The Twelve Gold Medallions (1970)

The Twelve Gold Medallions [十二金牌] (1970)
AKA Twelve Golden Medallions

Starring Yueh Hua, Chin Ping, Cheng Miu, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Wang Hsieh, Wong Chung-Shun, Yeung Chi Hing, Ku Feng, Liu Wai, Goo Man-Chung, Jeng Man-Jing, Fan Mei-Sheng, Tong Tin-Hei, Ma Ying, Go Ming

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: High. Cheng Kang returns!


The Twelve Gold Medallions was Cheng Kang’s first feature since the wonderful Killers Five, so I went in hoping that it would live up to the pure, unfiltered awesome laid out there. While The Twelve Gold Medallions definitely doesn’t live up to that kind of hype, it’s a really incredible wuxia film that is sure to delight and excite fans of the genre. It starts out with a bang too, immediately dropping us into the action as Yueh Hua is doing his best to stop the messengers carrying the twelve gold medallions of the title.

The film opens with some text, hoping to frame the events of the film within some sort of historical context. The twelve gold medallions are the ploy of an evil traitor, hoping to thwart the plans of a patriotic general doing his best to preserve the current Emperor’s reign. Yueh Hua, a noble swordsman, takes up the task of stopping these messengers and their false messages. Beyond that, there’s also a romantic sub-plot between Yueh Hua and Chin Ping, the daughter of his master, as well as some drama between Yueh and his master (Cheng Miu) over the fact that Cheng has become the leader of the villainous group trying to deliver the medallions.

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The Swordmates (1969)

The Swordmates [燕娘] (1969)

Starring Chin Ping, Chung Wa, Wong Chung-Shun, Wang Hsieh, Yeung Chi Hing, Chiu Hung, Wang Kuang-Yu, Law Hon, Wong Ching-Wan, Chiu Sam-Yin, Wong Ching Ho, Cheng Lui, Gai Yuen, Lau Kong, Tong Tin-Hei, Lee Sau Kei

Directed by Chang Ying & Pan Fan

Expectations: Not much. Looks like a standard wuxia.


The Swordmates is a film riddled with flaws and reasons to write it off with simple indifference. Thankfully, the film is also filled with as many exciting fights as it is flaws, so despite being a rather average and clichéd film, it manages to entertain pretty well as long as you don’t have any expectations to mitigate. A plot to overthrow the emperor is the basis for the action here, with the plans hidden in the base of a statue of the Chinese goddess of mercy, Guan Yin. The good guys have it, the bad guys want it. Of course, it changes hands a couple of times. This is pretty much the extent of the plot in the film, but for some reason it was still giving me massive trouble trying to follow it. Part of this was probably my fault, but some of the blame definitely falls on the storytelling.

The statue begins the film in the hands of the good guys, who are trying to take it to the capital. Then it gets stolen by the bad guys, but these bad guys are clueless and don’t know what the statue is or what it contains. So while I knew that they were the bad guys, I kept wondering if they were also the ones trying to overthrow the emperor, or if that was actually the good guys looking for a righteous revolution. You never know which faction will try to overthrow the emperor in these films, but rest assured there’s usually someone trying. In any case, I was definitely overthinking this one.

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Vengeance is a Golden Blade (1969)

Vengeance is a Golden Blade [飛燕金刀] (1969)

Starring Chin Ping, Yueh Hua, Tang Ching, Kao Pao Shu, Goo Man-Chung, Pang Pang, Lee Pang-Fei, Chiu Hung, Law Hon, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Wong Ching Ho, Hao Li-Jen, Tsang Choh-Lam

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High. You can’t go wrong with that title, right?


The reason I made it a point to go through the Shaw Brothers films chronologically is because I knew that there was no way that one week I could review some early misstep like King Cat, followed by something akin to heaven like Five Element Ninjas, only to return to the slow-paced, melodrama of the late 60s. Sometimes I do venture outside of the era though, and this time specifically I had seen Merantau, Flash Point and The Raid all in between the last Shaw Brothers picture and this. I’m a professional though, so I didn’t let it undermine the experience of watching Vengeance is a Golden Blade, but it did shine a brilliant spotlight on just how underwhelming an experience it was.

Vengeance is a Golden Blade starts out as another in the long tradition of “the most badass sword” movies, such as The Sword of Swords, The Thundering Sword, etc. The masterpiece sword here is the Golden Dragon Sword, and it is pretty badass, slicing clean through every bit of metal swung its way. The intrigue involves the sword being stolen by a grave enemy, the hero being crippled and eighteen years passing before anyone gets down to any real vengeance. This is where the film gains its true star in Chin Ping, and, to a lesser extent, her childhood friend Yueh Hua. While this might sound like a great setup for a classic swordplay film, Vengeance is a Golden Blade is only merely average. It does tell an interesting story filled with twisty turns and devious betrayals, but for the most part it’s all pretty standard fare.

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The Bells of Death (1968)

The Bells of Death [奪魂鈴] (1968)

Starring Chang Yi, Chin Ping, Chiu Sam-Yin, Lam Kau, Tin Sam, Ku Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Lee Wan Chung, Wu Ma, Hung Lau, Nam Wai-Lit, Shum Lo

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng

Expectations: High. I’m becoming a big fan of Griffin Yueh Feng.


It’s films like The Bells of Death that keep me at this ambitious and lengthy chronological journey through the catalog of Shaw Brothers films. Before starting, the name Griffin Yueh Feng meant nothing to me but after seeing two of his films I learned to expect great visuals and some exciting filmmaking. In Chang Cheh’s memoir he mentions Yueh as helping to raise the standards of the Chinese film industry with his 1949 films A Forgotten Woman & Blood Will Tell. Good luck seeing either of those so I’ll have to take Chang’s word for it, but from the evidence on display in the films I have seen, it makes perfect sense. The Bells of Death is not only the best Griffin Yueh Feng film I’ve seen yet, it’s also the only film I’ve reviewed in this series that strongly gives Chang Cheh’s films of the era a run for their money.

The story in The Bells of Death is a pretty standard revenge tale, but it’s told so well and with such flair that it’s easy to forgive its familiarity. And really, is a good revenge tale a fault? I don’t think so. The film opens with three ruthless bandits slaughtering a country family and taking the eldest daughter with them for their pleasures. What they didn’t know is that the woodcutter they passed on the way to the house was the eldest brother of the family and when he returns home, he finds the carnage they left. This begins his quest for revenge and oh boy is it a good one.

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Killer Darts (1968)

Killer Darts [追魂鏢] (1968)

Starring Chin Ping, Yueh Hua, Fang Mian, Shen Yi, Pang Pang, Cheung Pooi-Saan, Ma Ying, Tang Ti, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Cheung Yuk-Kam, Woo Tung, Ku Feng

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Pretty high, I watched the intro to this a few months back and loved it.


Killer Darts sees veteran Shaw Brothers director Ho Meng-Hua finally come into the traditional martial arts genre. While Hsu Cheng Hung was making the Red Lotus trilogy and Chang Cheh was busy redefining the genre to be male-centric, Ho Meng-Hua had been focused on films in other genres (Historical Drama, Ghost Story, Romance) and his series of four Monkey King films which I reviewed a few months back. Those were quite enjoyable so I come into Killer Darts with a lot of expectations that Ho will take the techniques on display in the Monkey King films and apply them to the more straight-ahead martial arts films Shaw Brothers were becoming known for.

Killer Darts opens incredibly well, as a devious group of bandits perform a nighttime raid on a small village, burning it to the ground and indiscriminately killing women and children. One of the women they kill is the wife of hero Liu Wen-Lung (Fang Mian). He sets out on a quest to avenge his wife’s death, and while on that quest one of his disciples has a giant lapse in judgment when a farm girl refuses his advances. This leads to an orphaned little girl who is taken in by Liu Wen-Lung and raised into Shaw Bros. star Chin Ping, now a swordswoman to be reckoned with. Her mother was killed with the killer dart and in her dying breath she gave it to Chin Ping and told her to avenge her. So we’ve got a multi-layered revenge picture on our hands and for the most part, it succeeds really well at bringing all the necessary elements together.

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Mini-Review: Trail of the Broken Blade (1967)

Trail of the Broken Blade [斷腸劍] (1967)

Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Kiu Chong, Chin Ping, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Fan Mei-Sheng, Tien Feng, Chen Hung Lieh, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wu Ma, Lee Wan Chung, Lam Chung, Pang Pang

Directed by Chang Cheh


I hate to do this to Chang Cheh, but damn this is one hell of a flawed, transitional film for him and for the Shaw Brothers studio. In a way, this film illustrates to me exactly why I set out to watch their martial arts film in order of release. The idea was the same as any other chronological jaunt through a catalog of work: to chart progress of style and substance of the artist (or in this case, the studio) as they go from the years of infancy to greatness. Trail of the Broken Blade is the perfect example of a film that straddles the line between what Shaw Brothers was and what Shaw Brothers was trying to become.

Prior to their commitment to the martial arts film, they mostly made opera films with female leads and lots of songs and costumes. Looking at their first martial arts film, Temple of the Red Lotus, it’s clear the film was made as an opera picture with some rudimentary fighting thrown in. Trail of the Broken Blade still exhibits elements of these musical pictures such as song montages that move the story along and ridiculous amounts of makeup on everyone’s faces, but it also features elements that would later become Chang Cheh’s trademarks. You can feel him wanting to break free of the opera framework, but as interesting as this is to martial arts film historians, it doesn’t make for a very pleasing entertainment experience.

When there is action, it’s pretty good for this era of Shaw Brothers but nothing spectacular. Both The Twin Swords and Come Drink With Me are more pleasing in their action, but as I mentioned above, the fights here signal the changing of the guard. The choreography is still slow and somewhat uninteresting, but Jimmy Wang Yu moves quicker than in previous films and without the aid of under-cranked film. Cheh uses many touches of blood to punctuate major moments of the battle, never as copious as in later films but definitely a sign of things to come. There’s also quite a few swords violently stuck into dudes, or my favorite, a henchmen skewered from three sides in a spike trap.

I tried my best to enjoy this one as much as possible, but it was a hard fight. It’s interesting to see Chang Cheh finding his style amidst the opera house bullshit Shaw Brothers had previously been known for, but it’s not something I would recommend to someone just getting into the genre. In fact, it’s a hard film to recommend under any circumstance, except to stalwart martial arts film fans that want to personally chart the hallowed director’s growth, especially since Cheh’s next film after this was the infamous and influential One Armed Swordsman!

Mini-Review: The Magnificent Trio (1966)

The Magnificent Trio [邊城三俠] (1966)

Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Cheng Lui, Chin Ping, Margaret Tu Chuan, Fanny Fan Lai, Violet Pan Ying-Zi, Lui Ming, Chen Hung Lieh, Tien Feng, Lee Wan Chung

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Moderate.


Only the second martial arts film directed by Chang Cheh (the first being the lost black and white film Tiger Boy), The Magnificent Trio delivers glimpses of many traits that would carry Chang directly to the top within the Shaw Brothers studio. Don’t go in expecting copious bloodletting though, as what’s here is all fairly minor compared to what came later. Even still, The Magnificent Triois a mostly engaging martial drama about a group of oppressed farmers that kidnap the daughter of the county magistrate. They are aided by a hero returning home from war (Jimmy Wang Yu) and eventually by two more (Lo Lieh & Cheng Lui) in their struggle for equality among the fields.

Together with The Knight of Knights, The Magnificent Trio explores the heroic bloodshed and brotherly bonds of combat that would become staples of Cheng Cheh’s later, more popular works. The Magnificent Trio is one of the better of these early Shaw efforts thanks to this and Chang’s solid direction. Even with only a couple of previous films under his belt, Chang shows that he has a firm grasp on how to shoot action sequences, letting the choreography play out in front of a well-placed moving camera. The editing works hand-in-hand with the camera, highlighting the action in all the right places. The first forty minutes are a little dry, but it gets a lot more fun after that, as Jimmy Wang Yu surrenders himself which allows for some fun rescue action.

Genre fans will definitely want to check this one out, but newcomers will be better served by a later, more exciting Chang Cheh film.

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