Starring Shih Szu, Lo Lieh, Chang Pei-Shan, Fang Mian, Tong Tin-Hei, Richard Chan Chun, Lee Ga-Sai, Yue Fung, Chan Shen, Lee Wan-Chung, Cheng Yin, Erh Chun, Cheung Ban, Cheung Hei, Hao Li-Jen
Directed by Shen Chiang
Expectations: Moderate. Shen Chiang has been hit or miss in the past.
As much as I try to watch the Shaw Brothers films chronologically, there are always discrepancies. The specific date of release for Heroes of Sung has been lost in time, so who knows where it actually came in the 1973 release cycle. In my series it’s the final film of 1973, and honestly, it’s a perfectly rousing and entertaining little movie to close out the year with. It looks back as it moves forward, recalling the style of wuxias past (like late ’60s/early ’70s), while also containing excellent action that would have never graced screens in those years.
What makes Heroes of Sung interesting is that it’s a wuxia filled with all kinds of supernatural wuxia feats, but it’s also based around Chinese history. Like Iron Bodyguard, Heroes of Sung doesn’t tell its audience about the story’s foundation in reality. Makes sense, I guess. Seeing a dude roll around in a combat wheelchair fighting off a villain wielding a steel eagle claw on a chain doesn’t really say “Based on a True Story,” now does it?
Heroes of Sung centers around the Jingkang Incident, when the Jin Dynasty attacked the capital of the Sung Dynasty, sacked the city, and took Emperor Qinzong prisoner along with his father, Emperor Huizong. The film opens with Jing Yue Feng (Fang Mian), Chief of the Sung Imperial Guard, disguised as a Jin soldier in order to get inside the tent holding the kidnapped emperors. Jing tells the Sung royalty of how he helped Prince Kang escape the Jin, and in turn the Emperor entrusts him with both Imperial seals. Together with his buddy Meng Xi (Tong Tin-Hei), Jing is tasked with taking the seals to Prince Kang so he can be enthroned as the new emperor in the southern part of the region. Also of interest to kung fu fans: the Jin would later change their name to the Manchu, continuing to be a big thorn in the side of kung fu movie heroes across the land for many years to come.
These kinds of clandestine plans never work out as expected, though, and soon the seals have been handed off to Tian-Hu (Lo Lieh) and Tian-Long (Chang Pei-Shan) on the Jing side, and Hong-Erh (Shih Szu) on the Meng side. They are the students and/or children of these great Imperial soldiers, and now they must protect the seals from “the scum of Fengyun Hall,” who are basically a crack team of kung fu bounty hunters working for the Jin. Sounds pretty good, right? It is!
At only 80 minutes, Heroes of Sung packs in a lot of story, action and intrigue, but somehow it still manages to sag a bit in the middle. It’s a shame because if it didn’t, this would be a Grade-A, bona fide humdinger. Even with the belly fat, it’s still a damn fun wuxia that I’m sure has fallen under the radar of many. The main problem of this middle section is that the heroes don’t seem to fully grasp the immediacy of the danger they’re in. For instance, they are assaulted by the Fengyun scum while at the Meng residence, but instead of moving on, they stick around for another 30 minutes of movie time, only to be assaulted there again! These inexperienced, student heroes are not inspiring much faith in the fate of the Imperial seals! In term of the characters, their motivations for staying there make some sense, but I feel like the danger would outweigh their normal, everyday motivations.
The film’s action comes to us courtesy of good ol’ Yuen Woo-Ping and Yuen Cheung-Yan. Their choreography here is impeccable for the era, delivering quick strikes and bloody deaths one after another. The weapons are varied and great fun, from axes and the aforementioned eagle-claw chain to a pair of swords with little briefcase-like handles on the sheaths that can lock together during a fight to deliver the “Joint Hands Style Swordplay.” Hahahahaha, these are the kinds of wuxia delights that make me smile from ear to ear.
Two elements within the action really stand out, though: Shih Szu and the wirework. In addition to delivering a great acting performance, Shih Szu excels on the battlefield. During the finale, she wields a sword in each hand and it’s an incredible sight. She moves through the choreography with a passionate flair, embodying the spirit of Cheng Pei-Pei but turning it up a couple notches more. It’s transcendent and beautiful. See the GIF below for a small taste.
I can’t say that the wirework is transcendent, but it does offer a number of wonderful moments that allow the fights to become fantastical and supernatural in the best ways. Your tolerance for gimmicky things, or what might be considered campy, will definitely play a role in whether you embrace the wirework as much as I did, so keep that in mind. The key here is that everything about the fights is F.U.N. and that is a quality that cannot be overlooked. The fantasy ideas of Heroes of Sung may be obscured at times due to the special effects limitations of the era, but they are the same kinds of ideas that fueled the wuxia films of the ’80s and ’90s and made them explode with energy and innovation.
One last thing about the action choreography: the battles here are predominantly in the “One or Two vs. a big group of bad guys,” but the camera and the choreography hold the focus on specific elements of the fight that matter. In many other films, these types of fights are nothing more than a wide shot with 15 dudes flailing all across the screen to create the idea of a large-scale battle. In Heroes of Sung, we are often treated to tightly choreographed movements between five or more people. This results in complex chains of events (usually filmed in one shot) that bring the genre ever-closer to perfecting the illusion of actual fighting and reaction-based strikes.
I didn’t expect too much from Heroes of Sung, but man, it really knocked my socks off. I need these kinds of wuxia in my life, and if you dig this sort of thing, so do you!
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a Top 10 list of 1972–1973! The next review will be on the first Shaw film of 1974: Village of Tigers from directors Griffin Yueh Feng & Wong Ping! See ya then!