Trilogy of Swordsmanship [群英會] (1972)
Starring Shih Szu, Yueh Hua, Tin Ching, Meng Yuen-Man, Kao Pao-Shu, Bolo Yeung, Cheung Ging-Boh, Lily Ho Li-Li, Lo Lieh, Chung Wa, Chin Han, Wang Ping, Kong Ling, Ku Chiu-Chin, Lau Ng-Kei, Chen Yan-Yan, Lee Wan-Chung, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Li Ching, Ku Feng, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wong Chung, Wu Chi-Chin, Cheng Lui, Chan Sing, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching-Ho
Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng, Cheng Kang & Chang Cheh
On more than one occasion I’ve said that anthology movies just aren’t my thing. But a Shaw Brothers anthology film? My interest was piqued, although the mere idea of a wuxia anthology film seems like something of a ludicrous idea. Even at a full 90 or 120 minutes, a wuxia story is compressed and hard to understand, so cutting three of them to fit into a total of 107 minutes just doesn’t seem like a good idea. But it is. Totally.
Each film brings something unique to the screen. The first tale, directed by Griffin Yueh Feng (even if the screen credit says otherwise), is called The Iron Bow. It’s a lighthearted tale of love and unwanted attention, and it’s a perfect example of how to stage a martial arts short story. Master Shi (Tin Ching) is infatuated with the young Ying Ying (Shih Szu), but she doesn’t care for him at all. He is a rich official who comes with a procession of men to ask for her hand in marriage, but Ying Ying’s father thought ahead. When he died he left an iron bow in the family’s restaurant, and said that any man who could draw the bow was worthy of his daughter’s hand. This leads to many comical situations to balance the wuxia violence, and it results in a very pleasing bite-sized film. Yueh Hua and Shih Szu also have a fantastic spear battle, and Bolo Yueng pops up at the end with a rare full head of hair. Pure entertainment, if a bit light.
The second film, The Tigress, clocks in at about 45 minutes and it makes great use of its time. Directed by Cheng Kang, it tells a more nuanced tale, and one that is laced with emotion and heart. It is the story of a prostitute named Shih Chung Yu (Lily Ho Li-Li) and her love affair with General Wang (Chung Wa). In fact, many men are infatuated with her, most notably a bandit named Pang Xun (Lo Lieh). To tell more would betray the beauty of this story’s expert telling, but suffice it to say that it is a very emotionally charged ride. Lily Ho Li-Li is mesmerizing and charismatic, commanding the viewer’s attention every time she’s on-screen. It’s true that these are also her character’s dominant traits, but it is through her beauty and acting skill that the character thrives. The film is also not very action heavy, but it showcases the philosophy and skills of swordsmanship throughout, albeit in a unique, interesting way. This is easily the best of the three films.
Which brings me to the final film, Chang Cheh’s White Water Strand. Coming into the film, this was the episode I was most looking forward to, and as a result it was also the only tale that disappointed me. Make no mistake: it is fun, and it is enjoyable, but it is also the only tale that feels less than complete. It’s like the climax to a movie we never watched, and coupled with a dense amount of wuxia storytelling and characters in a very short amount of time, White Water Strand isn’t the thrilling cap to a fantastic anthology that I expected. This is odd, too, as it’s about 90% fighting, so you wouldn’t expect there to be a convoluted story to get in the way.
The events of White Water Strand also feel tired. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen so many scenes of bandits rescuing one of their buddies from a public execution that seeing another one that does nothing to set itself apart didn’t do much for me. The most interesting thing about this story is how the bandit heroes are referred to as the descendants of the Liang Shan bandits (AKA all the badass bandit heroes from The Water Margin). But when a casual reference to a far superior movie is your short’s best selling point, you’re in trouble. I can’t complain too much; it’s a Chang Cheh/Ti Lung/David Chiang/Li Ching joint, and those are always a fun time regardless of any story issues.
As I said earlier, I’ve never been a big fan of anthology films, but Trilogy of Swordsmanship made a believer out of me. This is easily my favorite anthology film of any genre. No matter what problems I had with the final episode, Trilogy of Swordsmanship was a blast to watch and I highly recommend it to Shaw fans.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Cheng Kang’s Pursuit, the second Shaw Brothers film (after The Water Margin) to be based on Outlaws of the Marsh! See ya then!