Starring Pai Ying, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Han Ying-Chieh, Simon Yuen Siu-Tin, Ng Ming-Choi, Sammo Hung, Hao Li-Jen, Lee Man-Tai, Yuen Biao, Yeung Wai, Lau Kong, Wu Chia-Hsiang, Chiang Nan, Chow Siu-Loi, Chao Lei
Directed by King Hu
Expectations: High. King Hu!
I enter each unseen King Hu film with equal amounts of trepidation and delight. I’ve loved every one of his films that I’ve seen, so I guess I’m worried that the spell will break and I’ll hit one that just doesn’t do it for me. The Valiant Ones is not that film; it’s a stone-cold killer of a movie. It’s a real shame that a film as good as this one is languishing in obscurity, but that’s how it goes. If nothing else, it allows me to dream of a future restored edition that will continue to raise King Hu’s status among fans of world cinema. No matter how low-res and full of video noise the old master is for The Valiant Ones, the power of King Hu’s filmmaking overrides it all to entertain as only he can.
The Valiant Ones tells a story of pirates and the chivalrous knights tasked with stopping their pirating ways. According to the film’s intro, Japanese ronin teamed up with bandits in the 13th Century to create fearsome pirate bands that tormented the land and sea. The Valiant Ones is set in the 16th Century, when the pirates had multiplied to the point that the government lost any kind of control over the regions they inhabit. There have been multiple attempts to eradicate the pirates, but it has always proved unsuccessful. Now a chief of a Southern clan needs to reach the capital and must be escorted through the pirate-infested land. For this task, General Yu Da-You (Roy Chiao) assembles an experienced team who are up to the challenge, including a husband and wife duo (Pai Ying and Hsu Feng) who are lethal and absolutely unstoppable.
From what I understand, The Valiant Ones was made concurrently with The Fate of Lee Khan. The two films don’t share much, but they do offer an interesting, possible look behind the scenes of Hong Kong film production. The Fate of Lee Khan was a film made for Golden Harvest, and I have read that they pressured him into delivering the movie before he considered it done. Since he took another two years to release The Valiant Ones, I’d say this is a fair assumption. Anyway, The Fate of Lee Khan, unfinished or not, is an exceptionally well-made film, albeit one that is too similar to King Hu’s earlier masterpiece Dragon Inn to be considered a masterpiece all its own.
I’ve never thought of Hong Kong studios working similarly to their Hollywood counterparts, but based on how unique and different The Valiant Ones is compared to The Fate of Lee Khan, it might be fair to say that Golden Harvest wanted King Hu to make something in the line of his previous work. If this was the case, it would then make sense that he might have taken the job to fund his other, more adventurous film, The Valiant Ones. As great as his previous movies were, I don’t think they made much money, and we all know it takes lots of money to make movies. Again, I’m just theorizing here, but if the basics of film funding were similar in ’70s Hong Kong, then I think I might be on the right track as to how the two films were made.
This possible behind-the-scenes drama isn’t what makes the film great, and neither does the story as presented on-screen. The story is fine, but it’s more of a framework than anything else. The good guys are introduced, and then they go up against the bad guys. There’s not much of a story beyond that; it’s closer to a series of plot points that bring the characters closer to a goal (which is, in simplistic terms, No More Bad Guys). But the structure of the film is unique among the work of King Hu, and it allows The Valiant Ones to be chock full of action sequences. They aren’t just standard fights over and over, either; the variety is wonderful, incorporating stuff like archery, ambushes, flutes, tournaments, and other surprises. So whatever concerns there might be over a lack of story and character depth fade away in the excitement of King Hu’s electric action.
King Hu’s style of action is very defined and continuous throughout his films. It’s a style rooted in the ’60s wuxias he helped define with Come Drink With Me, where editing is the integral element to the scene. In the ’60s, the quality of fight choreography was just OK, but to create great fights, editing had to be employed to make the actors seem more capable than they were. As the years went on, this became less and less true; the balance shifting more towards talented performers and choreography. King Hu never wavered in his style, though, he simply continued to refine it and hone it into a sharp instrument of action filmmaking.
The fights in The Valiant Ones are perhaps the best work I’ve seen from him yet, joining together excellent choreography with crackerjack editing to construct fights that are as beautiful as they are intense, as abstract as they are skillful. As Hu’s editing grew in power so did choreography. The editing no longer needed to make up for the choreography; they were able to work together to achieve something greater than they could have before. This is true of every one of King Hu’s martial arts pictures, but the leap seems much greater here because The Valiant Ones breaks new ground in its attempt to be unique among Hu’s films. It feels like the next step from the action in A Touch of Zen, and it’s absolutely riveting. It’s unlike traditional martial arts action where we marvel at the skill of the performers. Instead, in The Valiant Ones we marvel at the command of the medium exhibited by King Hu, and his ability to shape the choreography of Sammo Hung through editing into a product completely unlike anyone else’s. In a way, King Hu’s style represents the pinnacle of the style of action seen in ’60s wuxia, and it shows what a determined, artistic mind is capable of.
As I alluded to at the beginning, The Valiant Ones is relatively obscure at this point, and it’s a real shame. If you can find yourself a copy, definitely give it a watch, especially so if you already love Dragon Inn or A Touch of Zen. And cross your fingers along with me in hopes that the film will re-surface as the world cinema treasure it is.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the Shaw Brothers co-production Bloody Money! A kung fu spaghetti western? I’m pumped! See ya then!