Payment in Blood [血証] (1973)
Starring Yueh Hua, Liu Wu-Chi, Lau Dan, Tung Lam, Fang Mian, Chiang Tao, Chan Shen, Li Min-Lang, Lin Wen-Wei, Ku Wen-Chung, Lam Fung, Luk Chuen, Chin Chun, Sai Gwa-Pau
Directed by Kuei Chih-Hung
Expectations: High. I love Kuei Chih-Hung.
Payment in Blood is one hell of a revenge film, unfortunately it’s also extremely rare and the only known-to-exist version is from a German-dubbed VHS without subtitles. Kuei Chih-Hung is quite the dynamic visual filmmaker, though, which makes the experience visceral and engaging even without understanding a single word of dialogue. It helps to have a general idea of how revenge films work, but seriously just about everything you need to know about the movie is communicated visually, so there’s little lost in this less-than-ideal experience. I will say that watching the film in German is somewhat odd, and it also seems like they changed the score to music less conducive to creating the familiar Shaw Brothers feel. But whatever, I’ll take it over never seeing the film!
The film opens at night, with a car chasing a man and trying to run him down. Meanwhile Yueh Hua is leaving his job, but as he is about to get into his car he sees the villain’s car run over the man multiple times. A villain willing to do this isn’t the kind to leave any witnesses, so naturally he turns his attention to Yueh Hua. Before the villain can kill Yueh, the cops shows up and scare him off. Yueh is then placed into some kind of lazy witness protection where a few cops tag along with him and hang out at his house. But since this is a movie, the cops are ineffectual at thwarting the criminals, and Yueh and his family are subjected to all kinds of horrific events.
The highlight of these comes when a villain drops off a package to Yueh Hua’s wife (Liu Wu-Chi). She opens it and what does she find? A bunch of cobras! I love animals and I hate seeing animal cruelty, but man I can’t deny how visceral and real a sequence like this feels when actual cobras are unleashed in an apartment and Liu hacks one of them to pieces with a butcher knife. In terms of tension and suspenseful filmmaking, Kuei Chih-Hung crafted a masterful sequence that hits hard and never lets up. I got so spooked I worried there might be snake around the corner in my house! Oh, and after Liu gets away from the snakes, she goes to her daughter’s school to make sure she’s OK, and what’s the first thing the kid does? Pop open one of those snakes in a can. I was surprised her mother didn’t have a heart attack right there.
Payment in Blood is a crime/revenge film, but a few fights are interspersed throughout the film. They don’t take on the traditional feeling of fights in a Shaw film, though, instead evoking a brutal, closer-to-reality feeling where it genuinely feels like you’re watching a life-or-death struggle. Shooting the film almost entirely (if not entirely) on location only adds to this real-life feeling. Choreographer Luk Chuen did a great job creating action scenes that transcend their choreography to become a vivid facsimiles of real battles. Wonderful handheld camerawork from Kuei Chih-Hung helps matter immeasurably, as well.
The stairwell fight is especially good, but there are a pair of close-quarters fights that are strangely reminiscent of the films of Indonesian action star Iko Uwais. A quick fight occurs in an elevator as a proto-version of the incredible fight in Merantau, and later there’s an amazing fight inside the back seat of a car that brought The Raid 2 to mind. I doubt Payment in Blood was an influence since it’s such a rare film, but who knows? Maybe the video store near Uwais’s childhood home had a couple of Shaw films and this was one of them!
It’s a real shame that Celestial wasn’t able to remaster this one, but I hold out hope that perhaps one day they’ll find it languishing in some dark corner and we’ll all be able to see it as intended. Until then, this German VHS copy will have to do, and thanks to the exceptional work of Kuei Chih-Hung it’s quite the entertaining experience.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog, I’ll be delving into the Golden Harvest classic Enter the Dragon! Haven’t seen it in a long time, so I’m excited to revisit it! See ya then!