Downhill They Ride (1966)

DownhillTheyRide+1966-4-bDownhill They Ride [山賊] (1966)
AKA The Highjackers

Starring Pat Ting Hung, Paul Chang Chung, Wong Chung-Shun, Man Ling, Ou Wei, Wang Hsieh, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Zhang De-Liang, Shum Lo, Ma Ying, Got Siu-Bo

Directed by Pan Lei

Expectations: Low.

twohalfstar


First things first: I was led to believe that Downhill They Ride was an early martial arts film from the Shaw studio, but instead it’s more of a drama with a lot of horses and guns. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make for some twisted expectations. On top of that, it is the first film in my small effort to mop-up some early, previously unavailable martial arts titles for my “I’m never going to finish this” chronological Shaw Brothers review series, so there’s part of me that wished I knew what it was beforehand so I could have just moved on to the next film.

Downhill They Ride may boast a screenplay from martial arts maestro King Hu, but this carries none of the usual gravitas or intense drama typical of his films. Perhaps it was on the page and director Pan Lei didn’t translate it, but I’m more of the mind that King Hu was simply still honing his skills. But considering that Downhill They Ride released only two months prior to Hu’s landmark martial arts film Come Drink With Me, that probably isn’t the case either. Whatever the truth is, I’d say that fans of King Hu’s work should definitely view this film as a stepping stone instead of a lost gem.

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The Imperial Swordsman (1972)

imperialswordsman_1The Imperial Swordsman [大內高手] (1972)

Starring Shu Pei-Pei, Chuen Yuen, Yue Wai, Cheng Miu, Tung Li, Lee Wan-Chung, Tang Ti, Wong Chung-Shun, Liu Wai, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Shen, Kam Kong, Woo Wai, Siu Wa, Ma Ying, Tong Tin-Hei

Directed by Lin Fu-Ti

Expectations: High.

threestar


The Imperial Swordsman is a seriously ambitious film, one that reaches so high that it would be almost impossible to achieve what it sets out to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Shaws saw this film as something of a test run for more ambitious FX-filled films that would follow in its wake. As such, it showcases some excellent and beautiful model work that helps to broaden the scale of the film immensely, setting the scene with grand fortresses built atop mountain cliffs that tower above deep, flowing rivers.

Set during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor has learned that one of his own is working with the Mongolians in an attempt to invade China and take over the country. To stop this devious plot, the four imperial swordsmen (played by Shu Pei-Pei, Yue Wai, Lee Wan-Chung & Liu Wai) are deployed to recover evidence of the traitor and bring him to justice while he’s traveling. The Chief Imperial Inspector Yin Shu-Tang (Chuen Yuen) has already been working in the area, so they are to join up with him and thwart the traitor (who is hoping to hideout with his bandit buddies in their mountain fortress).

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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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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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The Magnificent Swordsman (1968)

The Magnificent Swordsman [怪侠] (1968)
AKA Vagabond Swordsman

Starring Wong Chung-Shun, Shu Pei-Pei, Tien Feng, Cheng Miu, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ma Ying, Chiu Hung, Shum Lo, Chai No, Ng Wai, Lee Ka-Ting, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Yau Lung

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng & Cheng Kang

Expectations: Fairly high. Griffin Yueh Feng delivered a pretty good looking film before in Rape of the Sword.


While many martial arts films are influenced by Sergio Leone’s westerns, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as deeply indebted to the genre like The Magnificent Swordsman is. The film is a mash-up of the stories from Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, resulting in a more Western-leaning Chinese version of Kurosawa’s Fistful of Dollars remake Yojimbo. Jesus, I need to take a moment after deciphering that one. For the most part it works, but because everything has been done before (and better), The Magnificent Swordsman isn’t as good or exciting as it should be. Don’t get me wrong, the film is entertaining and fun to watch, but the lack of originality really hurts this one from being the film it could have been for viewers that have seen the films mentioned. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen those (and why the hell haven’t you?), then you’re likely to get a lot more out of The Magnificent Swordsman than I did.

The direction from Griffin Yueh Feng and Cheng Kang is very good, filling the frame in interesting ways and with intriguing angles. Like Yueh Feng’s previous film Rape of the Sword, it exhibits a very defined style with all the snap zooms and whip pans you’d expect from a Shaw Bros. film. The difference is that I feel Yueh Feng was one of the influential guys in creating what would become that “standard Shaw Bros shooting style” as his films feature it throughout with confidence and passion, while other Shaw films of the era merely flirt with the techniques.

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The Silver Fox (1968)

The Silver Fox [玉面飛狐] (1968)

Starring Lily Ho Li Li, Chang Yi, Tien Feng, Wong Chung-Shun, Yue Wai, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Chiu Sam-Yin, Chiu Hung, Ma Ying, Lee Ho, Fan Mei-Sheng, Hung Lau, Goo Man-Chung, Wong Ching Ho, Lee Wan Chung

Directed by Hsu Cheng Hung

Expectations: Low, Hsu Cheng Hung seems unwilling so far to try much else other than the Chinese opera melodramas that I’m not to fond of.


The Silver Fox is a film that showcases the shifting nature of the Shaw Studio in early 1968. Directed by the less than exciting Hsu Cheng Hung, who made Temple of the Red Lotus & King Cat among others reviewed here, The Silver Fox is equal parts old school Chinese melodrama and new school Chang Cheh style vengeful violence. What keeps it from being a bad (as in bad) kung-fu movie is its wonderful story of betrayal and deceit, but what keeps it from being a bad (as in good) movie is its lackluster middle section that focuses on budding romance and the conflicted melodramatic feelings of the main characters.

The film opens with a stunning sequence involving the brotherly betrayal of Wong Chung-Shun and Tien Feng, as Wong steals two secret kung-fu manuals and then blames the theft on Tien Feng. Tien’s kung-fu is crippled by their master and then Wong throws poison darts into his face, disfiguring him for life and sowing the seeds of revenge. This is something of a different role for Tien Feng, playing a young martial student, but he does a great job with it and looks the part. Many years pass and now the Silver Fox is on the loose, trying to steal a gold plaque from the Jun Wai Security Bureau headed by the evil Wong.

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The Black Butterfly (1968)

The Black Butterfly [女俠黑蝴蝶] (1968)

Starring Lisa Chiao Chiao, Yueh Hua, Tien Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ku Feng, Lo Wei, Ma Ying, Chen Hung Lieh, Cheung Yuk-Kam, Han Ying Chieh, Fang Mian, Lee Wan Chung

Directed by Lo Wei

Expectations: Low, but hopeful, as Lo Wei is a notable director in later martial arts history.


The Black Butterfly is a movie with more potential than actual, quality goods. It starts off as a slight retelling of the classic Robin Hood tale, with the Black Butterfly stealing taels of gold and silver from the rich and then redistributing the wealth to the less fortunate. Some research uncovered that this is also a period remake of the 1965 Chor Yuen film, The Black Rose, but I haven’t seen that so I can’t specifically comment on the differences. Anyway, the entire first hour is concerned with this Hood storyline and frankly it’s pretty ho-hum and boring. Not a whole lot happens, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting elements at work. The film is slick and professional in its direction, with Lo Wei composing beautifully constructed shots and moving the camera around with grace and purpose. Some of these lesser Shaw Brothers movies feel as low-budget & hasty as they probably all were, but The Black Butterfly definitely belongs to the group that transcends that quality and looks like a million bucks. It’s amazing what quality camerawork will do for a film.

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