Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai, Danny Lee, Wong Chung, Wai Wang, Wong Ching, Chiang Tao, Wong Bing-Bing, Lo Dik, Wang Kuang-Yu, Norman Chu Siu-Keung
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: High. Chang Cheh!
The Savage Five is yet another in a large group of fantastic films from director Chang Cheh. Contrary to last week’s film, Heroes Two, The Savage Five is not a film focused on kung fu. Martial arts are present and integral to the story, but those looking for unforgettable hand-to-hand battles will be better served by other films (such as Heroes Two!). The Savage Five works instead because it is intense and emotional, presenting an engaging story with compelling characters brought to life through exceptionally well-acted performances. It’s a small-scale film, but it is quite well-executed and all the more potent for its movement away from the style of Chang Cheh’s epics.
The story is something of a variation on The Seven Samurai, if the bandits never left the town, and the heroes had to rise from the ranks of the townspeople. This is oversimplifying it, but it’s probably the quickest way to describe the film’s dynamics. But The Savage Five takes shape through its characters and how they interact with each other, so while the story may be somewhat familiar in broad strokes, it is far more interesting and less derivative than my description may sound.
The savage five of the title are surprisingly not-so-savage when we meet them. Chen Deng (David Chiang) is a petty thief who the town chooses not to punish too harshly because they like his presence about town. He’s definitely a charmer so it’s understandable, and Chiang seems to channel a less exaggerated version of his wonderful Rambler character from The Duel. Ma Dao (Chen Kuan-Tai) is a stoic, silent woodsman, and even though we don’t learn much more than that about him through the movie, Chen’s nuanced performance gives a life and moral resonance to his actions. He only speaks a few times, but his face speaks volumes.
Wei Min Hui (Danny Lee) is a dashing and handsome silversmith, while Fang Yi Fei (Ti Lung) is a drunk who spends his days practicing kung fu with Wei. Neither of them seem terribly focused or serious about the practice; it is merely a fun diversion for their free time. The fifth man is Yao Guang (Wong Chung), a traveling kung fu acrobat, who is arguably the most skilled of the group. Unfortunately for everyone, he’s also laid up with a sickness that leaves him without much fighting ability or strength. The bandits they’re up against are also well-drawn, but in a shallower manner. They’re fantastic, ruthless villains that you love to hate, and as such they are perfect characters to push our heroes and allow us to learn more about their motivations and abilities in the face of danger.
This struggle to find the courage to act makes up most of The Savage Five, and it feels unique for a kung fu movie to tackle such a topic through not a single character, but an entire town. Most of the townspeople are fearful and unable to muster the courage to fight back, despite the fact that only 12 bandits are holding them hostage. The film opens with a large group of the townspeople harassing Chen Deng for stealing a chicken, but as the film reveals, they are able to do this because they aren’t actually afraid of Chen. They know him and they like him, so tying him to a tree is merely an act to feed their egos into believing that they are capable men in these types of “dangerous” situations.
When it comes down to it, though, only five men and one resolute woman, San Niang (Wong Bing-Bing) stand up to the bandits. Of these characters, only Wong Chung’s acrobat is anything close to a traditional kung fu movie hero. But he’s not a famed swordsman or fighter, he’s a performer. Our heroes aren’t accustomed to this sort of thing, and they don’t relish the opportunity to pit their skills against the bandits in life or death situations. They must be driven to fight (and kill), and to persevere when their first attempts to fight are thwarted. They are forced to be strategic and clever, as the bandits are clearly more powerful, more experienced, and hold a distinct advantage.
The choreography from Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia is great, but not quite up to their best efforts of the time. I’m guessing that this movie was made prior to Heroes Two, as it feels more like the 1973 films that feature the evolution towards the “real” kung fu of Heroes Two. In any case, the finale of The Savage Five is a rousing and cathartic expression of emotional violence against the ruthless, bastard bandits, but my favorite bit came earlier when Chen Kuan-Tai took the spotlight during a multi-pronged fight. The rage and emotional struggle on his face gets the best of him and they explode outwards at his opponents. The choreography reflects this wonderfully; his strikes aren’t wild and careless as much as they are fueled by his intensity and his desire to protect his beloved home.
*** Spoilers for the last act and the ending coming ***
About an hour in, the film reaches a pretty hefty climax and it would seem that the heroes have been successful in their hopeful pursuits. But these joyful moments also announce the arrival of a new threat: a bandit armed with a pair of guns. At first, I found this third act anticlimactic, because the film had swelled emotionally so much just a few minutes prior. To return everything to square one after such a struggle was hard to handle (and I’m just sitting there watching it!). But it’s actually a fantastic cap to the story, acting in a similar way to the Scouring of the Shire chapter at the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The fight is ongoing; danger is always present in some form. This really hit me in the film’s closing moments, because it leaves the town in arguably worse shape than it opened the film in: without any of its newfound protectors!
*** End Spoilers ***
Shaw Brothers films routinely used music from other films, with A LOT coming from Spaghetti Westerns and James Bond, but the usage here is so spot-on that if you didn’t know the cues were taken from another film, you’d swear they were written directly for The Savage Five. Ennio Morricone tracks from Death Rides a Horse and The Return of Ringo strike the perfect tone for the film, and Chang Cheh matches the pieces beat for beat. Chang does wonders in The Savage Five to craft wonderful scenes of tense drama, but his choice of music really brings all the pieces together. There are few things I love more about movies than when the images and music intertwine to create a greater whole, and The Savage Five does this exceptionally well.
If you’re looking for something a little different than the traditional kung fu film, The Savage Five is an excellent choice. Highly recommended.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Pao Hsueh-Li’s The Shadow Boxer! I doubt it can live up to two dope Chang Cheh films in a row, but I hope it’s a good one! See ya then!