Six Assassins [六刺客] (1971)
Starring Ling Yun, Ha Faan, James Nam Gung-Fan, Go Ming, Lily Li Li-Li, Siu Wa, Tong Tin-Hei, Chai No, Cheung Ging-Boh, Yau Lung, Yun Il-Bong, Chan Shen, Hung Sing-Chung, Suen Lam, Chen Feng-Chen, Fang Mian
Directed by Cheng Chang Ho
Expectations: Moderate. Cheng Chang Ho’s last movie was pretty fun.
Before I start watching one of these Shaw films that I know nothing about, I will usually watch a few seconds here and there throughout the movie to give myself an idea of what I’m about to sit through. It might seem like an odd practice, but I’ve found that doing this allows me to get a handle on my expectations, allowing me to take in the film without the high hopes that the fun titles might inspire. For Six Assassins it worked beautifully, because when I did this I saw deep, saturated colors and a lot of grand sets and costumes. This instantly reminded me of the Shaw Brothers films from the 1960s, and my expectations for the film plummeted. So when I watched the movie and I found out that it was actually really fun and not like those movies at all, I was even more enthusiastic about watching it than I would’ve been normally.
Six Assassins takes a little while to get going, as it throws a lot of dense storytelling at you immediately after the opening credits. But it boils down to this: the emperor’s brother is a royal asshole. He kills the lord of a peaceful part of the country, hoping to annex the lands and thus control the people who live there. But those people don’t take too kindly to that, so they enlist the help of the famed swordsman Mu Jun-Jie (Ling Yun). Mu drafts a small group of assassins to help him in his goal, and thus the tale of Six Assassins takes its shape.
Now if that story seems somewhat familiar, it’s because it is! My initial thought was that this was a Chinese version of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 classic The Thirteen Assassins, but some digging revealed that it is actually a retelling of Kudo’s later film Eleven Samurai. Both of Kudo’s films share a similar plot as they are two films of a trilogy, but Eleven Samurai features a revenge-driven plot while The Thirteen Assassins is more of a preemptive strike against a royal asshole. So perhaps it’s a combo of the two! I honestly haven’t seen either of the Kudo films (I’ve just seen the Miike remake, 13 Assassins), so I’m not the best judge of this, but I do know that some “inspiration” was definitely taken from Kudo’s films to create this one.
But before you start thinking that Six Assassins feels more Japanese in tone, or that it’s a recycled waste of your time, know that this is a Chinese wuxia film through and through, and that it’s incredibly entertaining. The simple amount of supernatural wuxia thrills thrown at the viewer is immense and incredibly well-realized. I’ve often said that during these early years Ho Meng-Hua was the best director for wuxia camerawork, but Cheng Chang Ho really proved himself a worthy competitor here. Characters perform all sorts of unbelievable feats, and it’s a joy to behold.
While moving wuxia filmmaking forward, Six Assassins also takes a few tricks out of the old-school book. As I mentioned above, it features the wonderfully rich look of those early films, but here it feels like a stylistic choice and not just “the way we always do it.” This gives it a deliberate quality that makes it charming and interesting, as we can actively see the old style of the ’60s married with the more action-focused camerawork of the early ’70s. There’s also a song that introduces our main character, and while I’d normally call songs a strike against a martial arts film, here it works rather well to again play ’60s ideals against the evolved martial arts films of the early ’70s. It’s kind of like the history of the wuxia genre in one movie!
The fights range from adequately choreographed to expertly done, but regardless of the choreography they’re all wonderfully staged and full of life. As the film progresses the fights get better in quality, with the final battle that closes the film being an absolute wuxia tour de force. There’s no record of who actually did the choreography work on this film, but the presence of Sammo Hung in a very small background role suggests that he might have had a hand in it. But really, it’s a mystery and it’s probably someone else doing the work as Lau Kar-Wing seemed to have choreographed most of Cheng Chang Ho’s Shaw Brothers films. It’s always amazing to me when something like this is unknown.
The romantic sub-plot seems a little forced, but it ends remarkably well and leads the film into its truly thrilling third act, so I guess I can’t complain too much. Besides, Six Assassins is only 79 minutes, so it’s pretty lean as is. My other real complaint is that the six assassins aren’t clearly defined enough, with most of them not much of characters other than “the guy in orange” or “the dude with the dynamite.” This isn’t too much of a problem because it’s so entertaining, but I think this really holds the film back from being excellent and truly memorable.
Six Assassins was a pleasant surprise. It’s not especially great, but it is quick-paced and highly entertaining. It’s also incredibly well-shot, and is easily the best Cheng Chang Ho film I’ve seen yet. Over the course of three films at the Shaw Studios, he quickly learned what worked and what didn’t, and I can’t wait to check out his next film (in a few weeks) The Swift Knight.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Yen Chun’s The Jade Faced Assassin! Again, I know nothing at all about that movie, so hopefully it’s a good one! And like the Full Moon series, this will be in two weeks instead of the usual one week. Sorry!