Golden Swallow [金燕子] (1968)
AKA The Girl With The Thunderbolt Kick, Mistress Of The Thunderbolt, The Shaolin Swallow
Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Cheng Pei Pei, Lo Lieh, Chiu Sam-Yin, Wu Ma, Yeung Chi Hing, Hoh Ban, Lau Gong, Cheng Miu, Tang Ti, Ku Feng, Nam Wai-Lit, Mars, Bak Yu
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: High, after the greatness of Chang Cheh’s prior films this has to be good, right?
Billed as a sequel to King Hu’s early Shaw classic, Come Drink With Me, Golden Swallow is Chang Cheh’s take on a classic wuxia epic. It contains elements of his previous, groundbreaking films (The One-Armed Swordsman & The Assassin) while also pushing forward his own style and technique to create an increasingly dynamic film palette to work from as his career progressed. According to Chang Cheh, Golden Swallow was his “first personal favorite” of his films and due to this, it represents a turning point. After filming Golden Swallow, Chang became disillusioned with the traditional wuxia genre and began looking for the next big thing. He made a few more wuxia films in the meantime, releasing six (!) films in 1969 alone, but their varied nature reflects the search for his next passion. Most directors would hole up in a room and emerge five years later with a new film, but that shit don’t fly in Hong Kong. I’m getting way ahead of myself, though.
Unfortunately, Golden Swallow does not reach the heights of Chang’s genre-defining films, but it does showcase lots of great skill behind the camera. My main beef with this one is the lack of quality storytelling, as most of the film I was lost as to what was specifically going on or why anyone was doing anything. Perhaps this is my own ADD acting up, but it felt like fight scenes strung together by a weak story. Not that that can’t work, but the fight choreography just isn’t refined enough in this era of Hong Kong cinema to support that type of film. It still needs a few years to gestate before they can really get away with it.
In any case, Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-Pei) and Golden Whip (Lo Lieh) travel around together, while Silver Roc (Jimmy Wang Yu) slaughters every bad guy in his path, leaving the dart of the Golden Swallow in an effort to bring her out of hiding and into his life. He fell in love with her something fierce, and he’s literally willing to kill hundreds of evildoers to win her heart. Who says chivalry is dead? The body count of this film is truly astronomical — like Hard Boiled level — and nearly all of them come at the potent hands of Jimmy Wang Yu.
The violence is increased quite a bit from The Assassin, with sword slices leaving bloody wounds and bodies strewn about the screen. There’s a guy that slices himself in half on a guillotine to prove his undying dedication to his bandit leader, and a kid accused of theft that slices his own stomach open to prove his innocence (played by Mars!). Chang Cheh doesn’t pull any punches here and the violence is a lot more hard-hitting than other films of the era. It’s not always as effective as it should be because I’m watching it over 40 years after release, but for the era it is impressive and still entertaining.
In terms of filmmaking, Golden Swallow exhibits Chang Cheh’s ambition and innovation during this period, as he was still evolving into the legend we know and love today. The One-Armed Swordsman featured the first use of handheld camerawork in Hong Kong cinema history and Golden Swallow showcases a plethora of the technique. It’s rudimentary and incredibly shaky at times, but it creates a kinetic energy in the fight scenes that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The handheld makes up for the evolving choreography and the martial skill (or lack thereof) of the actors, creating some of the more impressive and visually exciting fights of the early Shaw era. None of them are especially great on their own, but as a stepping stone for Chang’s career they are integral. His editing also perfectly plays to the strengths of the good in the choreography, making the fights better than they could have been in a lesser director’s hands.
I keep coming around to this notion that Golden Swallow is one that does not necessarily hold up today, but it is impressive when considered in context of the time it was made. I recently read Chang Cheh’s pseudo-autobiography, Chang Cheh: A Memoir, and while he doesn’t specifically go into a lot of his films, Golden Swallow comes up quite a bit. He goes so far as to call it the high point of wuxia cinema. Chang felt that in Golden Swallow he had brought the traditional swordplay genre as far as it could go, and therefore started searching for the next big thing that would ignite his filmmaking fire. According to his memoir he made a few more wuxia films directly after Golden Swallow, but the records of the Hong Kong Film Archive beg to differ. His next released film was the modern-day musical called The Singing Thief, so I suspect that he may have made the wuxia films first and they were just held back for some reason. At one point he mentions filming The Flying Dagger almost concurrently with Golden Swallow, so that would support my theory. This search for change would eventually lead to his Republic era films and later the Shaolin cycle of films, or as Chang calls them: “Fist and Leg pictures.” I could go on with the deconstruction of his career, but I’ll leave that for the reviews of later films.
Don’t come into Golden Swallow expecting a sequel to Come Drink With Me. While Cheng Pei-Pei’s character shares a name, that’s about where the connection ends. The hardened killer of Come Drink With Me is pretty much nowhere to be seen in Cheng Pei-Pei’s performance here. The film focuses more on the love triangle between the three leads, but don’t let that fool you. Golden Swallow is a Chang Cheh film through and through, with deep influence from Sergio Leone and spaghetti westerns shining through, where Come Drink With Me is much closer to feeling like a Japanese samurai film. This is not to say that Chang wasn’t influenced by samurai pictures, I only seek to illustrate the difference in tone between the two films. The film is also not even about Golden Swallow, focusing more on Silver Roc, although Golden Swallow is the catalyst for all the events in the film.
In hindsight, Golden Swallow doesn’t hold up as well as Chang Cheh’s previous films, but it’s definitely a much more competent and artistic movie than most other non-Chang Cheh Shaw pictures of the era. It remains entertaining and features some great camerawork, but it’s one to consider more for its historic value than its current entertainment value. The acting is pretty good from the three leads, and Chang’s expert use of tight close-ups allows their performances to shine. The finale echoes The Assassin in many ways (systematic, heroic destruction of the lead while he slaughters the evildoers, his white garb progressively becoming redder and redder with his blood), but without the wonderful story backing it up like in that film, it doesn’t hit nearly as hard as it should. Regardless of these issues, I would still mark it as essential for anyone taking a serious look at Chang Cheh’s filmography. It’s a remarkably important film to his career and one that has a lot going for it.
Oh, and whoever titled this The Girl With the Thunderbolt Kick in the English markets should be shot. It’s ridiculously unfitting and I must imagine it came during a re-release in the mid-’70s when hand-to-hand kung fu films had become popular the world over.
Next up in this chronological series of the Shaw Brother’s martial arts films, it’s Griffin Yueh Feng & Cheng Kang’s The Magnificent Swordsman!