Starring Jimmy Lin Chung, Lily Ho Li Li, Lo Lieh, Essie Lin Chia, Mui Yan, Chu Gam, Yee Kwan, Nam Wai-Lit, Man Lei, Au-Yeung Gwong, Yip Dung-Ching
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: I really don’t know what to expect. Not much.
Well, this one certainly blew whatever expectations I had out of the water! Having taken wuxia to the highest heights he thought it could reach at the time with his previous film Golden Swallow, Chang Cheh sought to liberate himself from the standard Shaw Brothers cycle of constantly making wuxia pictures one after another. Instead he turned his attention to musicals of all things, and the resulting effort is The Singing Thief. Don’t be fooled by the title though, it’s not really a musical in the traditional sense.
The story of The Singing Thief revolves around Diamond Poon, a reformed diamond thief who’s now known for his wonderful singing voice. He works in a nightclub run by his good buddy Fu and he’s content to keep his life simple. Someone else has a different life path in mind for Poon though, as a new thief in town is accurately impersonating his trademarks and making everyone think that Poon’s up to his old tricks. He could be, and the mystery of just who is stealing everyone’s jewelry is one of the best parts of the film. In some ways it reminded me of The Big Lebowski, where an innocent dude gets mixed up in a sea of people all out to get him and play him for their own interests, but realistically that foundational story has its roots in places far older than The Big Lebowski, such as Dashiell Hammett’s groundbreaking 1929 novel Red Harvest (itself a huge influence on film, particularly on the work of Akira Kurosawa & Sergio Leone).
Seriously, the fights in this are better than in most honest Shaw Brothers martial arts films up to this point. The fearsome duo of Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung were really starting to get creative and invent wonderful new ways for the characters to butt heads in an action scene, and this is readily apparent in the film’s first action sequence: the crematorium fight. How the film gets us to the crematorium is somewhat convoluted, but the results are nothing short of pure awesome. Poon finds himself in a sad moment, lamenting the loss of a friend, when a team of dudes ready to fuck some shit up run in and arm themselves with fireplace shovels and body hooks. Oh yeah!
In Chang Cheh’s memoir he mentions how he had tired of making wuxia pictures and wished to spark his creativity. The Singing Thief shows that his boredom wasn’t with martial arts specifically, but more the period setting and the same old genre trappings that so many martial arts films exhibit (even then, in the infancy of the genre). With this in mind, The Singing Thief is quite interesting as it incorporates multiple genres into one highly enjoyable film. His effervescent camerawork is on display throughout, keeping the pace rapidly flowing. One shot in particular stuck out to me as quite inventive. It was a slow motion shot that incorporated a dollied, horizontal camera move. The characters dance about in the field in slow, elongated strides, but the camera seemingly moves at a normal pace to capture them. It gives the shot an odd quality that makes you think that only the actors are in slo-mo, but in reality the camera must have moved incredibly fast to facilitate this interesting and thoroughly intoxicating shot.
The Singing Thief is not a movie for everyone, but if you dig a 60s vibe and you enjoy multi-genre pictures, I think it’s safe to say it will entertain you. For strict martial arts fans, I’d say you could go either way, but the crematorium fight is definitely worth seeing and the final scenes play out on the Shaw Brother’s period sets, as the villains chase Diamond Poon into a movie studio that’s closed up for the night. You get some cool behind the scenes looks at the sets and the sound stages, which added another layer of fun for me. The film was a delight to watch and if nothing else, Lo Lieh’s goatee is mean and worthy of your time. Chang Cheh fills each frame with genuine bursts of color, resulting in a finished picture that is able to satisfy both the dark and light side of my psyche. Didn’t expect that at all.
Next up in this chronological series of the Shaw Brother’s martial arts films, it’s another from Chang Cheh and one I’ve been really looking forward to, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman!