Vengeance! [報仇] (1970)
AKA Kung Fu Vengeance
Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Wang Ping, Alice Au Yin-Ching, Ku Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Wong Ching Ho, Chuen Yuen, Hoh Ban, Chan Sing, Wang Kuang-Yu, Cheng Lui, Hung Lau, Lau Gong, Wong Chung, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Shum Lo, Chen Kuan-Tai
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: Super high. I’ve wanted to see this forever.
In my review for Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman, I mentioned that Chang had thrown down the gauntlet with that film, challenging the genre to step up to the plate and create meaningful action cinema. Vengeance! is another of these pinnacle moments in the history of the genre, with Chang Cheh thoroughly tired of the status quo and looking for new inspiration. He found it in a new time period, the 1920s early Republic era, and setting the film during this tumultuous period in Chinese history makes for the perfect setting of a martial arts film. As political struggles divided China into factions and eventually led to the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) between the Republic and the Communist forces, Vengeance! is set in an unnamed Chinese city where criminals have banded together to control the land. I don’t claim to be a history scholar, but a general knowledge of this helps to inform the setting of the film in the viewer’s mind, even if these broad struggles don’t specifically come into play during the story.
Vengeance! opens with a Peking opera, echoing (and perhaps mocking) the used and reused traditional period setting of many Shaw Brothers films. Ti Lung is the lead actor, skillfully demonstrating his martial skill in a tragic play where he is assaulted by many combatants and is eventually killed rather violently. All the while, Ku Feng is upstairs hitting on Ti Lung’s wife, and when Ti finds out, he’s pissed. He travels to Ku Feng’s martial arts school, breaks their sign (is this perhaps the first sign-breaking in martial arts history?) and proceeds to school everyone that comes near him. The criminal bosses don’t like being fucked with though, so they plot an ambush for Ti Lung and violently murder him. This is roughly the opening fifteen minutes, and already we’ve had a finale quality fight scene. Where does Chang Cheh take it from here?
To the title, of course, as at this point we are introduced to David Chiang, our hero and vengeance seeker. He’s Ti Lung’s brother and he is not to be trifled with. Chiang doesn’t fuck around with silly things like words and mercy, he simply finds the bastards that killed his brother and proceeds to annihilate them. Chang Cheh’s films are always violently brutal, but the brutality seen in Vengeance! feels like it’s on another level. Where martial arts films up to this point had traditionally been one person (or a couple of people) facing off against a horde of villains, just a pair of henchmen in Vengeance! require everything our hero can muster. One fight that starts in the opera-house bathroom shows Chiang facing off against two henchmen, and Chiang relentlessly strikes them with all his fury injected into every blow. The scene ends with Chiang mercilessly kicking the final henchman in the face repeatedly, until his face is bloody, beaten and disfigured.
While violence and gore have always been a part of the Shaw Brothers films, Vengeance! takes the martial arts film completely out of the fantasy realm, and ushers in something more. This is easily as important a film to the genre as The One-Armed Swordsman because it takes the genre and completely reinvents it. In Chang Cheh’s memoir he states, “Vengeance! ushered in a new era of Early Republican action films, exerting a huge influence and paving the way for the kung fu star Bruce Lee.” In this genre, how much more influential can you get than that? Coming at it at random, it might be easy to see Vengeance! as just another awesome Chang Cheh movie, but in context of its release date, it is yet another revelation from a director full of them.
The action choreography here was handled by Tang Chia and Yuen Cheung-Yan, the same duo responsible for Have Sword, Will Travel, and their work together is gorgeous. Both are genre legends, and it’s easy to see why when you’re watching Chiang stab dudes with his giant knife in new and inventive ways in nearly every scene. Vengeance! also features the first really significant use of unarmed combat, which in and of itself is revolutionary. It’s been hinted at here and there in many of the previous Shaw films, but this is the first movie to focus solely on fights that do not contain the traditional swords of the wuxia genre. This shift comes along with the early Republic period, and really set the stage for the kung fu genre we know and love (which, much to my delight, is getting fairly close in this series).
Vengeance! is something of a loose remake of the John Boorman film Point Blank starring Lee Marvin, and from my memories of that film (I saw it once maybe seven or eight years ago), I think its visual aesthetics influence this film greatly. The stories are similar as well, but in that one there’s no brother and there’s some money that comes between Lee Marvin and his attackers. So instead of thinking of this as a straight remake, it should be considered alongside films like Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars: similar plots but different iconography and circumstances.
Chang Cheh’s camerawork is superb here, and his artistic flourishes greatly enhance the drama that unfolds within the violence. He cuts back to Ti Lung’s acted death on the opera stage, while he’s actually getting hatchets shoved into his stomach in his real death scene. Slow motion punctuates a couple of specific moments in the finale that amplify their impact, as well as allowing you to marvel at the wonderfully bright, red blood of the Shaw Brothers. Chang’s prior film Have Sword, Will Travel was filled with slow motion, but here the technique is reserved to only a couple of very specific moments. I liked its plentiful use in Have Sword, Will Travel but the careful selection of shots here helps make them all the more impactful.
Vengeance! led to many more films set within this early Republic of China era, and it’s easy to see why. There’s only so much you can do with the wuxia genre, and Chang Cheh’s constant displeasure and feelings of stagnation with the genre, and his searching for a new creative outlet led to pure gold. David Chiang is also phenomenal and carries the movie almost completely on his shoulders. Ku Feng performs admirably well as one of the main villains. And in addition to all of that, it’s also the first Shaw Brothers role for future star Chen Kuan-Tai. It’s just a bit part guarding a door, but it echoes the similar roles that Ti Lung and David Chiang had themselves in previous Chang Cheh films prior to their breakout successes.
Vengeance! is definitely one you don’t want to miss.
Oh shit! The original trailer! I get so excited when I find the actual trailer.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is The Twelve Gold Medallions, Cheng Kang’s first film since the incredible Killers Five! Can’t wait!