The Black Tavern [黑店] (1972)
Starring Shih Szu, Tung Li, Ku Feng, Kong Ling, Kwok Chuk-Hing, Barry Chan, Yeung Chi-Hing, Dean Shek Tin, Wang Hsieh, Yue Fung, Situ Lin, Law Hon, Lee Ho, Wu Ma, Yau Ming
Directed by Teddy Yip Wing-Cho
Expectations: Fairly high.
I can’t say that I’ve seen any other martial arts film with a structure quite like The Black Tavern, and that’s exactly why you should see the film as clueless as possible if you want to get the maximum amount of enjoyment out of it. Even knowing that the structure is something unique is probably tipping the film’s hand too much, but it would be hard to write a review without mentioning the very thing that makes it such a notable film. So if you’re a martial arts fan looking for a great under-the-radar gem, stop reading, track down The Black Tavern, and enjoy!
The film begins with its credits over shots of patrons sitting at tables in a small tavern. There’s no sound other than the music, so the diners’ calls for pots of wine or plates of beef noodles are left for us to imagine. Sound enters the picture via a song sung by a beggar monk who ambles around the room, presumably hoping for the charity of others. The tavern’s patrons don’t look too hospitable, though, and largely ignore him. But when the song’s lyrics begin to weave a tale of how the monk happened to see a traveling official’s trunk full of amazing treasures, and how easy it would be to rob this man, the unsavory characters in the restaurant begin to take notice. A pair of bandits leave to find this easy mark, and thus begins one of the great martial arts films of the era.
What makes it great all hinges on its structure and its approach to its characters, which I’m hesitant to spoil even after giving a big disclaimer about not reading the review until after you see the film. The movie is just so cool and different that it feels cheap to spell out its secrets here. What I will say is that there is a lot of action. For a film that barely goes over 80 minutes, there’s more action than most two-hour films. And pretty much every single moment of the action in The Black Tavern is superbly choreographed and performed. I’d even go so far as to say that I felt like the action in the film was achieving a new high for the time period.
Every move felt fast, furious and absolutely fantastic. The flow was impeccable, seamlessly flowing between weapon-based combat and hand-to-hand when someone would get disarmed. There’s even small instances of the slight pausing between strikes that typifies later choreography (essentially the fighters are almost posing for a split-second before the next move). I’m not explaining it well, but if you’re a martial arts fan I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. All this incredible action is thanks to the choreography team of Simon Chui Yee-Ang and Chui Chung-Hok. Together they were responsible for the action on a few films I’ve seen from this era: The Devil’s Mirror, Finger of Doom and Chor Yuen’s first Shaw film Duel for Gold. They also worked together on the non-Shaw film Deaf & Mute Heroine, Wu Ma’s second film as a director. I hadn’t heard of that one before, which reminds me that the more I explore Hong Kong film, the more films I discover to watch!
Martial arts fans take notice: The Black Tavern is Grade-A, choice-cut kung fu, filled to the brim with devious villains and fun wuxia thrills. It’s essentially a variation on the basic idea behind King Hu’s Dragon Inn (a bunch of different factions meeting up at a single location), but it’s a much more action-oriented film that subverts your expectations just as much as it entertains. I was intrigued by Teddy Yip Wing-Cho after seeing The Eunuch, but wow, I’m really going to have to look into the rest of his filmography. The Black Tavern was his second and last film for the Shaw Brothers, and I feel confident that at least one more great film exists among the other 11 films he made. See, what did I say? The more I explore Hong Kong film, the more films I discover! But I guess you could say that about film in general. It’s a sea of endless riches, and The Black Tavern is a definite gem.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s Four Riders! I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time, so I’m pumped to have finally made it there! See ya then!