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.

When Killer Darts is good, it’s quite good in relation to the other films of the era. As I say in virtually every one of these Shaw reviews, you simply cannot compare these early films to later triumphs of the studio as they just can’t hold to that pressure. This is why I’m restricting myself to watching them in chronological order to ensure that I am seeing them closer to how they would have been seen around the time of release. In any case, Killer Darts features lots of fights in various settings, from indoor bandit dining halls to outdoor mountaintop duels. The choreography is improving for sure, and with Ho Meng-Hua’s use of wide, almost theatrical camera placements for lots of the fights, you can really get a good look at the movements of the actors. There’s a few moments where the action is undercranked and unnaturally fast, but for the most part it looks like the martial skill of the actors is greatly improving.

Where the film missteps is when it sidelines the interesting revenge story and focuses on the romantic melodrama sub-plot between Chin Ping, fellow student Yueh Hua and the pushy town girl Shen Yi. This sub-plot ends up coming together well, resulting in a more broadly satisfying ending to the film, but the initial scenes are pretty obvious and boring. Thankfully the film doesn’t focus on them all that much and the times in between the good and the bad is relatively short.

Ho Meng-Hua also can’t resist throwing in some fun supernatural elements after finishing the Monkey King series, so Killer Darts features Yueh Hua’s wonderful display of internal kung fu as he catches a wine bowl, holds it in midair about six inches above his hand and then throws it back at the bandit who tossed it at him, the bowl instantly shattering as it hits his hand. Yueh Hua later jumps straight up about fifty feet and through the roof, but not before slaughtering many of the bandits, impaling one with a staff and then throwing his body across the screen. The violence level is approaching Chang Cheh levels, but no one can really hold a candle to Chang’s copious bloodletting. Later in the film, Chin Ping also displays some wonderful supernatural kung fu, as she lashes out in anger at the trees around her, cracking their trunks in half with her blows. While many kung fu fans would prefer a more realistic focus on the artist’s personal skill, I have a soft spot for the really over-the-top supernatural displays of power such as this. Therefore, I loved these moments of Killer Darts and it makes me wonder how much films like this (and the work of Ho Meng-Hua in general) influenced later screen versions of supernatural kung fu, such as Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain or the Swordsman series.

Overall, Killer Darts is a success as it skillfully blends action, martial arts, revenge, and romance into a rich, fun experience. It’s definitely not up to the standards of later Shaw Bros films, but for fans of old school swordplay films, you could do a lot worse than this one. There are lots of great fights and great filmmaking on display and, true to its name, lots and lots of killer darts. I’ll leave you with my favorite subtitle from the film:

“You dare to use the killer dart to kill!”

This is all I could find, some dude’s techno edit of scenes from the film.

Next up in this chronological series of the Shaw Brother’s martial arts films,  it’s another from Griffin Yueh Feng, The Bells of Death!