Heads for Sale [女俠賣人頭] (1970)

Starring Lisa Chiao Chiao, Chan Leung, Wang Hsieh, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Chen Yan-Yan, Fan Mei-Sheng, Cheng Miu, Cheng Lui, Chan Sing, Tung Li, Chai No, Hung Lau, Poon Oi-Lun, Yip Bo-Kam

Directed by Cheng Chang Ho

Expectations: Low, despite a great title.

Heads for Sale opens with a song. This is not generally a good sign, and it immediately made me think this would be a throwback film to the early days of the genre when it was all pageantry and colorful music numbers. Thankfully, this is not the case, but the film suffers horribly from disorganized storytelling and a cast of characters so large and broad that it becomes tedious to keep up with everyone. Just when you think they’ve thrown everything they can at you, Heads for Sale introduces four new villains about 12 minutes before the film ends. And these aren’t villains that the film has been alluding to throughout like ominous string-pullers lurking in the dark, they’re just four brothers looking for vengeance on two of their brothers killed earlier in the film. It’s never clear who their brothers are either, but I’m going to assume they were the two guys beheaded about halfway through the movie. So yeah, the storytelling isn’t as strong as it could be.

In any case, the story begins with Hua Bilian (Lisa Chiao Chiao) waiting patiently for word that Luo Hongxun (Chan Leung) will accept her hand in marriage. The thing is: Hua’s father has a bad reputation as a bandit, so no one wishes to marry Hua. When an emissary arrives with the bad news, Hua flips out, suits up and heads over to Luo’s home to settle the score. A woman scorned, and all that. What she’s not aware of is that Luo actually cares deeply for her, it’s his mother that said no and sent the emissary away empty-handed. Cue some misunderstandings, followed by a bunch of fights and you’ve pretty much got an idea of what Heads for Sale is all about.

Not really her best day…

The film was directed by Cheng Chang Ho, not a household name by any means, but one that will forever be associated with the legacy of martial arts cinema. A couple of years later, Cheng directed King Boxer (AKA Five Fingers of Death), the first martial arts film to get a legitimate US theatrical release, thus kicking off the giant kung fu craze in the states. While you might look at release dates and think that Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (Fists of Fury in the US) should have been that film, its US release wasn’t until almost two years after its HK release. Anyway, Cheng Chang Ho is obviously a very important director because of this, and Heads for Sale, while disjointed and not really my cup of tea, does show a lot of promise.

The camera work is especially good in the fight sequences, with long, flowing takes of fluid choreography. Because of my lack of involvement with the story — and as this is a hardlined wuxia film, a connection to the story is critical — the fights never resonated with me beyond the simple, “That’s a good shot,” etc. There are lots of inventive moments sprinkled throughout, but overall the fights are fairly standard for the period. But as I mentioned above, the camerawork elevates the OK fights to being fairly interesting. One moment in particular stands out where the camera deftly follows Chiao as she slices her way through enemies, then it dollies over naturally to follow Chan Leung’s moves through the crowd, before coming back to Chiao all in one shot. As much as I didn’t care about the combatants during the fight, this kind of camera movement must have been incredibly hard to block and shoot, so I respect the work that went into them immensely.

But the biggest question you’re probably wondering about is if the film’s title translates to loads of decapitating action. Not really. There’s a fight halfway through that ends with Chiao decapitating two of the men she’s fighting, but that’s about it. She does wrap their heads up and use them to her advantage later, though, planting one in a doctor’s office and parading through the street with the other proclaiming, “Head for sale!” While I obviously would have enjoy more wanton decapitation, I can understand how we might not care so much about the character if that’s all she was doing throughout the movie. I didn’t really care about her anyway, but for those able to get into the movie it definitely works as is in terms of a violent romance film. I also must mention that the closing few minutes of the film feature one of the best arm dismemberments I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s perfectly shot and edited and really comes out of nowhere, so it hits you pretty hard.

Heads for Sale is only 80 minutes, but it felt incredibly long to me as I was put off almost immediately by the large cast of shallow characters. This is a wuxia trope, so I guess I should have seen it coming. I think by this point in the series, though, I’ve seen enough wuxia films that were able to manage their cast of characters well enough to become something of an epic story instead of a jumble, so I’m less tolerant of films that aren’t able to pull that off. For a fun wuxia afternoon, this might be OK, but my money would be elsewhere for sure.

Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a film I’m very eager to see, Chang Cheh’s Vengeance!