The Black Enforcer [黑靈官] (1972)
Starring Tang Ching, Tien Feng, Fong Yan-Ji, Wang Ping, Chiu Hung, Cliff Lok, Yee Kwan, Tung Li, Wong Ching-Wan, Choi Sung, Ng Ming-Choi, Chai No, Choe Gwang-ho
Directed by Ho Meng-Hua
The Black Enforcer is probably the best film that I’ve seen yet from director Ho Meng-Hua. It’s rather unfortunate then that this one is rather hard to get ahold of, although intrepid Shaw Brothers fans should be able to track it down if you’re resilient enough. You shouldn’t have to stay in a darkened jail cell for 15 years while you think about the wrongs done to you like the title character of the film, but it will definitely take a bit of digging.
Before that jail cell comes into play, though, the Black Enforcer (Tang Ching) is bringing a couple of criminals in to see the yamen after they were caught looting a mansion and murdering an entire family of 13. What makes this something of a tortuous affair for the Black Enforcer is that one of the criminals is Guan Yun-Fei (Tien Feng), one of his martial arts brothers from their days under the same kung fu instructor. The Black Enforcer must put aside his feelings for the man and follow the law; there’s no excuse for his villainous behavior.
While traversing the snowy terrain, the Black Enforcer suggests that they stay the night at his mother’s house, as it is close and convenient. But here Guan Yun-Fei’s men ambush the lawmen. A fight breaks out, and Guan Yun-Fei, not content with simply escaping, murders the Black Enforcer’s mother and rapes his sister. What a righteous bastard, this one! The Black Enforcer is powerless to stop him, forced to watch the whole thing play out. To add insult to injury, the man who spearheaded the ambush then turns the Black Enforcer over to the officials for allowing the criminals to escape. For this crime, the Black Enforcer is thrown into jail for 15 long years, and you best believe he’s ready for some revenge when they finally break his chain.
In the grand scheme of things, this story doesn’t offer up anything especially original, but The Black Enforcer is a fantastically told version of a simple revenge story. A lot of that praise should fall on the shoulders of director Ho Meng-Hua, who crafts nearly an entire movie full of impressively framed shots that rise the film out of its low-budget genre roots and see it approaching something much closer to art. Ho really pushes the extremes of abstract angles as well, giving us full-on horizontal camera placements (to give us a POV view from the recently imprisoned Black Enforcer who’s laying on the floor), as well as tightly blocked images of multiple people in perfect poses. It is also a story exceptionally well-told, without a bit of fat at all. This is the only screen credit for writer Anthong Hoh Wa, which is disappointing as I thought the script was a huge strong point of the film. The details woven amongst the standard revenge beats help the film remain fresh despite its cliched storyline. It’s a given that the Black Enforcer will eventually confront Guan Yun-Fei, but not a soul will be able to guess how it goes down. Hint: it’s AWESOME.
Speaking of the fights, they’re excellent. The action was handled by Leung Siu-Chung and it’s perhaps the best work I’ve seen from him yet. The fights aren’t as intricate as later film battles, but they’re tightly choreographed and include many fun moments of wuxia feats. The final battle is by far the most impressive (and cathartic), but literally every other battle is nearly as good. The action isn’t all that plentiful, but it’s around enough to keep things moving briskly at a high level of entertainment from start to finish.
I’m about a hair’s breadth away from giving this a full four stars, but I refrained from doing that because a couple of issues hold the movie back. The film makes fantastic usage of its South Korean locations, doing such a great job at capturing them that the quick transitions between the gorgeous locales and the indoor sets of the Shaw studios are incredibly jarring. Nearly every Shaw film has this sort of thing going on in it, but in The Black Enforcer the gap between the two is like that of the Grand Canyon. Very little matches up and it rips you right out of the movie. There’s little rhyme or reason to the cuts too, for instance the entire end battle was shot on an indoor “outdoor” set, but in the middle of the fight it cuts to a couple of snap-zoom shots of Tien Feng’s eyes which were clearly shot outside on location. In a couple of these you can even see Tang Ching in the shot, making it seem as if they had shot the finale on location and only later realized that they needed to re-shoot it almost completely. It’s a minor annoyance as the power of the scenes are still intact, but it does diminish the movie’s overall effect.
The other main issue is that there’s a ton of indoor scenes (presumably shot on a sound stage) where it’s clearly supposed to be night outside, but when the characters walk outside it’s broad daylight. I can roll with almost any budgetary issue on a film, as well as little inconsistencies such as this, but it’s jarring to the point of confusion many times in The Black Enforcer. And they weren’t trying to be subtle about it either, as there’s one scene where they transition back and forth at will between what is clearly day and what seems pretty definitively to be night, multiple times in a row. I ultimately quieted my inner critic by rationalizing that they must have had all the windows closed in the house. Whatever works.
But the power of fantastic filmmaking and a well-told story ultimately overrode any nagging issues I had with the production. It’s a hard film to classify, as it’s not exactly a high-flying wuxia (although there is a bit of that), and it’s not a straight-up kung fu movie either. The Black Enforcer is a character-driven martial arts film, somewhere on the light end of the wuxia scale, and it’s an absolute blast to watch. And don’t just take it from me, check out some of the amazing lines featured in the film!
“Don’t panic. Remove his brain.”
“Time for kung fu.”
“I can forgive you, but I cannot forgive the Guans. Grass takes root in the ground; likewise, rancour in the heart. The killing of my mum, the rape of my sis, the taking of my love, and the ruination of my life. He who does not seek revenge is not a man.”
“So you are a sugar-coated bogus beast.”
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: it’s the Chang Cheh film that introduced the world to Chen Kwan Tai, The Boxer from Shantung! See ya next week!