Pursuit [林沖夜奔] (1972)
Starring Yueh Hua, Wong Gam-Fung, Fan Mei-Sheng, Paul Chun Pui, Go Ming, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wong Chung-Shun, Chiu Hung, Lee Siu-Chung, Tong Jing, Shum Lo, Mang Hoi
Directed by Cheng Kang
Pursuit is a prequel of sorts to Chang Cheh’s The Water Margin, focused specifically on telling the story of Yueh Hua’s character, Lin Chong AKA Panther Head. Connecting your film to one of the greatest Chinese films of all-time is a tall order, but thankfully we have the talented, resolute hands of Cheng Kang guiding Pursuit. The film is supreme entertainment from start to finish, although the focus is more on heartbreaking drama than traditional Shaw Brothers action (though there is a good amount of that too).
Like many martial arts stories, a strong thread of brotherhood runs through Pursuit, but the main theme here is trust. The film opens many years before the events of The Water Margin, as Lin Chong returns home and happily greets his wife. He is a respected instructor for the Imperial guard, and everything in his life is seemingly perfect. Lin Chong accompanies his wife to the temple and runs into an old friend, Lu Zhishen AKA Flowery Monk (Fan Mei-Sheng). At this moment, Lin Chong decides that brotherhood is more important than escorting his wife, so he trusts that she will be fine while he shares a few drinks and stories with Lu Zhishen (who also appears in The Water Margin, portrayed by Pang Pang). Lin Chong’s trust in the good of man is misplaced, though, as he returns to the temple to find the son of the Imperial Commander, Gao Yanei, attempting to rape his wife. He stops Gao, but this also sets into motion the ruination of Lin Chong’s life as he knows it.
Surprisingly, Lin Chong is given multiple opportunities throughout the film to wise up and snatch back his trust from the evildoing people controlling his life. As a chivalrous and righteous member of society he chooses not to, hoping instead that they will choose to do the right thing. They continue to deceive him, and Lin Chong’s unwavering trust continues to ruin the life he once knew. I did wonder why he never became more cautious of those around him, but through his errors we are allowed a first-hand look at why we should not take everyone’s word at face value. Not only does this allow the film to take on a teaching, moral quality, it allows for some incredibly effective drama that sets up a fantastic final act.
Cheng Kang’s ability to combine touching dramatics with martial arts is perhaps better than any other Shaw director. His films are always great stories before they are great martial arts films, and this is probably the best film I’ve seen from him yet. If nothing else, it’s the most satisfying. I suppose basing your film on one of the most lasting and popular novels in the history of the world helps a bit . Due to this focus on high-quality drama, by the time we get to the final act we are suitably pumped for Lin Chong to have his revenge on the malevolent, devious bastards who ruined his life. The rest of the film is light on action, and this intensifies our desire to see Lin Chong let loose, as we are salivating for both dramatic resolution to the thrilling tale and immediate, violent catharsis.
When these fights do come along, they are exceptionally well-shot (as is to be expected with Cheng Kang at the helm), nicely choreographed and well-acted. The choreography here was handled by Leung Siu-Chung, who had worked on a number of previous Shaw films, and his son, Bruce Leung Siu-Lung, who is best known as one of the many Bruce Lee clones. This was most likely Bruce Leung’s first choreography job, and together with his father they crafted some truly exciting battles for Pursuit. The standouts are the multiple fights that make up the third act and a fantastic two-pronged battle towards the middle of the film that crosscuts between Lin Chong fighting off a couple of paid henchmen while wearing a cangue, and Lu Zhishen laying waste to a whole group of villains in the nearby forest. Dramatic focus or not, when Pursuit seeks to deliver action, it truly delivers.
Pursuit might not be the large-scale production that The Water Margin was, but it is a perfect companion piece. Seeing the story of Lin Chong come to life in such vivid detail only makes me wish there were thrilling solo films for every one of the 108 Liang Shan bandits. The trials that Lin Chong suffers, while menacing villains pursue him across mountains, through dark forests and over snow-covered fields, are plentiful, tortuous and affecting. Pursuit is a great motion picture that transcends its genre to become a genuinely great film.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the first appearance of notable Shaw director Sun Chung! It’s his first film for the studio, and his second directorial effort overall: The Devil’s Mirror! See ya then!