Starring Ching Li, Lo Lieh, Tien Feng, Jeng Man-Jing, Fang Mian, Wu Ma, Lau Kar-Leung, Chiu Hung, Tang Chia, Lee Pang-Fei, Lee Ho, Lam Jing, Wong Ching Ho, Ho Ming-Chung
Directed by Hsu Cheng Hung
Expectations: Low, not a big fan of Hsu Cheng Hung.
This one goes out to all the melodrama fans in the audience. If you can dig it thick and extravagant, then Twelve Deadly Coins is gonna hit you right in the sweet spot. If on the other hand you favor a Chang Cheh style, balls-out action picture, then you’re going to be disappointed. It’s important to know this going in, and because of this, I was able to set myself up accordingly and have a good time with it despite my distinct preference for the action side of things.
Lo Lieh and Ho Ming-Chung play students of Tien Feng and his twelve deadly coin technique. Ho is too cocky for his own good when his master gives him the task to transport 20,000 taels of gold across country to pay the county for something I didn’t quite catch. Lo Lieh tries to help steer him in the right direction, fearing an ambush hiding around the next corner. Sure enough, as soon as they take the path Lo Lieh advises Ho not to, dudes in black burst out of the ground and assault the convoy. This leads them to immediately suspect Lo Lieh of being a traitor, and the real drama and intrigue begins.
In terms of old school wuxia films, Twelve Deadly Coins is pretty well written and executed. While it is light on action, especially after I just watched the total orgy of violence Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, it does feature much better fights than most of the other melodrama-focused wuxia films from the Shaw Brothers’ 60s output. Choreography from the fearsome duo of Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung is a definite plus, with some genuinely great and kinetic moments sprinkled throughout, including an awesome decapitation and a great fight in a torture chamber with Lo Lieh and Ching Li fending off the villain’s strongest pupils. It also features a great amount of old school wirework, and is probably the best example of it so far in my journey through these films. This is the first time I can remember people flying in a horizontal straight line, as before it had always been flying straight up or in a giant arc more akin to an exaggerated jump than true flight.
There are lots of twists and turns along the way, but there aren’t any traps! If there’s one thing I’ve come to expect from a Hsu Cheng Hung film it’s ridiculously fun traps, but there wasn’t a single one unless you count the water torture device that Lo Lieh and Ching Li find themselves trapped in late in the film. I can’t really accept this as a genuine trap though, because they are placed in it off-camera and unless it involved trap doors, sliding down a steep slope, or the imminent danger of giant spikes, it just doesn’t count. It’s a bit unrealistic of me to expect traps out of every Hsu film, but damn it, I love traps!
Hsu Cheng Hung’s camerawork was never up to snuff with the Shaw’s greatest directors, but he holds his own pretty well here. It’s mainly a talky drama and Hsu manages to spice up these moments with clever angles and good uses of moving camera. A good portion of the film was actually shot on location as well, adding a ton of grand vistas and rolling Chinese hills. On top of that, there’s a brand new villain’s lair set built outside on the top of a hill. It’s giant, it’s fun and it looks great on-screen, whether there’s twenty guys battling down the steep stairs or Lo Lieh’s being dragged behind a horse in torture. Hopefully this set gets used in future films (and with it being the size it is, I can’t imagine they won’t use it) because I absolutely love it.
Twelve Deadly Coins isn’t anything that’s going to light my world on fire, but if you enjoy 60s wuxia films, this one is definitely one of the better films. As Chang Cheh and Cheng Kang did their best to make the martial arts genre more action-packed and exciting, Hsu Cheng Hung still did what he could to hang onto what made the genre popular in the first place: female swordswomen, high intrigue and melodrama. It works here surprisingly well, and as much as I was bored at times and thought it needed to pick up the pace, I did enjoy the film and I cautiously recommend it to open-minded genre fans.
Next up in this chronological series of the Shaw Brother’s martial arts films, it’s Lo Wei’s Dragon Swamp with Cheng Pei-Pei!