The Singing Killer [小煞星] (1970)
Starring David Chiang, Wang Ping, Chan Sing, Tina Chin Fei, Dean Shek Tin, Ku Feng, Stanley Fung Sui-Fan, Yeung Chi Hing, Wong Chung, Lau Gong, Yip Bo-Kam, Lee Sau Kei
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: Moderately high. I hope to have fun with it.
Chang Cheh’s The Singing Killer opens rather promisingly. David Chiang sits on-stage at the drums singing these choice lines (among others):
“I’m the singing killer
Fist is a fist, Knife is a knife
Kung fu, judo and karate, I specialize in all
If you dare, come and try me
The singing killer is me”
While Chiang definitely showcases his ability to kick some ass during the film’s brief but brutal fight scenes, and he’s also proven to be quite competent with a gun when he needs to be, the film just isn’t all that engaging. I mean, if David Chiang can’t even be bothered to move his mouth when he’s supposed to be singing, how am I supposed to dredge up enough excitement to be enthusiastic about this?
On top of that, the story itself isn’t much better than Chiang’s horrible, lip-synched “singing,” with nearly half the film comprised of scenes that pretty much go like this:
“Johnny, you will do this job for us.”
“No, I won’t! I’m reformed.”
“Oh yeah? Remember we have your girl, Lily.”
“OK, I’ll do it.”
While that sort of setup is commonplace in the crime genre, it gets a little repetitive to have nearly every scene for half the movie play against this same trope. But I think I’m sounding too harsh, as The Singing Killer, while flawed and cliched, is still fairly entertaining. David Chiang plays Johnny, a singing sensation that has a checkered past as a thief and a killer. He went by the name The Singing Killer in those days, and his old friends have come calling, pressuring him into one more big score.
On the positive side, the action is rather well-done. There aren’t any extended fight sequences, but there are a bunch of really quick moments when Chiang explodes into violence against the thugs standing in his way. The fights were choreographed by the duo of Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung, and they definitely feel exciting. The most defining characteristic of the fights, though, is their brutality, much like the fights in the much better film Vengeance!. In The Singing Killer, Chiang knees a guy in the armpit repeatedly, rams a guy’s head relentlessly into a wall, and slams both fists forcefully into as many torsos as he can find. The fights may not be long, but they definitely show the potential for all the modern-day kung fu films that followed.
In addition to these fights, The Singing Killer also contains significant gun violence. Prior modern-day Chang Cheh movies have featured guns here and there, but The Singing Killer is perhaps the first Hong Kong film with extended, over-the-top gunplay. During the finale, Chiang assaults the enemy’s compound single-handedly with a pistol, delivering something of a primordial version of the gun-driven sub-genre that people like John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat brought to prominence in the 1980s.
It’s interesting to see Chang Cheh explore different genres, and The Singing Killer is a more crime-focused, serious take on his earlier film The Singing Thief. It doesn’t work near as well as that film (at least for me) because it takes itself so seriously, but in terms of action The Singing Killer is a much more exciting and well-choreographed film. Even still, I’d count The Singing Killer as one of Chang’s failed experiments. It’s an alright movie that entertains well-enough, but it’s too generic and simplistic to be anything you’ll remember as the years roll on. The musical scenes are especially horrid, although they do feature a few situations that are likely to garner big, unintentional laughs.
Also from my seat in the future, it’s a little hard to watch a modern-day, Hong Kong action drama that’s restricted mostly to studio sets. After seeing countless wonderful ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong films actually filmed in the streets, I just find it incredibly hard to buy “the reality” offered here. I know that’s an unfair stance on my part, and it’s something I should be able to overlook as someone critically reviewing films from 42 years ago. But in a movie that’s as underwhelming as this, it’s a liability, not a casual fault. I’m also aware that this is not really the movie’s fault specifically, but it’s just something that sticks out to me that might also bother other modern viewers.
The Singing Killer is worthwhile as a young sapling version of the gunplay sub-genre of Hong Kong action films, but as a movie it’s far from great.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is another Chang Cheh film, King Eagle!