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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.

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