off both audibly and visually. One of these areas was using psychological tension to enhance suspense; at times this approach in BELLS OF DEATH borders on horror. The psychological take comes from the bells of the title; representing tiny bells adorning the bracelet on the wrist of one of Wei's slaughtered family members. Once the villains hear the death jangler in the distance, fear overtakes them. 
This was one of a few ways Yueh wanted to express sword action in a new way. Upon completing RAPE OF THE SWORD (1967) and THE MAGNIFICENT SWORDSMAN (1968; co-directed with Cheng Kang), he took a brief respite before starting work on THE BELLS OF DEATH. This break in the action so to speak, potentially helped in his next movie turning out as good as it did. In what is a thickly atmospheric pseudo-remake of Henry Hathaway's NEVADA SMITH (1966), first-time writer Chiu Kang Chien hits a home-run in his first game out.

Screenwriter Chiu Kang Chien was not prolific like I Kuang or Szeto An, but he penned some of the finest swordplay/martial arts thrillers of all time. His debut work on THE BELLS OF DEATH is among that list. It's also among the short list of Chinese-language martial arts films that deviate from the standard action movie formula in terms of its visual style and the handling of the material by director Yueh Feng. 

Two years after BELLS, whether by his own request or the studios recommendation, writer Chiu Kang Chien was promoted to the directors seat. His first film where he'd be giving actors directions was intended to be 'The Drinking Knight' in 1970. Publicized as a direct sequel to King Hu's COME DRINK WITH ME (1966), it had newcomer Tsung Hua in the title role previously played by Yueh Hua; Chiao Chiao, James Nam and beautiful newcomer Yu Feng were among the cast. 
It's unknown what transpired shortly into the filming, but it's possible Run Run Shaw wasn't satisfied with Chiu's progress or he wasn't moving fast enough; or there could've been other issues involving members of the cast. Actors had obligations to multiple other films, so whatever the reason was, 'The Drinking Knight' under first-time director Chiu Kang Chien was canceled.

The film was then turned over to director of photography Pao Hsueh Li where it was recast and promoted as less of a direct sequel and more of a new adventure with the same or similar characters. The second incarnation of 'The Drinking Knight' was likewise canceled. FINGER OF DOOM (1972) ended up being Pao's directing debut where his skills as a cinematographer were much more evident than his directing abilities. And rarely, if ever, did Pao match his skill levels with the camerawork he designed for THE BELLS OF DEATH...
The visuals and photographic style is another way Yueh's BELLS is a landmark in swordplay cinema. Pao's camerawork captures a bleak landscape rife with intense rain, fog, thunder and lightning. One of the best examples is the lighting effects during the duel with the second of three killers, Ye Ying played by Tien Sheng (or Tien Chun). Instead of a typical sword duel, Ye offers a suggestion they test their mettle by balancing a chunk of a lit candle on their blades; the one who loses the candle loses the fight.

Actor Tien Sheng already had a big nose, but the script called for an even more pronounced proboscis. Something else the filmmakers gave Tien's character was a bizarre muscle twitch; moving his head to the left and to the right when he becomes startled or prepares to kill a victim. Ye Ying is undoubtedly one of martial arts cinema's most memorable bad guys.

The leader of the gang, Tso Ching Lung, played by actor Lin Chiao, has a stylized look to his character as well. On the left side of his face is a burn that has seared his ear off. His weapon of choice is an enormous bow but he also uses a sword as well. Lin Chiao is yet another great face for villainy and adding an appliance to simulate a burn and a missing ear gives Tso Ching Lung additional character.

Rounding out this terrible trio is Ku Feng as Yang Chang, an erratic bald-headed murderer who is the first to encounter Wei Fu. This first duel is another beautifully grim set piece taking place at night inside a bamboo forest. Ku Feng, of course, is one of the most recognizable faces in HK cinema and has played countless memorable characters in his lengthy and prolific career.

The actor playing Wei Fu, Chang Yi, hadn't been in the business long. His first movie THE THUNDERING SWORD (1967) garnered him good notices. Expectations were high for THE BELLS OF DEATH since it was a different type of action film for him. 
Much like the actors playing the villains, Chang Yi had a great face for playing heroic figures. Later in his career, he would switch to playing lead bad guys. Early on, though, he became dissatisfied with the direction of his career and pay at Shaw Brothers. Instead of seeing his contract through to the end, he decided to follow Wang Yu and break it--becoming what the media dubbed "Rebel Actor #2"

THE BELLS OF DEATH is arguably Chang's best Shaw production, and one of his best in his career. His stay at Golden Harvest was a brief one before moving on to independent work, trying his hand at directing as many of his fellow actors were doing at the time. Chang Yi was said to have been a stubborn man, doing things the way he wanted. He preferred dressing casually as opposed to looking the part of an actor in the film business; and resisted prodding to switch from costume pictures to modern day movies. It would seem the characters he played were close to his own personality.

Chin Ping was a much bigger draw than Chang Yi was. Her star as an action heroine was rising so it was a surprise seeing her playing a more timid feminine role. She was just as proficient in love stories so this kind of role wasn't a stretch for her, but definitely unusual during a time when she was already popular at essaying swordswomen parts in Wuxia pictures. 

Going back to the production side of things, there's another area where BELLS rings louder than the competition and that's in the film's use of sound effects. Noises such as the sound of water being splashed, wood being chopped, footsteps... the use of these are amplified in some cases giving the film an avant-garde effect. It's unlike any swordplay picture of its time, and stands out 55 years after its theatrical release. 

The action design is standard, and often rough around the edges. It's not slow by any means, just that it frequently looks very natural on top of visualizing a heavy Japanese influence. 
There's no credited MA choreographer (the same thing occurred on Ho Meng Hua's KILLER DARTS from the same year), but Sammo Hung has a small part as a background thug who, early in the movie, is seen pulling leaves off his face after Wei Fu uses his inner power to use harmless leaves from a nearby tree as a deadly weapon (see insert; Sammo at far left).
Sammo would begin his action director phase that year so it's possibly he worked in that area for Yueh's film, but not enough to garner a credit (you can see him when he was thin in the image above). There are a number of sword fights, but many of them we don't see or only involve a single strike.

Director Yueh Feng was an incredible talent who had already been making movies for some 30 years when he made this film. The last five years of his directing career is what he's most recognized for due to the unavailability of his earlier works. His star power as an award-winning filmmaker was key to his being given the opportunity to work with new firebrands, Chang Cheh and Cheng Kang when Run Run Shaw announced the impending shooting of TRILOGY  OF SWORDSMANSHIP in October of 1970 after a reporter suggested an anthology at a press conference.

Director Yueh's last couple of years were troubled waters for him as he struggled to finish projects (he's credited on the TRILOGY poster but not the film itself) and get others off the ground such as a 1970 version of DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER. He did earn accolades one final time in 1969 with the opera comedy THE THREE SMILES starring Ivy Ling Po and Li Ching. He would vacate the studio in January of 1972 after Run Run Shaw refused to allow him to direct a Ma Su Chen movie while Chang Cheh was finishing up THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). By 1973, he was retired. THE BELLS OF DEATH was his last great martial arts picture.

There are so many areas of THE BELLS OF DEATH that make for an incredible presentation. From the visuals, the sound design, the characters, the writing, the directing... all of these combine to turn a basic revenge plot into something uniquely special. 

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory 11-disc Shaw Brothers Collection Volume 1 blu-ray box set. Specs and extras: 1080p anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1; commentary with Eastern Kicks James Mudge; Celestial trailer; running time: 01:28:22.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Killer Darts (1968) review

Chin Ping (Jin Yu Sien), Yueh Hua (Liu Yu Long), Fang Mian (Liu Wen Lung), Shen Yi (Lin Heung Kam), Peng Peng (Ah Fu), Chang Pei Shan (Hu Chi Feng), Ma Hong Sin (Chu Chao)
Directed by Ho Meng Hua
The Short Version: KILLER DARTS is one of Ho Meng Hua's lesser known films outside of Asia; a surprisingly dramatic, and character-varied swordplay-romantic-thriller. Occasionally bloody, it doesn't drench its cast in crimson as many others did at that time. Instead, screenwriter Du Yun Zhi (Tu Yun Chih) creates a wild world of swordsmen and swordswomen with unique abilities and a variety of projectile weapons including the "Soul-Chasing Darts" of the film's Chinese title. It's an engaging Swordplay feature with occasionally stunning photography and a healthy dose of tracking shots that pull the viewer into the scene. However, the complex plot woven around a typical revenge narrative is far too big for its 87 minute duration; and may not appeal to those seeking an emphasis on Chang Cheh-levels of violence.
Swordsman Liu Wen Lung returns home to find his village being razed by bandit chief Chu Chao and his gang. Liu's wife is killed in the fray--leaving Liu to raise their son along with his faithful servant Ah Fu. Not long afterward, Liu's student, Hu Chi Feng, rapes and murders a young mother using his teachers secret dart weapon. Before dying, the woman tells her little daughter, Jin Yu Sien, that her killer used a lethal projectile and to find her murderer. Master Liu takes the girl and raises her as a foster child. Ten years later, love blooms between Liu's son and Jin but their vendettas take a fateful turn once the bandit chief Chu Chao returns to settle a score with Liu Wen Lung.

Director Ho Meng Hua was riding high in 1968 with one accomplishment after the other. He'd received recognition for his imaginative and innovative quartet of JOURNEY TO THE WEST fantasy movies; following those with the surprising critical acclaim for his drama, SUSANNA (1967)--that film winning Best Picture among a reported total of 12 awards at the 14th Annual Asian Film Festival held in Japan in October of 1967. Chang Cheh's ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN won high praise but it was Ho Meng Hua's shining moment. 
After the success of SUSANNA, director Ho then moved into doing Wuxia adventures. His swordplay pictures were different from Chang Cheh's in that they often dealt with familial tragedy or a clan dispute as opposed to the travails of devout swordsmen and blood brotherhood. Director Ho did nine swordplays between 1967-1971, one of them--THE GOLDEN LION--wasn't completed and released till 1975. If you're looking for something more violent and bloody, then Ho's  AMBUSH (filming began in 1971 but it wasn't released till 1973) would be more in that vein.

The year 1968 was a huge year for Swordplay pictures, and KILLER DARTS was Ho Meng Hua's next movie--followed by THE JADE RAKSHA and VENGEANCE IS A GOLDEN BLADE. Since ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN grossed over HK$1.2 million (some Chinese sources list the gross at HK$1.5 million), the then new wave of sword-swinging heroes and heroines rejuvenated the genre style. The Shaw Brothers compensated by adding a Swordplay division to their Nanguo Experimental Theater Troupe; this was an actor training course that was greatly expanded upon when the Shaw's founded their Actor's Training Academy for Film and Television in 1971.
Filming on KILLER DARTS began in September of 1967. Ho's take on Wuxia would be very different from Chang Cheh, who had redefined the genre. To compare the styles with American filmmakers, you could say Ho was more John Ford than Chang's Sam Peckinpah.

Screenwriter Du Yun Zhi fashions a typically complex story with diametrically opposing moods. You have a love triangle between Chin Ping, Yueh Hua and Shen Yi; and familial clashes between Chin Ping, her adoptive father played by Fang Mian and his treacherous pupil played by Chang Pei Shan (at left in insert)--one of the great villain character actors who also was Chen Kuan Tai's dubber during his first few years at the studio. 
Originally, Du's script went deeper into Chin Ping's loneliness--having her uncover her dead father's martial arts manual that detailed a devastating palm technique. This part of the script was either dropped or cut from the release version. What remains is Fang Mian discussing her Inner Strength training; and a scene where an angry Chin Ping knocks down a few trees with a single palm strike.
The action scenes aren't as varied as the weapons the myriad number of characters possess. The title projectile is more than just a weapon--it's an important plot point that is the main focus of the movie. It is certainly a "Soul-chasing Dart" as the film's Chinese title specifies. Once the skin is pierced by the weapon, your exit from Earth is only seconds away.
There are other dart-like weapons scattered about the script, including one that is fired from a metallic appendage worn by the main villain after his arm is cut off near the beginning. There are even mystical powers where one character uses inner force to control objects in mid-air. 
Going back to the action, there's not a credited martial arts director. The reasoning is unknown; although one could surmise that since the Shaw's would produce a staggering 45 movies in 1968, there weren't enough action designers on the payroll to go around--leaving the work to the actors and background players.
The action design is largely standard but enhanced by periodic optical effects, wires, and in-camera trickery. One such scene is a wide-angle shot where Chin Ping practices with the title death darts using cups as targets. 

Actress Chin Ping was one of the biggest names in HK at that time. She would regularly switch between dramas and action pictures during her brief seven-year acting career. She'd just finished Lo Chen's drama THE RAINBOW (1968) when she began working on two swordplay pictures, THE BELLS OF DEATH for director Griffin Yueh Feng and KILLER DARTS--both films not only have two opposing atmospheres but Chin's roles are totally different between them. She's a meek and delicate young lady in the former and an emotionally-torn martial artist seeking revenge in the latter.

Miss Chin gets the chance to both act and do action here. It's a different sort of role than normally written for these movies. She's raised to avenge her family then deceived into believing her master is the killer she seeks. It's one of a few sword-opera styled twists in Ho Meng Hua's movie.
To gauge her popularity, Chin Ping was voted the #2 most popular swordswoman in a newspaper contest in 1969. She would retire from the industry in December of that year to get married. Her last action picture was the top 10 hit THE TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS (1970). She was also working on Ho Meng Hua's THE BLACK ENFORCER in 1969. Due to her retirement, all her footage had to be re-shot with a new leading lady; that turned out to be newcomer, the gorgeous Wang Ping. Chin was also the co-star in Ho's 'The Golden Mace'--a movie that was never finished, but may have morphed into Ho's VENGEANCE IS A GOLDEN BLADE (1969); another swordplay featuring Chin and Yueh Hua again. 
Possibly due to her short run, Chin Ping seldom gets mentioned these days among fans but she was certainly an important actress in 1960s Hong Kong cinema. Sadly, she died from cancer on September 6th, 2017 at the age of 68.

Yueh Hua is one of the genres finest actors; and a mainstay of the industry's Golden Age. Along with classmate Chin Ping, Yueh Hua was a graduate of the Nanguo Experimental Theater Troupe alongside Swordswoman Supreme Cheng Pei Pei. Arguably his most celebrated role was as the Drunken Knight in King Hu's COME DRINK WITH ME (1966). He'd actually been tapped to reprise the role in the second attempt at a loose sequel titled 'The Drinking Knight' under the direction of Pao Hsueh Li in 1971. The film was never completed.
The character he plays in KILLER DARTS is the object of two women's affections; those being Chin Ping and Shen Yi. The latter lady was one of Shaw's sexy actresses--frequently playing concubines and other aggressive, or alluring personality types. The love triangle involving her, Yueh and Chin's characters isn't as interesting as the other angle dealing with Chin Ping's private vendetta, although both plots are woven together by the end.
Miss Shen would request her release from her contract in 1970 presumably due to a long stretch where she wasn't working. She was said to have been a consummate actress who never complained and did everything asked of her. She ended her career in 1976 after two final appearances in back-to-back 'Women In Prison' pictures, GIRLS IN THE TIGER CAGE and REVENGE IN THE TIGER CAGE, both released to theaters simultaneously.

The sword pictures made by director Ho are quite good and have long been overshadowed by his more globally well-known works THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975), BLACK MAGIC (1975), and THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977). The first ten years of his career entails his best directing work. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE was his last truly great motion picture. The final five years of his career is dominated by exploitation movies and low-grade martial arts films. THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN is a unique title on his resume in that it was one of the most expensive Shaw Brothers productions, if not the most expensive. It's a great film, but mostly from an entertainment perspective. 
As for KILLER DARTS (the English title on the poster as 'KILLER DART' is in an unusually large font while the onscreen title adds an 's'), the film's script is quite good, but also the area where the movie falters to a degree. There's so many vendettas and dramatic arcs that the most important one isn't explored enough; that being where Chin Ping's character is deceived into believing the man that raised her is her mother's killer.
Another area is Chu Chao's return, bringing a slew of cutthroats back with him. The menagerie of malcontents appear to be loosely based on characters from Shi Nai'an's famous novel, 'Outlaws of the Marsh'. Among them are actors Ku Feng, Dean Shek, Liu Kang, Han Ying Chieh and Wei Ping Ao. None of them figure heavily in the final fight at all; whether due to time or footage was edited out for pacing.

The film has so much going for it you may not even notice the minor shortcomings. One thing you will notice is how the colors pop off the screen in this blu-ray presentation, part of an 11-film set in Shout's Shaw Brothers Collection Volume 1. The picture quality is nothing short of amazing.

The late filmmaker's earlier works like KILLER DARTS need more exposure and hopefully greater appreciation from martial arts film fans. They're surprisingly classy pictures next to what the director would be doing in the last half of the 1970s. If you enjoy 1940s swashbucklers with the likes of Errol Flynn, you'll possibly find enjoyment in these Chinese-language variants, but with more blood and melodrama.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory blu-ray, part of their 11-film set, Shaw Brothers Collection Volume 1. Specs and extras: 1080p anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1; commentary with Eastern Kicks James Mudge; Celestial trailer; running time: 01:27:50.

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