The Crimson Charm [血符門] (1971)
Starring Chang Yi, Ivy Ling Po, Shih Szu, Fang Mian, James Nam Gung-Fan, Ku Feng, Wang Hsieh, James Tin Jun, Chow Siu-Loi, Unicorn Chan, Hung Lau, Wong Wai, Lee Ka-Ting, Wong Ching Ho
Directed by Huang Feng
The Crimson Charm starts out innocently enough. A father and daughter stop at an inn for the night and are enjoying a meal when a group of obviously bad individuals come looking for a different father and daughter who have done them wrong. They murder the father they’re looking for and then the leader tries to rape the daughter, and that’s when our first father/daughter duo step in. They can’t stand to see such villainy, and their altercation results in the death of the bandit leader who’s also the son of the chief of the Crimson Charm Gang. The Crimson Charm Chief vows to take revenge and murder the entire Chung Chow Sword School. Seems a bit extreme, but then that’s just how the Crimson Charm Gang rolls. But when the gang comes to take that revenge, they aren’t as thorough as they set out to be. They leave three survivors, and those survivors vow to take revenge on the Crimson Charm gang!
It might sound a little convoluted but it never feels that way during the movie, and for a wuxia film this is one of the more direct plots. The Crimson Charm is very much a transitional film between the complex early wuxias and the simple, paper-thin plots of later kung fu films, and it plays rather well as a combo of both. The film has a nice flow to it, naturally taking us through the chain of revenge before dropping us into the main struggle between the survivors of the massacre and the Crimson Charm Gang.
These survivors each have their own story to tell, and it’s on their backs that the film’s ability to entertain will succeed or fail. For me it was highly enjoyable to watch them prepare in their own ways for their vengeance. Chang Yi trains with an old master, catching birds in mid-air while jumping from rock to rock around a waterfall, or practicing his light footwork so he leaves no footprints in the snow. Shih Szu was poisoned, but she is taken in by Blood Master Ling Wu-Lui who attempts to cure her. Finally we have Ivy Ling Po, who had her left arm sliced off in the massacre and was left for dead. She was cared for by the Grand Master of the clan, and she now seeks revenge under the disguise of Chang Yi’s character. These characters feel like they have a greater depth than simple wuxia characters, and crosscutting between their stories keeps the film moving briskly. You also get a small group of great wuxia nicknames as well, including Godly Sword, White-Faced King of Hades, Blood Granny, and the aforementioned Blood Master. I’ll never get tired of these kinds of names. More movies should have them.
The Crimson Charm was written and directed by Huang Feng, who had previously been an assistant director under Yen Chun (The Iron Buddha, The Jade Faced Assassin) and also a writer for The Golden Knight and The Jade Faced Assassin. The Crimson Charm was his big step up at the Shaw Studio, and I’m sure he could have cranked out fun movies like this for quite some time there. Instead, he defected to Golden Harvest with Lo Wei and others, but this film was most likely made before then because Sammo Hung is still a member of the supporting cast. That and Huang Feng’s first released movie is also the first movie put into production by Golden Harvest (but not the first released), The Angry River. So it’s easy to assume he was gone long before The Crimson Charm was finally released in July of 1971. He would later go on to make a bunch of Angela Mao films at GH, including fan-favorite Hapkido! Perhaps one day I’ll eventually get around to reviewing those.
Anyway, Huang does a great job with his own script, crafting a fun wuxia film that is both engaging and thrilling. The fights aren’t especially great, but they do entertain very well. The end fight is easily the film’s best, with Chang Yi and Ivy Ling Po facing off against “Always Dependable for a Devious Villain” Ku Feng. And The Crimson Charm is especially well-shot, trading deftly in traditional wuxia imagery, fantasy and even a horror-themed scene when the Crimson Charm boys ambush our heroes in an old temple.
For some reason in wuxia films, there’s a lot of girls posing as guys and no one notices that they’re obviously female. I’ve come to accept this, and to expect it, so it rarely causes any viewing hiccups. In The Crimson Charm that acceptance is pushed past the breaking point, though, as two characters that have known each other for years come face to face and the male character doesn’t recognize the female at all. I suppose I shouldn’t care too much, as this fantasy film also has characters running across a lake’s surface and jumping 20 feet into the air, but this non-recognition really bugged me.
Regardless of that, if you enjoy a good wuxia film, The Crimson Charm will definitely entertain well. It’s not anything truly spectacular, but it’s a lot of fun and that should count for something. Definitely check it out Shaw fans.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is The Anonymous Heroes from director Chang Cheh! This one seems to be one of Chang’s lesser known films, so I’m looking forward to hopefully finding a hidden gem.