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!