The Winged Tiger [插翅虎] (1970)

Starring Chen Hung Lieh, Tien Feng, Angela Yu Chien, Annette Sam Yuet-Ming, Fang Mian, Ngai Ping-Ngo, David Chiang, Law Hon, Tong Tin-Hei, Cheng Lui, Wong Tat-Wah, Cheng Miu, Yip Bo-Kam, Yeung Chak-Lam

Directed by Shen Chiang

Expectations: Moderate. I’m interested to see Chen Hung Lieh in a good guy role.

If you told me that five years after the genesis of the traditional martial arts genre with Temple of the Red Lotus that film’s screenwriter would finally get a chance at both writing and directing, I would have guessed it would be something of a train wreck. Looking at Shen Chiang’s previous scripts, they range from OK (The Thundering Sword) to a little better than OK (The Silver Fox). So imagine my surprise when I sat down with The Winged Tiger and found myself fully immersed in a world of martial intrigue and wuxia heroics. The Winged Tiger is a great film, and one that is sure to excite genre fans.

There are two martial arts manuals that together contain the power to create an unstoppable martial artist. The chiefs of the major clans have gotten together and decided that they must be stolen and destroyed, as one of them is in the hands of the King of Hades (Tien Feng), while the other resides with the Winged Tiger. As you might guess from his name, he dresses in bright orange and black clothes and can fly because his costume has underarm wings that recall visions of flying squirrels. Anyway, the clan chiefs ask the Flying Hero (Chen Hung Lieh in his first hero role) to get the manuals back at all costs (including tricking the King of Hades into thinking he’s the true Winged Tiger) to avert a major martial crisis.

Now when I say that the Winged Tiger can fly, I mean it. In many wuxia films people can jump to extraordinary heights, and in others they can gracefully float between rooftops. It’s all rather primitive in these early examples, but by this time they had apparently made major advances to the tech. I noted in my review of The Wandering Swordsman that the wirework was considerably better and more prominent than in previous efforts, but The Winged Tiger takes that to new heights and literally builds an entire movie around a character that can essentially fly around at will. He’s not Superman so he won’t be grabbing any bombs and taking them into space, but you better believe that every fight is filled with more shots of a flying Chen Hung Lieh than you could ever have guessed beforehand. If this were a drinking game, you’d be stone cold on the floor before thirty minutes had passed. So yeah, there’s a lot of it. I loved it. You might think it looks dumb. We’re probably both right, but I think we’d both agree that it’s at least as entertaining as a cat with tape on its foot.

Which is to say that the film is fun, but rather inconsequential. After a rousing intro and first act, the film slows down as Chen Hung Lieh spends the middle of the film hanging out at Tien Feng’s house trying to figure out where he’s hidden his half of the manual. Chen also uses this time to seduce Tien’s sister in an attempt to get what he wants, but, you know, he gets in too deep. While this section does feature a few exciting bits, and a wonderful performance by Ngai Ping-Ngo as the blind adviser with a huge, hairy wart on his face, it slows down the film a little too much and I wished for more fun, high-flying action.

The third act doesn’t disappoint, delivering a finale that Chang Cheh himself would be proud of. While it isn’t as bloody as that might suggest, it is steeped in thick melodramatic moments that hit hard and brutal just like you’d expect from Chang. Chen Hung Lieh is great as the Flying Hero, and this movie proves he’s much better than the simple villains he was seemingly typecast as after his memorable turn in Come Drink With Me. Tien Feng isn’t given much to do till the ending, but he really shines when it counts and delivers a great final scene where he battles Chen Hung Lieh with a rope as his weapon of choice.

Through battles like this (sword vs. rope), you start to see the inventive spirit that sets Hong Kong films apart from traditional Western action cinema. When I said he used a rope, I bet everyone reading thought, “Huh? How do you use a rope?” And what’s great about its use here is that it never comes off as a weakness. The properties of the rope (flexibility, durability, and reach) all play into the choreography and allow Tien Feng to go toe-to-toe with Chen Hung Lieh. It reminded me of Donnie Yen’s use of cloth in Once Upon a Time in China 2, and perhaps this is the film which influenced its use there. Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung are definitely growing as choreographers and really beginning to distance themselves from the pack.

This was Shen Chiang’s first martial arts film as director, and only his second film overall. You’d never know it, though, as the film is full of gorgeous shots and interesting composition. With all the special wirework effects, editing becomes a crucial component to the film’s success and the work exhibited here perfectly brings together the disparate elements at work. Looking over his filmography, Shen Chiang was never a prolific filmmaker, but if all his stuff is on this level I’ll definitely be a happy camper with his future output.

The Winged Tiger isn’t everything it could be because of a slow middle, but it succeeds in spite of its weaknesses to bring viewers an exciting, enjoyable slice of wuxia entertainment.

Next in line in this chronological series of the Shaw Brother’s martial arts films is the Cheng Pei Pei film Lady of Steel from director Ho Meng-Hua!