The Golden Sword [龍門金劍] (1969)
Starring Kao Yuen, Cheng Pei Pei, Wang Lai, Kao Pao-Shu, Lo Wei, Wong Chung-Shun, Yeung Chi Hing, Alice Au Yin-Ching, Lee Pang-Fei, Goo Man-Chung, Ng Wai, Lee Kwan, Go Ming, Law Hon, Ku Feng, James Tin Jun
Directed by Lo Wei
Expectations: Optimistic. Lo Wei usually delivers something entertaining and different with his films.
I talk a lot about Chang Cheh’s prolific output of films, but Lo Wei was no slouch himself. The Golden Sword was Lo Wei’s third film released in 1969, and it is, at least for me, by far his best. Where Dragon Swamp and Raw Courage were both fun in their own ways, they feel like films that are just shy of realizing their true potential. The Golden Sword is Lo Wei finally putting all the pieces together to form a fun and vigorous wuxia film; I always knew he had it in him.
Two masked riders arrive at the Golden Sword Lodge and give the man of the house, played by Lo Wei, a small box. Upon seeing it, he gets on one of their horses and rides off into the night. Seven years and one awesome credits sequence later, the new chief of the clan is being appointed as they’ve all pretty much given up on finding Lo Wei. All except for his son, played by Kao Yuen, who decides he’ll venture out on his own to search for his lost father. Having scoured all the obvious places and local lands, Kao Yuen continues his quest in a snowy, mountainous region rarely seen in Shaw Brothers films, and here he meets Cheng Pei Pei disguised as a beggar. The fun begins here and really doesn’t let up until the standard Shaw Brothers “THE END” comes on-screen.
In terms of the fights, The Golden Sword has a lot to offer. It’s far from wall-to-wall action, or the brotherly bloodletting of Chang Cheh, but what’s here is pretty well choreographed and filled with a budding sense of Hong Kong fantasy. A fight in a teahouse or inn is in virtually every wuxia film after Come Drink with Me, but the one here features Kao Yuen catching an attacker’s sword with his chopsticks, and Cheng Pei-Pei battling evildoers named The Three Cripples and defeating them violently within ten moves. This is easily the best sequence in the film, so it’s a shame it comes so early on, but I suppose it’s a testament to my involvement in the story that I only realized this afterwards. There’s also some unarmed fighting that’s very basic, but still well-choreographed and indicative of things to come in the genre. Perhaps the fact that this was Sammo Hung’s first film as a co-action director had something to do with this? While I’m talking about Sammo Hung, he’s also visible as one of the bandit guards that attacks Cheng Pei Pei in the beggar camp (see the photo below).
And speaking of the beggar camp, The Golden Sword is the first Shaw Brothers martial arts film in a long time to have a musical number. And I didn’t scoff in disgust at it! In fact, it was pretty good, featuring Cheng Pei Pei and the beggars doing synchronized dance and singing such wonderful, life-altering lines as, “You will be a dummy if you don’t get drunk/Who wants to be a dummy.” I’m sure the translation takes some of the flow out of the lyrics, but the sentiment and fun is obviously still there. The song also features lots of overhead shots of the dancing, subtly reminding me of Busby Berkeley’s iconic work of the 1930s.
The first half of the film spends a lot of time in a snowy setting, and while this adds to the exotic allure of the film it completely betrays the studio sets numerous times. I’m always willing to look past this, and I hate to draw attention to it as I would prefer to focus on the strengths of the Shaw Brothers studio without harping on their faults from my seat in the future, but some of these instances are ridiculous and come off as lazy. In a few shots you can see what is clearly a painted-over stage door, and in the most egregious shot Lo Wei shows the entire beggar camp in a wide shot from above which allows the audience to see the studio wall and the shadows from the houses casting themselves onto the wall painted to look like the sky. In both cases, showing these faults could be easily avoided by taking a different angle, so I’m at a loss to understand why they were shot the way they were. In any case, these are very minor moments that pass quickly and shouldn’t get in the way of any wuxia fan’s enjoyment of the film.
While a lot of the 60s Shaw Brothers films have a very similar look and feel, Lo Wei’s genre entries are always unique and stand apart from the crowd. Most of the films use the same sets, but Lo Wei always finds new and fresh ways to shoot them so that it’s not immediately apparent. The Golden Sword is his best example of this I’ve seen thus far, and I look forward to his further work with the studio to continue the trend. The action and fight quotient might be a bit low, but the fantastic storyline more than makes up for this fact. The Golden Sword is a great wuxia tale, filled with all kinds of deep-seeded emotions, revenge and secret dealings, and I loved it.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s Have Sword, Will Travel, the first martial arts film to feature Ti Lung and David Chiang together! This film also marks the final Shaw Brothers martial arts film of 1969, and I can’t wait to dig into the 70s!