Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Shih Szu, Wai Wang, Wu Chi-Chin, Chiang Tao, Chan Shen, Li Min-Lang, Yeung Chi-Hing, Pao Chia-Wen, Wong Ching-Ho, Lei Lung, Chen Wo-Fu
Directed by Sun Chung (and Chang Cheh to some degree)
The Bloody Escape was one of the many films released in 1975 that had actually sat around unfinished for a while. Some magazine scans on Cool Ass Cinema show that the film started shooting as a solo directing gig for Chang Cheh, but from another scan in a post on the Kung Fu Fandom message board we can see that Sun Chung was cited as a joint director from the beginning of the project. For some reason the film wasn’t finished at that time, though, leaving Sun Chung to finish it up for its eventual release in 1975. The film’s on-screen credits list Sun Chung as the sole director, but all the online databases and even Chang Cheh’s memoir list Chang as the film’s co-director (and co-writer). How much of the film is Sun Chung and how much is Chang Cheh is something we may never know, but in terms of feel The Bloody Escape definitely doesn’t give off the usual vibe of a Chang Cheh film.
What it does feel like is a variation on what is probably Sun Chung’s most well-known film, The Avenging Eagle… three years before that film came out! So I suppose it’s actually the other way around, but I imagine almost everyone watching Shaw films nowadays came to the films in the “incorrect order.” In any case, The Avenging Eagle is one of the best Shaw Brothers films out there, bearing a wonderful story and script by Ni Kuang, so an earlier, lesser version of that film starring Chen Kuan-Tai is quite the find among the many nooks and crannies of the Shaw catalog.
For those unfamiliar with The Avenging Eagle, the story of The Bloody Escape can be broken down as such: Chen Kuan-Tai is the member of a gang, but he has a change of heart and wishes to leave the gang. Since it’s a martial arts movie, that means he must fight Du Jian Qiang (Wu Chi-Chin), the leader of the Wolf Head Gang! This is a gross simplification of a rich story line (especially so in regards to The Avenging Eagle), but these are the basics we’re working with. Chen’s main beef with the gang stems from Di Jian Qiang deciding that they no longer need to follow the established rules of the gang’s founder. These rules are simple — take only half the victim’s money, no killing, no raping — and they have led the Wolf Head Gang to be known as the honorable gang… but Du Jian Qiang has had enough of being honorable.
The Bloody Escape is structured such that a good portion of the film is told through flashback. It’s not an overt flashback, it’s one that becomes obvious as you watch. We open on Chen Kuan-Tai running from the bandits, a few scenes later he’s in the camp like nothing has happened. It’s pretty obvious that this comes chronologically before the previous scene, but I appreciate allowing the viewer to piece this together on their own. There’s also never an obvious place for where we “re-join” that opening scene and move forward with the plot. It could come at a couple of different points, and again, I appreciate the ambiguity. From a screening of The Avenging Eagle I attended many years ago at the New Beverly, I know that Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of Sun Chung, so the usage of a fluid, non-linear timeline in The Bloody Escape only makes that bond seem stronger.
At that screening, Tarantino also mentioned that Sun Chung was a master of using slow-motion footage to heighten moments in his films. Chang Cheh was the pioneer of this at the Shaw Studio (and perhaps in Hong Kong cinema), but the many instances of slow motion in The Bloody Escape definitely feel like moments that usually wouldn’t be singled out in a Chang Cheh film. Perhaps I say this because I know Sun Chung worked on the film, but there are other choices that suggest Sun Chung was responsible for much of the film. The most notable of these is the amount of slick moving camerawork employed for the specific purpose of saving edits later on.
Every director in the Shaw stable employed the zooming method of re-framing an image to save on edits — and those are present, too — but The Bloody Escape probably has just as many instances where the camera deftly swings a few feet around a character to completely change the framing of the image, sometimes even working in a zoom, too, combining what would’ve been three setups into a single shot. I’m guessing this was achieved through a dolly move, but perhaps they devised a makeshift Steadicam or the cameraman had some seriously fluid body movements. In any case, I’ve never seen anything quite like it in Chang Cheh’s films (or really any other Shaw films, for that matter), so I’m inclined to say that this is evidence of Sun Chung’s budding technique.
The Bloody Escape focuses more on character than action, and it makes for a very effective little movie. Chen Kuan-Tai gives another stellar performance as our tortured hero, and Wu Chi-Chin, in his final screen role, plays the ruthless gang leader exceptionally well. Ni Kuang’s script, by way of Sun Chung’s direction, also communicates its themes quite well, making each outburst of violence hit harder than in a good portion of martial arts films of the period. Lau Kar-Wing & Huang Pei-Chih do a nice job of choreographing the action, but thanks to the delayed release of the film, it carries a definite early ’70s vibe unlike the more realistic kung fu seen in the contemporary work of Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia. It should also be noted that the film really isn’t bloody at all… unless we’re using bloody in the British sense 🙂 , in which case the escape certainly qualifies as a bloody escape that takes much longer than Chen Kuan-Tai expects it to.
The Bloody Escape is an enjoyable movie with strong, resonant themes that entertains with ease. I greatly appreciated the script structure that slowly revealed the whys and the hows of Chen Kuan-Tai’s flight from the gang; it definitely worked more effectively than if the story were told straight. It may not be good enough to be called a lost gem, but The Bloody Escape is still one of the better under-the-radar films of the Shaw catalog. Shaw fans, specifically fans of Sun Chung and The Avenging Eagle, should definitely seek this one out.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the Shaw co-production Cleopatra Jones & the Casino of Gold! See ya then!