Well of Doom [吃人井] (1974)
Starring Wang Ping, Chang Chi-Yu, Sally Chen Sha-Li, Sit Hon, Wong Yung, Pao Chin, Wong Yu, Shan Mao, Kong Yeung, Yuen Sam, Richard Tung Chin-Hu
Directed by Ting Shan-Hsi
Expectations: High. The title is very intriguing.
Well of Doom has all the ingredients for a tense thriller, but it actively avoids fully engaging them in the ways that other films have accustomed viewers to. This could have easily been a Shaw Brothers, period-set version of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, and for a time I thought it was headed in that direction. Instead, Well of Doom is something far more varied and interesting, especially in how it has its characters play so much against expectations. The premise of the film is one we’ve seen before, but director Ting Shan-Hsi handles it in a unique way for Well of Doom.
The film opens by introducing us to a poor family living in the mountains of Taiwan. None of them particularly enjoy their hard life away from civilization, but they make do. An old monk, the previous owner of the home, told the father that he would one day return and give the father a large sum of money. That was about six years ago, with no sign of the monk. The father refuses to move away because of this, even though Da-Niu (Sally Chen Sha-Li), one of his three adult daughters, needs ongoing medical attention to deal with her childlike mental capacity. The eldest, Er-Niu (Chang Chi-Yu), is levelheaded and resigned to her life of seclusion and solitude, but her sister San-Niu (Wang Ping) longs for a husband above everything else. One day the father goes to town to buy some supplies, and unbeknownst to him the bandits Copper Head Eight (Sit Hon) and Iron Gun Six (Wong Yung) are traveling through the mountains with their apprentice, One Hundred (Pao Chin).
As you can probably guess, the bandits end up at the house while the father is away, but instead of simply terrorizing the three girls, the bandits are reserved and pose as friends of their father. The girls fix them food and allow the bandits to stay, even though Er-Niu suspects that they might not be who they claim to be. This is merely the first of many instances where Well of Doom diverges from cliche and expectations. These unique turns are interesting on their own, but they often counter-intuitively deflated whatever tension the film had built up to that point. Well of Doom does this repeatedly, giving it a kind of start-stop feel that can be trying, but because it’s such a weird take on this kind of tale, Well of Doom transcended its built-in weirdness to truly captivate me.
It’s all by design, of course. Like the story turns, none of the characters act like you think they might. They aren’t committed to the lives they lead; they all want something more. To act in the way we expect them to would be to cement themselves in a way of life they are unsure of. The girls have all come of age in the seclusion of this mountain home, giving them all a naive, trustful demeanor that someone living in the city wouldn’t have. Er-Niu is the wisest and least like this because she was older and more set in her ways when they came to live here. San-Niu is more dreamy and trusting, while Dan-Niu basically has no understanding at all that people can be anything other than nice.
The three bandits are also similarly constructed. The leader, Copper Head Eight, is the most ruthless, but even his reputation is for his armor, not his kung fu or his evil ways. He’s the kind of bandit that talks a good game, but he’s not a cold-blooded killer living on the edge of sanity. His partner Iron Gun Six (who does not have a gun as his name might suggest) is not bloodthirsty either; it seems like both men fell into criminal life and continue on it because nothing better has presented itself (Copper Head less so, because he’s been in it much longer). The third bandit, One Hundred, is completely green to the criminal lifestyle. He’s aware of what criminals do, but he hasn’t actually done any of it and he’s kind of scared to actually cross that line even though he talks a lot about it “making him a real man.” In one scene, Copper Head asks him to kill a man, but the only way One Hundred can complete the task is to fearfully back the man into falling off a cliff.
The well of the title is a central point to many of the interactions between the girls and the bandits, and like the characters, it never performs as expected. It is first introduced to us during the opening credits as an ominous and foreboding location; coupled with the film’s title, you know some serious stuff is going to happen surrounding this well. This is all gleaned from how it is visually presented to us through the camera placement and the editing, but the first actual information we learn about it subverts our general knowledge of wells. It is a dry well dug by the monk who previously lived there, and apparently it never held even a drop of water.
Occasionally, Well of Doom subverts expectations somewhat unbelievably, but the film is far more engaging for its creativity than if it had played everything according to genre cliches. In a similar way, this was a film that I had originally excluded from my review list, but I was led to believe that it was a martial arts film and should therefore be reviewed in order. But crafty little Well of Doom is not a martial arts film! Except… it kind of is.
There are a couple of quick fights towards the latter half of the movie, and they are surprisingly well-choreographed for a film that doesn’t credit an action choreographer. I have my suspicions that Kwan Hung, who worked on the action for Ting’s other Shaw films from this era (Flight Man and the lost Imperial Tomb Raiders, worked on this film, too, but I have nothing more than a hunch to go on. Perhaps someone who can read Chinese can figure it out from the credit images on HKMDB? Anyway, the fights are very brief but they are imaginatively crafted and suitably tense. Copper Head and Iron Gun Six prove that when the chips are down they are willing to fight for their lives… One Hundred not so much.
But as fun as these martial moments were, I don’t think they are really enough to classify the film as a martial arts picture. What changes my mind is that there are references made by the characters throughout the movie that place the story within the world of the chivalrous wuxia heroes. None of these particular characters have learned the weightless technique that allows for human flight, but those characters do exist in this world. The bandits’ flamboyant names also give the movie away, as does one character’s ability to throw coins and embed them in another man’s skull. So Well of Doom is a wuxia of sorts, without any of those chivalrous heroes that define the genre.
Well of Doom is kind of all over the place in terms of tone and structure, but I really enjoyed it for its ambition and unique take on the wuxia genre. The girls’ vulnerability is ever-present, and the lack of a defined hero adds an extra element of impending doom. Even though it was restored by Celestial, Well of Doom is in much rougher shape than their usual remasters (there are jump cuts due to missing frames, print damage, etc); I imagine this is why the film never received a DVD release. In any case, this one’s pretty rare, but it’s definitely worth tracking down (and hopefully Celestial puts it out digitally one day, warts and all… the fans won’t mind!).
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the modern-day Chang Cheh film Friends, starring the terrific trio of David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng and Lily Li! See ya then!