The Twelve Gold Medallions [十二金牌] (1970)
AKA Twelve Golden Medallions

Starring Yueh Hua, Chin Ping, Cheng Miu, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Wang Hsieh, Wong Chung-Shun, Yeung Chi Hing, Ku Feng, Liu Wai, Goo Man-Chung, Jeng Man-Jing, Fan Mei-Sheng, Tong Tin-Hei, Ma Ying, Go Ming

Directed by Cheng Kang

Expectations: High. Cheng Kang returns!

The Twelve Gold Medallions was Cheng Kang’s first feature since the wonderful Killers Five, so I went in hoping that it would live up to the pure, unfiltered awesome laid out there. While The Twelve Gold Medallions definitely doesn’t live up to that kind of hype, it’s a really incredible wuxia film that is sure to delight and excite fans of the genre. It starts out with a bang too, immediately dropping us into the action as Yueh Hua is doing his best to stop the messengers carrying the twelve gold medallions of the title.

The film opens with some text, hoping to frame the events of the film within some sort of historical context. The twelve gold medallions are the ploy of an evil traitor, hoping to thwart the plans of a patriotic general doing his best to preserve the current Emperor’s reign. Yueh Hua, a noble swordsman, takes up the task of stopping these messengers and their false messages. Beyond that, there’s also a romantic sub-plot between Yueh Hua and Chin Ping, the daughter of his master, as well as some drama between Yueh and his master (Cheng Miu) over the fact that Cheng has become the leader of the villainous group trying to deliver the medallions.

The Twelve Gold Medallions is interesting as a movie because not much about it is especially remarkable, but the level of quality throughout is incredibly high. It’s a great and totally fun experience, but I’ll probably forget most of the specifics pretty quickly. But make no mistake: every facet of the film is quality, from the clever writing to the inventive camerawork; The Twelve Gold Medallions is a sure-fire film to show you exactly how fun a wuxia film can be. I always love the wildly over-the-top feats of martial strength on display in a wuxia film, and The Twelve Gold Medallions contains a few bona fide classics. In an early scene, Yueh Hua confronts Wong Chung-Shun in a wonderfully tense exchange where Wong thinks Yueh is a food vendor. Wong doesn’t want to pay so he embeds his coins into the table, but with one strike Yueh knocks them out and they perfectly fly into the receptacle on his cart. What happens next is probably my favorite moment in the entire film as Yueh Hua reaches with his bare hand into a vat of boiling oil and fishes out the fried breads that Wong has paid for. There’s badass, and then there’s BADASS, and feats of martial skill like this will never cease to delight me.

The action here was handled by the team of Simon Hsu and Sammo Hung, the same guys responsible for the incredibly well choreographed Brothers Five, but don’t go in expecting action at that level. The Twelve Gold Medallions is a film that tries its best to be a pinnacle of the wuxia genre up to this point, and it succeeds, where Brothers Five was more concerned with pushing the genre forward into what it would more closely resemble as the 1970s push on. As such, The Twelve Gold Medallions‘ action have come from the same choreography team, but it never tries to feature martial arts wizardry anywhere close to the level of Brothers Five. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the course of this series, it’s that each sub-genre of the martial arts film is distinctly its own thing, and there are a set of expectations for each. Anyway, the fights that are here are fun, and playfully choreographed. The finale is especially good, with the tense stand-off between the two old masters nearly as exciting as the battle itself. I’m always excited when the villain is built up as someone who no one else can best (kind of like in Brothers Five :P), as it almost always leads to an exciting finale where the good guys throw everything they can at him. The Twelve Gold Medallions is no different, and it ends the film on a high note, even if the bookending text that comes up afterwards paints a dark, depressing end to the overall struggle.

In terms of story, the film is a little weak. It’s not much more than “We gotta get these messengers,” but it is a perfect example of wuxia storytelling, where the original source material is enough for a multi-year TV series, and one film alone merely presents a slice of a much larger narrative. I don’t believe this film is specifically based on a novel (the trailer and the opening & closing text suggest it is based on history), but the same idea still applies. The Twelve Gold Medallions does manage to sidestep the usual problem of the ending to a wuxia film feeling incomplete, though, by presenting the culmination of the film’s sub-plots in a satisfying and rewarding way so that the impact of the ongoing nature of the larger story doesn’t matter nearly as much.

The action is also shot incredibly well. Cheng Kang proved on Killers Five that he knew what he was doing, and The Twelve Gold Medallions feels like a master at work behind the camera. He consistently is able to find shots and angles that put you directly into the action, such as a scene when a woman is ambushed and then dragged along the ground with a rope. They strapped a camera to someone’s back and dragged them around, creating an incredibly visceral moment that sucks you right into the scene. There’s also Yueng Chi-Hung’s fight with Yueh Hua in the teahouse that moves from brightly lit to dark shadows as Yueng slices tea cups onto the flames of the candles to extinguish their light.

I loved The Twelve Gold Medallions, and I’m sure it would be a treat for any fan of wuxia cinema. I’m unsure of its ability to crossover and impress a mainstream viewer, but perhaps with a film this obscure and hard to find that really doesn’t matter much. Nearly every scene in the film is exciting and filled with something fun, but even still there’s just not enough to push it over the edge and into the realm of pure awesome. Perhaps it’s Yueh Hua or Chin Ping, stars of many ’60s Shaw Brothers films, but I’m of the mind it’s more of a focus on quantity over quality. The quality is still incredibly high, but it is spread just a little too thin. The film is also notable for being Chin Ping’s final swordswoman role, as she said farewell to the glamorous life of the actress, appearing in only two other films (both non-martial arts) after this. The film is a fond farewell to one of the genre’s first stars, as she was there right from the get-go in the Shaw Brothers first color martial arts film, Temple of the Red Lotus. Oh, how far the genre came in five short years.

Man, two original trailers in a row! I can’t believe it!

Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Swordswomen Three, Shen Chiang’s follow-up to The Winged Tiger, a film I very much enjoyed!