Purple Darts [紫金鏢] (1969)
Starring Wang Ling, Tung Li, Ou Wei, Cho Kin, Li Kuan-Chang, Lee Fung, Cheung Sai-Sai, Chow Siu-Hing, Tai Leung, Cheung Ching-Fung
Directed by Pan Lei
Expectations: Fairly low.
It’s a shame that Purple Darts is one of the Shaw Brothers films that never received a DVD release from Celestial, because it’s a great wuxia full of fun characters and tense fights. Its story isn’t always the slickest, the characters’ motivations are usually somewhat cloudy and unexplained, there are “important” things that ultimately mean nothing, and the choreography leaves a lot to be desired, but Purple Darts finds ways to make those discrepancies fly away like a slick wuxia hero. It’s by far the best film I’ve seen from Pan Lei, and I’m sad that his final martial arts film for the Shaw Brothers, 1971’s The Merciful Sword, is currently MIA. Maybe it’ll eventually turn up like Purple Darts.
Like many Shaw martial arts films from the 1960s, Purple Darts opens with an infant in peril. Her parents are under assault from four villainous figures of the martial world: Bai Feng the Butcher, Lu Dachao the Bull Demon, Gu Miaozhen the Seducer, and Wang Yizhou The Wind Waving Scholar. Together they seek the Great Mystery Scriptures, a kung fu manual with unexplained power and importance. The infant’s mother manages to smuggle her out through a hidden tunnel, and an old man takes the baby in. Cue the credits! And now, just as in a good majority of these ’60s wuxias, the credits end and the infant is now a 20-something adult in search of vengeance for the crimes against her parents!
Storywise, the revenge aspect is handled directly and without any extraneous material. Our heroine Xia Lu (Wang Ling) goes from one battle to the next without much in the way of drama in-between. Someone just whisks her to safety and helps her patch herself up before she runs out the door to fight the next evildoer on her list. The first of her helpers is Wang Guangyu (Cho Kin), a mysterious older man who seems to know everything about Xia Lu when he first meets her, and always happens to be around whenever she needs him. His character does some things that are ridiculous and stink fairly badly of the writers writing themselves into a jam and needing a quick fix, but I liked his character a lot. His quiet demeanor seems to exude a strong martial ability which made him very intriguing to me. I’m unsure that others would fall on my side of the issue, but I liked him and I don’t care.
Xia Lu picks up her other companion, Bai Jiang (Tung Li), after she takes out Bai Feng the Butcher very early in the film. He’s Bai Feng’s son and he’s on his own quest of vengeance to kill Xia Lu. They have a tense confrontation in the forest, but before he makes the final thrust to end Xia Lu’s life she makes a bargain with him to allow her the time to finish her own quest of vengeance. He’s a nice guy so he agrees, and then inexplicably he also decides to help her on her quest. I guess she made an impression. His character does quite a few things that made little sense to me, but as they all seemed to involve fights I didn’t really mind these lapses of logic much.
As it’s probably clear by now, Purple Darts is pretty stuffed with fights. Being a lower-tier title from 1969, the choreography is noticeably lacking compared to the better films of the year (such as the Chang Cheh stuff like Have Sword, Will Travel or The Invincible Fist). But where this usually sinks other films, director Pan Lei has quite a few excellent tricks up his sleeve. The fights are all edited quite well, with lots of moments where we see the action from a high, far-away vantage point. Here we are able to see the vast countryside surrounding our fighters, and suddenly simple, mediocre fights are given a power that staying in close would not have provided. The introductory fight also plays out without the aid of music, so all we hear is the clashing of blades, labored grunts, and the painful cries of the fallen. This does feel kinda “low-budget” at first, but as it goes on it also ratchets up the brutality. Nothing is hidden as dozens of people are slaughtered; we see their struggle, we see their blood, we hear their cries. Suddenly the “fun” of a violent movie seemed wrong and dirty.
The villains are also quite well-realized. Each one carries a distinct weapon that gives them their own unique fighting styles, and each actor seems to be having a great time bringing their evil character to life. Gu Miaozhen the Seducer’s special technique allows her to instantly teleport herself across the room, which makes fighting her a challenge. This effect is achieved in probably the simplest camera trick of all time, just cutting and relocating the actor before rolling the camera again, but once again I’m in awe of how well the Shaw Studio was at making this kind of effect look virtually seamless. Bai Jiang is mid-strike when Gu Miaozhen the Seducer teleports from the back of the frame to right in front of the camera, but it’s still very hard to detect the cut. Amazing, simple stuff.
If you couldn’t already tell, I loved Purple Darts. It definitely has its issues, and fans of later genre films won’t necessarily like it as much as I did, but I had a grand ol’ time with all the fun wuxia feats on display throughout the film.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: the mop-up continues with the non-Shaw but very influential 1970 hand-to-hand film From the Highway, from director Chang Tseng-Chai! See ya then! (Hopefully sooner rather than later.)