Starring Li Ching, Chiu Hung, Yeung Chi-Hing, Wang Hsieh, Dean Shek Tin, Kong Ling, Tung Lam, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Shen, Pang Pang, Unicorn Chan, Lee Man-Chow, Sa Au
Directed by Ho Meng-Hua
Ambush is like a lot of the other martial arts films I’ve seen from director Ho Meng-Hua. It is a capable film, and it tells a good story, but it just doesn’t feel all that original or special. When you’re cranking out as many martial arts films as the Shaw Brothers were at this time, it makes sense that many of them might be like this, but a couple of things about Ambush help to differentiate it from previous mid-level Shaw films.
First, this was their first martial arts film of 1973, and by this point in their history the fight choreography is well beyond what you’d generally expect in something labeled “mid-range.” By modern standards it’s a little wonky, but regardless the fights of Ambush are plentiful and fun. Shaw veteran Simon Chui Yee-Ang handled the choreography himself this time and he does a great job of crafting quick-moving fights that showcase everything from fantastical wuxia feats, to basic swordplay, to the up-and-coming genre standard hand-to-hand work.
The second thing that sets Ambush apart — and kicked the rating up to three stars instead of two-and-a-half — is the final battle. Well, technically there is a totally anticlimactic fight right after it, but who cares about that one? Besides, “the final battle” is much easier to type than “the penultimate battle that really should have ended the film.” Anyway, our hero tracks the villain (whose identity is obscured for the entire film, so I won’t name any names) to an abandoned house in the country. At said house is a giant, broken-down (but still turning) windmill.
Ho Meng-Hua gives us all kinds of incredible shots of our combatants staring each other down in front of the windmill before unleashing their fury. I generally avoid spoilers about the whys and hows of fights, specifically end fights, but I can’t restrain myself here. The whole battle is fantastic, but when they jumped onto the blades of the windmill and continued fighting as it revolved I knew I was in love. Ambush may very well be the type of movie that I come to love as I re-watch it.
The film’s story concerns the transport of a load of jewels by the Wai Yuan Security Bureau. Their leader, Wan Gong Wu (Lee Pang-Fei), doesn’t feel that his company is able to properly protect the load, so he asks the help of his friend Fan Zhi Long (Yueng Chi-Hung), who runs the Zhen Bei Security Bureau. Zhen provides three of his best men, but just a few minutes later the caravan is ambushed! Who woulda guessed? The jewels are stolen, and in the wake of the robbery rumors swirl about how it was perpetrated by Wan and his son Wan Chao Fan (Chiu Hung). Wan Chao Fan knows he’s innocent, so it’s up to him to prove it and clear his family’s name.
This obviously isn’t the most original martial arts setup in the book, but thankfully screenwriter Patrick Kong Yeung (who also wrote King Boxer and The Devil’s Mirror) has a few good tricks. Ambush purposefully sets up almost all of its fights as ambush situations, so it’s quite fun to see our heroes fight their way out of danger, only to find themselves set up to be murdered a few minutes later. Ambush also adds a wonderful layer of the supernatural, almost venturing into horror movie territory at times. Over the course of this series I’ve noticed that director Ho Meng-Hua usually adds some supernatural or horror elements to his wuxia, and Ambush is one of the more seamless integrations of this.
Ambush is also notable to us future fans for featuring Jackie Chan in a very small role as an extra using a bow and arrow. And speaking of Jackie Chan, Dean Shek Tin who would later very memorably play roles in early Jackie Chan films Drunken Master, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and The Fearless Hyena, is here featured in a very traditional stoic swordsman supporting role as “The Cold-Faced Swordsman Hong Lieh.” Without his exaggerated facial expressions, he looks like a completely different person!
Ambush isn’t a great movie, but there’s a lot to like here. Like the wonderfully named “Three Tigers of the Gold Chicken Fortress,” for instance. 🙂 Go in with the popcorn handy, don’t expect too much and you’ll enjoy it.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chu-Got Ching-Wan & Yeung Jing-Chan’s The Champion (AKA Shanghai Lil and the Sun Luck Kid)! See ya then! (Hopefully sooner rather than later.)