Mission Impossible [劍女幽魂] (1971)
Starring Ching Li, Chen Hung-Lieh, Chiang Nan, O Yau-Man, Su Chen-Ping, Ma Kei, Yee Yuen, Ngai So, Tsai Hung, Yuen Sam, Law Bun, Lui Jun
Directed by Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong
Mission Impossible is a rare Shaw Brothers film. When Celestial Pictures acquired the rights to the Shaw catalog and they undertook the massive project of remastering and re-releasing the films to DVD, there were a number of movies that somehow slipped through the cracks. Perhaps prints were lost or some such unavoidable circumstances occurred. Some films were remastered but never transitioned to DVD for unexplained reasons, only appearing on the Singapore-only Zii Eagle set-top box that contains hundreds of Shaw films. Mission Impossible is one of those slip-through-the-cracks, unremastered movies, so the print is pretty bad. Not the worst I’ve seen, but still a huge step down from what I’ve become accustomed to while making my way through the catalog. I’ve definitely become spoiled.
But sometimes it’s good to revisit your roots, so I actually kind of enjoyed watching Mission Impossible in its damaged form that reminded me of how most Shaw films used to look before Celestial took over. They were neglected, dingy prints that were incredibly hard to come by in the US (exacerbated by the fact that the Internet was in its infancy and I was still a teenager with limited resources). But there is a special charm to watching old, faded prints. Are the dark, shadowy visuals just the print, or was the cinematography specifically designed to achieve this look? The fun of a bad print is that it is up to you to deduce the filmmaker’s intent from the context clues. Definitely not a task that everyone will get a kick out of, though.
While initially telling a confusing and convoluted story (thanks in part to the horribly translated subs that were only about 75% visible), Mission Impossible is basically a very straightforward tale. The Golden Dragon sword has been stolen, and this is not a good thing for the land. The sword has magical powers and must not fall into enemy hands. Through some quick dialogue we learn the culprit, and that an old hero has taken possession of the sword. Soon after, the sword is entrusted to the hero’s daughter and her mission is to transport the sword back to its place at the palace. Which is kind of impossible, as every devious villain and crazy bandit in the land is out on the hunt for the sword, ambushing our hero Miss Fog (Ching Li) relentlessly.
And when I say relentlessly, I mean it. The assault on Miss Fog is constant. They titled the film perfectly because it seems absolutely impossible for a single person to make it through the gauntlet of opponents that Miss Fog must contend with, even considering that wuxia heroes can generally lay waste to all comers. These plentiful fights are rather well-done, too, creating a good, rollicking action film once it gets going. The fights aren’t all simple road encounters either, with one fight occurring on a boat at night and another at the base of a huge cliff (perhaps the same cliff seen in Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong’s later 1971 film The Mighty One) where Miss Fog shows off her jumping skill by jumping from one attacker’s shoulders to the next. The villains are a varied group too, pulling a lot of supernatural elements into the mix, with most of them also featuring fantastic wuxia names such as the Five Monsters of May Hill, Earth’s Nemesis, Fast Runner, Ghost Chief and Hades Gatekeeper.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Mission Impossible is contained in the final 30 minutes. Most of the narrative has already been wrapped up at this point, so it seemed odd that there was still so much time remaining. A good chunk of it, like any Shaw Brothers martial arts film, is devoted to finally vanquishing the leader of the villains. But the methods used here are unique and impressive. I’ve seen a lot of villains run-through with a sword, or taken down with a lengthy struggle of physical strength and agility. Never once have I seen a martial arts film end with the villain being beaten down and mercilessly defeated through psychological means, and it’s pretty damn entertaining to watch. The film transcends martial arts and becomes something of a romantic costume horror film for its final act, and it is this facet that makes the film notable. It would greatly benefit from Celestial’s remastering too, so it’s a real shame that this one will most likely never receive that treatment.
Mission Impossible is ultimately one for the hardcore Shaw fans, though, mostly because of the quality of the print available but also because there are many other better films out there for the more casual fan. But if you are a fan that’s in too deep, and you enjoy a dollop of supernatural horror in your wuxia, definitely give this one a spin.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: there’s one more rare 1971 movie to do before I close out this phase of the Shaw series and post another Top 10 list, and it’s Shadow Girl from director San Kei! See ya next week!