Starring Lo Lieh, Tien Feng, Wai Wang, Ling Ling, Cheung Pooi-Saan, Yeung Oi-Wa, Bolo Yeung, Gam Kei-Chu, Lee Siu-Chung, Wang Ping, Liu Wai, Law Hon, Chiang Nan, Lee Wan-Chung
Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li
Expectations: Moderately high.
Oath of Death doesn’t waste any time getting to the action. It begins immediately following the familiar Shaw fanfare, but this explosive opening is somewhat misleading. After the first act of the film sets up the characters and their struggle for righteousness, just about the entire second act is completely devoid of action. It was during this section that I became somewhat bored (despite enjoying a lot of the tension at work between the characters), but then a magical thing occurred. The final 20 minutes of this movie are incredible. The stuff contained in these 20 minutes are the epitome of what I want out of a Shaw Brothers film. This raises my estimation of Oath of Death quite a bit, and I doubt that any fan of gore could contain themselves as the final moments play out. I may not remember the story beats one-by-one, but I will never forget how this movie ends.
Oath of Death tells the story of three sworn brothers. They are valiant Song supporters fighting a rebellion against the ruthless invaders, the Tartars. Together, the blood brothers build a fortress to gather an army, because, as Tien Feng tells his brothers, in unity there is strength. When the fortress is complete, the three leaders (played by Tien Feng, Lo Lieh and Wai Wang) swear an oath to each other to do everything in their power to thwart the Tartar rulers, and whoever doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain will be killed without mercy. The story expands from here, involving lots of tests of their brotherly bonds and grand bloodshed. The plot is somewhere in between a wuxia and a martial arts film, forming a great bridge for the two genres to get to know each other.
Pao Hsueh-Li makes his directorial debut here, previously working as a cinematographer at Shaw Brothers on films such as The Bells of Death, Golden Swallow, and The Twelve Gold Medallions (among many others). You’d never have guessed this was a debut film, though, as Pao is very accomplished in his camera work. In particular, there is one incredibly affecting death scene shot in slow-motion. This would normally be a fairly triumphant moment, but the slow-motion allows us to examine every expression of anguish and the large red stains of blood that have spread over nearly all the cloth covering the person’s body. This creates an emotional, conflicted weight that the deaths in a Shaw film generally do not carry. The slow-motion and the focus on gory violence shows how much Pao was influenced by the work of Chang Cheh, so it’s no surprise that he later went on to co-direct a number of features with Chang.
The story could definitely use some tightening in the middle, but the strengths during the final act definitely outweigh a pretty minor concern like that. Yes, even when the filmmakers have the audacity to tease us with a Lo Lieh vs. Bolo Yeung fight and not deliver on that promise at all. It’s a heartbreak, for sure, even knowing that Bolo was little more than a featured bit player in this era. So given my supreme disappointment with this, I’m shocked at how much I didn’t even care about it just a few minutes later. It’s going to take all the internal kung fu I can muster to withhold the specifics of the ending, but trust me, it’s much better to go into this not knowing what’s coming. Perhaps I’m building it up too much, and others will say, “That’s it?” and think the ending is dumb, but I can’t worry too much about that. All I can say is that I burst out laughing (because I always burst out laughing when something shocks me in a good way), and then kept muttering, “Holy shit! Holy shit!” over and over and over again. I’m thrilled to no end with inventive gore, though, so if that’s not you, you will definitely have a different reaction.
The action was handled this time by Lau Kar-Wing and Chan Chuen and they delivered the goods. Not only are the action sequences exciting, they are quite interesting. The choreography is quick and furious, and largely avoids the speed-up that plagues a lot of early fight scenes in the Shaw catalog. Many of the film’s battles are once again group struggles that aren’t as thrilling now as they might have been in 1971, but even these moments are usually punctuated with broad blasts of red Shaw blood, so the large battles are forgiven.
And the characters wield a few fun weapons throughout the film, too. Tien Feng skillfully uses a whip, but his “Hurricane” martial skill is so advanced that he can straighten the whip at a moment’s notice and use it as a stabbing weapon. Not only did I not see that one coming, neither did the 20 or so guys he kills with it throughout the film. Lo Lieh goes from traditional sword to a weird overhand sword style later in the film, and also incorporates some fist work into his character’s arsenal. Wai Wang is the more average of the three, using only a traditional sword. This is representative of the characters too, as Wai Wang plays the gullible middle brother who has no clear intentions of his own. He’s along for the ride because of his brother’s passion for the struggle.
Oath of Death might be a little slow in its mid-section, but it ends on such an absolute high note that I have no choice but to give it a fairly high rating. A lot of what makes the ending great is the tension that was built up in the characters throughout that slower middle section, though, so perhaps a re-watch would reveal that the film is more carefully paced than flawed. In any case, I had a great time watching Oath of Death and if you like gore in your martial arts films, I think you’ll get a kick out of this one too. This one was also later remade by Chang Cheh as Blood Brothers, so fans of that film might be interested in seeing this earlier version.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: Chang Cheh’s The Deadly Duo! See ya next week!