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.

Due to his disfigurement, Tien Feng spends most of the film under a creepy porcelain mask of his own face, with painted eyes and eyebrows. This of course leads to an inevitable unmasking towards the end of the film which does not disappoint. In fact the entire last half hour is spectacular; a non-stop sea of traps, intrigue and intense tragedy. All of the major players come together in Tien’s cave lair for some of the most heart-wrenching drama the Shaw Brothers have ever cooked up. Seriously, I was almost in tears at this lengthy cascade of melodramatic tragedies piled up upon one another.

As for the action, this one is something of a special film. It is the first Shaw Brothers film to give on-screen credit for Action Choreography to the masterful team of Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung! These guys are the ones that brought you nearly every awesome fight in the history of the studio, and while I’m sure they’ve been working on the previous films I’ve reviewed, their long overdue inclusion in the credits is something to celebrate. This film specifically might not benefit from the greatness I’ve come to associate with their names, but it does signal a shift in the studio’s mentality, that action is an important element of their films and something to be credited.

With this in mind, the martial action scenes in The Silver Fox are a definite step up from most other Hsu Cheng Hung films, but they still aren’t on par with earlier Chang Cheh releases. Consequently this leads me to have a lot higher expectations for the next film I’ll be reviewing in this Shaw Bros. series, Chang Cheh’s sequel to Come Drink With Me, The Golden Swallow. But even if the action isn’t all that spectacular in The Silver Fox, a step up is a step up and with the backdrop of the excellent revenge tale, it makes it all very enjoyable. The final battle among the Hsu Cheng Hung trademark traps is particularly good, as are the traps! If nothing else, Hsu Cheng Hung never lets me down with the traps.

Overall, this could have been a much better film if it kept its focus on the wonderful revenge tale they weaved for the back-story of the film. Thankfully this storyline pays off in the best way possible during the final act of the film, leaving the viewer with a great taste in their mouth. Hsu Cheng Hung still seems to want to make an old school Chinese opera melodrama, but The Silver Fox is him slowly moving to keep up with the changing face of the martial arts film. As such, it is a much stronger film than his previous disappointment King Cat, and one that would be a fun afternoon for a fan of foundational kung-fu films.