The Bells of Death [奪魂鈴] (1968)

Starring Chang Yi, Chin Ping, Chiu Sam-Yin, Lam Kau, Tin Sam, Ku Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Lee Wan Chung, Wu Ma, Hung Lau, Nam Wai-Lit, Shum Lo

Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng

Expectations: High. I’m becoming a big fan of Griffin Yueh Feng.

It’s films like The Bells of Death that keep me at this ambitious and lengthy chronological journey through the catalog of Shaw Brothers films. Before starting, the name Griffin Yueh Feng meant nothing to me but after seeing two of his films I learned to expect great visuals and some exciting filmmaking. In Chang Cheh’s memoir he mentions Yueh as helping to raise the standards of the Chinese film industry with his 1949 films A Forgotten Woman & Blood Will Tell. Good luck seeing either of those so I’ll have to take Chang’s word for it, but from the evidence on display in the films I have seen, it makes perfect sense. The Bells of Death is not only the best Griffin Yueh Feng film I’ve seen yet, it’s also the only film I’ve reviewed in this series that strongly gives Chang Cheh’s films of the era a run for their money.

The story in The Bells of Death is a pretty standard revenge tale, but it’s told so well and with such flair that it’s easy to forgive its familiarity. And really, is a good revenge tale a fault? I don’t think so. The film opens with three ruthless bandits slaughtering a country family and taking the eldest daughter with them for their pleasures. What they didn’t know is that the woodcutter they passed on the way to the house was the eldest brother of the family and when he returns home, he finds the carnage they left. This begins his quest for revenge and oh boy is it a good one.

The Bells of Death, like the other Griffin Yueh Feng films I’ve seen, is very confident and sophisticated. The shots are all perfectly orchestrated and edited together, enhancing the viewer’s pleasure as the film plays out. The action scenes are specifically impressive as the fights are all iconic and memorable, expertly choreographed and acted. Due to this high standard of quality, The Bells of Death is one of the rare early Shaw Brothers films that can transcend its era and remain exciting to viewers today. It doesn’t feel at all like the unsure films from the studio the came out around it, it emerges as a distinct, impressive film that should delight martial arts fans.

In addition to Yueh Feng’s direction, a big reason the film succeeds is its star Chang Yi. He had starred in a few earlier Shaw Brothers films to varying success but here he emerges as a definite force to be reckoned with. He really should have become a bigger star, but instead I know him as “The dude that fights Bruce Li on the rocks at the end of Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger.” I hope to remedy that in the future and check out his somewhat lengthy and varied filmography. What’s great about Chang Yi is the transformation he exhibits on-screen. In the opening he is a bumbling teen chopping wood, unsure and unable to defend himself or anyone else. A chance meeting with a noble swordsman changes all that though, and in the space of a single cut, he becomes a cold, confident, expertly skilled swordsman. If this film had been made a few years later there would have been a twenty-minute training sequence, but as much as I love a good training, I appreciate the brevity used here.

The kung fu is over-the-top in the most fun way possible too. One of my favorite moments is when Chang Yi is confronted with a small group of bandits asking him for payment. He summons up the wind, collecting a pile of leaves ripped from a nearby tree in his hands and throws them at the men. The men are frozen in awe as they peel leaves from their faces, leaving bloody wounds in their place. There’s also dudes getting knocked through brick walls and wonderful moments of gore, including a mid-fight decapitation (possibly the first decapitation in Shaw Bros history) during one of the best fights in the film. I don’t want to paint the wrong picture though, as The Bells of Death is definitely more serious and realistic than these varied moments make it seem. These are but the icing on the cake, the cherry on top of a wonderful cold dish of revenge.

The Bells of Death is skillfully written and shot and is an absolute joy to watch. The fights are plentiful and awesome, feeling much closer to the iconic style of fights martial arts fans are accustomed to. The bamboo forest fight is especially great, exuding tension and suspense. I highly recommend this one to all martial arts fans.

Not the original trailer, but it’s the best I could find.

Next up in this chronological series of the Shaw Brother’s martial arts films,  it’s That Fiery Girl with Cheng Pei Pei!