The Golden Lion [金毛獅王] (1975)

Starring Chiu Hung, Li Ching, James Nam Gung-Fan, Fang Mian, Wang Hsieh, Lee Man-Chow, Pang Pang, Chan Shen, Wong Ching-Ho, Law Hon, Chai No, Goo Chim-Hung

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: Low.

In the United States, when we hear that a movie has been held unreleased for any extended length of time — in this case, four years — the natural assumption is that irreparable artistic or financial issues exist with the movie preventing its release. Some of these concerns might carry over to the 1970s Hong Kong industry, but with the Shaw Brothers studio I feel like their continuous production methods led to lower priority films being abandoned, regardless of any fault in the film itself. The changing landscape of the Hong Kong industry from wuxia to hand-to-hand kung fu is the most likely culprit, causing the once flourishing wuxia genre on to the back burner for both studios and audiences.

Looking into the box office records of Ho Meng-Hua’s previous films also sheds some light on the issue. Neither of his two 1971-released wuxias, The Lady Hermit and The Long Chase, did very well, with The Lady Hermit specifically underperforming at 75th place out of 83 films released that year. Ambush was filmed in 1971 like The Golden Lion, and when it eventually released in 1973 it also did poorly, ranking 77th out of 87 films. Both Ambush and The Golden Lion star Chiu Hung & Li Ching, and while Li Ching was a great part of many Chang Cheh films, neither Li or Chiu were big enough stars to carry films on their own. In 1975, The Golden Lion also performed poorly, coming in at 84th of 92 films. Ouch. Poor wuxia. 🙁 Thanks to Celestial Pictures and the passage of time, though, we are allowed to find the hidden gems that failed to resonate in their day. The Golden Lion is one such film… in fact, I’d say it’s one of Ho Meng-Hua’s best and most satisfying wuxias.
The Golden Lion (Chiu Hung) is a Robin Hood-esque character, robbing from the rich to help the less fortunate. As you’d expect, this angers the rich folk, and one such man, Wang Jian Chao (Wang Hsieh), has made it his mission to kill the Golden Lion once and for all. During their first encounter, Wang manages to significantly wound the Golden Lion with his Poison Flying Claw, which, as its name implies, is laced with a deadly poison. The Golden Lion escapes death with the help of his brothers in arms, who seek the help of the famous Dr. Lu Guo Jing (Fang Mian). Dr. Lu is retired and living high in the mountains with his adult children (Li Ching & James Nam Gung-Fan), but he agrees to help the Golden Lion. Wang refuses to let go of his grudge against the Golden Lion, so the chase to find and kill him continues. The setup makes the story sound fairly conventional, and I suppose it is, but the execution and the bright, likable characters bring the film to brilliant life in a way that elevates it beyond the perceived potential of its story.

Beyond this, the true key to the success of The Golden Lion is how the character spends most of the film poisoned. His condition continually worsens, thanks to time and the constant assaults of Wang and his men. He is forced to defend himself in a compromised state, and even if he is able to fend them off, he finishes the fight much worse off than he started it. I found this ticking time bomb of a main character to be fascinating and absolutely riveting. The tension builds through the entire film, taking this idea right down to the final moments of the film. It adds a weight to the finale that lesser films lack, where literally every strike of the finale drew a series of gasps, laughs and utterances of “Oh shit!” from me. It’s superb filmmaking from Ho Meng-Hua, and it’s films like this that remind me why I’ve set myself on the path of watching all the Shaw Brothers martial arts films. I would’ve easily passed this up for more high-profile films, in turn missing out on a massively entertaining piece of work.

This structure also allows for the supporting characters to come forward into much more active roles than usual. Dr. Lu is probably the best and meatiest role I’ve seen Fang Mian play, since his character is not only a doctor but an accomplished martial artist of considerable skill. His daughter, Lu Wen Fang (Li Ching) also joins the action quite a bit, something pretty rare for Li Ching, and again, very much appreciated. Their characters also felt more rounded to me than the average secondary Shaw characters, but that could be my general exuberance for the film clouding my judgement for the better. In any case, they were integral to my enjoyment of the film.

The action, choreographed by veteran Simon Chui Yee-Ang, is surprisingly great. Knowing this was held back from release, I expected the slower style of older films, but the offerings of The Golden Lion are intense and furious. They are also shot with an overwhelming amount of very long takes, allowing us to revel in the fun of the moment, the skill of the performance, and the richness of the choreography. It does suffer some from the “guys in the back shimmying side to side” thing that plagues a lot of early films, but honestly, this is of little concern when the main action is so gratifying. The Golden Lion is a classically styled early ’70s wuxia, too, so it throws tons of wonderful expressions of supernatural wuxia skill into the mix. The Golden Lion can pick up huge tree trunks and throw them at his enemy, and he also regularly throws his enemies and rips flesh from their frightened faces. It’s all very creative and unique and it makes an already entertaining film satisfy even more.

If you couldn’t tell, I loved The Golden Lion. In terms of under-the-radar Shaw Brothers films, this is definitely a gem worthy of seeking out!

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s Marco Polo! See ya then!