Valley of the Fangs [餓狼谷] (1970)
Starring Li Ching, Lo Lieh, Chan Leung, Wang Kuang-Yu, Cheng Lui, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Wang Hsieh, Chen Yan-Yan, Tung Li, Lee Pang-Fei, Shi Xiu, Kim Chil-Seong
Directed by Cheng Chang Ho
Expectations: Moderate. Hopefully I like it better than Heads for Sale.
Another week, another moderately enjoyable Shaw Brothers wuxia film! The light at the end of the tunnel is brighter than it ever has been before, but these old school wuxia films are still really sapping my energies. Valley of the Fangs isn’t so much a bad film as it is one that’s not all that unique. As all of these Shaw Brothers films are essentially shot in the same locations and on the same sets, they have the tendency to run together. And when the direction isn’t all that interesting, they really run together, so in a few days I will have a hard time distinguishing my memories of Valley of the Fangs from the sea of films that came before it.
But I don’t want to be too harsh. Valley of the Fangs is better than I’m giving it credit for, and while it’s not pure fun like The Winged Tiger, it does have enough to keep you entertained. There’s a world of difference between keeping you entertained and actually exciting, though, so I can’t help but be a little disappointed with this spectacularly titled film. And — spoiler alert — there’s not really any fangs to be found in the valley.
The setup here is another simple one: the prime minister is up to some devious plans and only the child emperor’s teacher suspects anything. So the prime minister throws the teacher in jail and it’s up to his wife and daughter (with the help of their cousin and Lo Lieh) to bring his Iron Shield of Pardon, which is actually just a small token and nothing like the name makes it sound. It’s basically a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, and since the prime minister wants to keep on keepin’ on with the evil deeds, he has the imperial guards hunt down the teacher’s wife and daughter to steal the Iron Shield from them. It’s important to note that most of that happens before the film starts, and if you would like to see that prime minister handed his ass then you’ll be sorely disappointed because he never shows up after the brief intro. Oh, and the promise of a wife and daughter duo kicking ass? It also never pays off. Seems to be a running theme with this one.
Even though the daughter is played by Li Ching — no stranger to fights in these films — she is confined to the role of a helpless damsel outside of a short moment when she unexpectedly bashes an enemy from behind with a block of wood. It’s a shame, but a sign of the changing times as the genre moves firmly into the male-led era. I prefer that type of film, but this one could have benefited from an ass-kicking lady… especially one that was fighting for the honor of her father. That wasn’t meant to be, so instead we get Li and her mom stealthily making their way to the capital by posing as street musicians and hiding the shield in their pipa. This, of course, leads to a few songs, which completely derail the film from its trajectory. The songs themselves are fine, and Li Ching’s singing is especially nice, but they do nothing for the movie.
In comparison to Cheng Chang Ho’s previous film Heads for Sale, Valley of the Fangs is far more successful. This is thanks in part to Lo Lieh, but I’d chalk it up mostly to the superior fight choreography from Lau Kar-Wing, brother of Lau Kar-Leung. His work here is nothing terribly amazing, but it elevates the film beyond mediocrity and helps to keep the fun level as high as it can. As the film continues, the fights get more elaborate and impressive, with one sprawling battle at the Valley of the Fangs mining camp that’s pretty exciting (before it stops on a dime for no real reason that I could understand). But the final duo of fights are where it’s at, although even these exciting, impressive battles are only average in the grand scheme of the martial arts film.
Valley of the Fangs is also yet another wuxia story ripped from what feels like a larger narrative. It works well enough as a standalone story, but it feels shallow. I know, I know, it’s a wuxia film and so it’s just supposed to be fun with flying people. It’s definitely that, but I found even those elements lacking, and I know Cheng Chang Ho can do better. In any case, it’s a definite improvement over Heads for Sale, so I have faith that the other two films he made before blasting open the US market with King Boxer (AKA Five Fingers of Death) will be even better.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Hsu Cheng Hung’s The Secret of the Dirk! Hopefully the secret is worth learning about!