The Secret of the Dirk [大羅劍俠] (1970)

Starring Ching Li, Chang Yi, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Tien Feng, Shu Pei-Pei, Wang Hsieh, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Wong Ching Ho, Chiu Hung, Fang Mian, Goo Man-Chung

Directed by Hsu Cheng Hung

Expectations: Low.

Hsu Cheng Hung apparently got with the program and finally delivered a compelling martial arts film! Throughout this series I’ve seen a number of his films (all of them up to this point, in fact), and just about every time I’ve been disappointed. As the genre slowly shifted focus from costume drama to action film, Hsu Cheng Hung films were generally throwbacks to the way martial arts films started, with songs and a general lack of excitement. He’s had a few moderately enjoyable movies, but The Secret of the Dirk is hands down the best film I’ve seen from him. It gives me hope that the films to follow will continue this forward momentum. If nothing else, I won’t start his next film with a resigned sigh and an, “OK, let’s get this over with” attitude.

I’m not going to break down the story beats here, because, like almost all wuxia films, it’s a needlessly complicated section of a larger narrative. The only things you really need to know is that 20 years ago some treasure was hidden and now the Black Tiger bandits want to find it. The people it rightfully belongs to are also on the hunt for it, as those who knew where it was are out of commission. This makes it sound like a true adventure film, which it isn’t, but that’s the basic narrative drive of the story. The storytelling gets a bit muddled during the first half because so many characters are thrown at you with little explanation, and I had a hard time keeping track of everyone. I thought one girl was a different character for about half the movie, and then when I figured out that she wasn’t, it also became clear that it didn’t matter.

A rare treat… the Thai version of the poster!

And in this realization, I let go of any sort of mental jockeying for understanding and just let the film’s fun tone wash over me. It’s also melodramatic and serious, as most of these Shaw tales are, but it’s definitely going for fun over dramatic tension. So when I gave myself over to that, I saw that the film was like a car speeding down a straightaway, accelerating relentlessly to a stunning climax. It’s one of those movies that just keeps getting better and better.

At the climax of the film is a well-choreographed fight scene, as expected, but the fight here is so well done that I have to call it one of the most entertaining fights of the era. As I’ve often stated in these reviews, multi-combatant battles have a tendency to become white noise in their grasping for quantity over quality. But in The Secret of the Dirk, famed choreographer Tang Chia — here working solo — delivers one of the most thrilling sword battles I’ve seen yet in the Shaw catalog. The fights earlier in the film are good, but not particularly special, heralding little of the barrage of blood and intense thrills to come. The climactic scene hits hard, and in the ultimate moment, when the actual secret of the dirk is revealed to us, it explodes the tension built by the fight into one of the most exciting “Oh shit” moments I’ve had in recent memory. The Secret of the Dirk was a pure mainline of awesome for the last ten minutes or so.

One of the best aspects of the film is Chang Yi’s weapon, the Da Law sword, which is one sword that splits in several thinner swords. He controls each sword flawlessly, flipping them around to attack behind him and in front, as well as bring able to throw them when the opportunity presents itself. It makes for a wildly fun set of fights, and while the weapon doesn’t get near enough screen time to satiate my bloodlust, he does slice and dice his way through a considerable number of enemies. There’s also tons of wirework, and Chang Yi does some incredible, in-the-air somersaults that are skillfully woven into the fight choreography by Tang Chia.

Watch out for the spikes!

I also enjoy how quickly these wuxia films will dispense key moments that Western films would languish on for minutes. When an epic story must fit into a 78-minute film, you kinda blow through the reveals! Anyway, my favorite of these moments was when a 20-something girl who grew up thinking her father was a mute finds out he could actually talk all along. Immediately after this revelation, only the second thing her father’s said to her in her entire life, is the shocker: “I’m not your father either.” Boom! That’s one hell of a one-two punch!

The Secret of the Dirk isn’t as great as it could have been without a truly well-told story, but it’s so much fun that it doesn’t really matter. It’s light entertainment, meant to take you away from your struggles and let you relax for a while. It does exactly that, and The Secret of the Dirk is easily the best Hsu Cheng Hung film so far. If you dig on old school wuxia, this is definitely a fun, light movie to track down.

No trailer again, but if you’ve ever wanted to watch a clip from a Shaw film with Russian dubbing, now’s your chance!

Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Yen Chun’s The Iron Buddha, featuring choreography from Sammo Hung! Yen Chun doesn’t have the best track record during the series so far, but I hope this one can change that.