Starring Ling Yun, Ching Li, Meng Yuen-Man, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wai, Tin Ching, Yeung Chak-Lam, Yeung Chi-Hing, James Ma Chim-Si, Shum Lo
Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li
Expectations: Low, but hopeful.
I knew going into Heroes of the Underground that it wasn’t a martial arts movie, but it was still quite a disappointment. I often schedule contextually interesting movies into my chronological series and I penciled this one in based on a couple of factors. For one, it was written by the same team responsible for Come Drink With Me: King Hu and Ting Shan-Hsi (presumably from the late ’60s when they worked at Shaw together). Secondly, I’ve previously reviewed every Pao Hsueh-Li film up to this point in his career, so I might as well hit this one in order while I can. Thirdly, there were a lot of movies released in 1975 that were finished earlier and held back from release, so when I learned Heroes of the Underground was completed in 1973, I thought it might be worth watching along with the others. And finally, it just looked fun; Ching Li on the poster with a machine gun was quite persuasive! Unfortunately, on every one of those points the film is a disappointment.
Heroes of the Underground tells a story of rebellion during the Second Sino-Japanese War when Japan occupied China and oppressed the people. It is a time regularly depicted on film, from dramas to classic kung fu films to modern films like Ip Man. The film’s Chinese title is merely the main character’s name, though, Ding Yi-Shan, and usually this is an indication that the movie is centered around a renowned hero from history or folk legends. I couldn’t find anything that indicated the character was drawn from fact, but I did find a 1943 Lao She novel, Cremation, which shares a few character names, a setting, and a general plotline of resistance to the Japanese occupation.
I’m going to assume that the novel was the basis for the film (or that they’re both based on characters whose story hasn’t made it online), but it’s worth noting that based on the synopsis of the novel here, it’s focused on the female lead, Deputy Commander Wang Ling (Ching Li). In the book, she fights for the resistance after her fiance Ding Yi-Shan is killed in the first chapter. The movie instead rolls with Ding Yi-Shan (Ling Yun) as the lead, sidelining Wang Ling as a supporting character. If the novel was indeed the basis of the film, it’s an interesting choice considering King Hu’s usage and portrayal of strong female leads in his directorial works. Perhaps an aftershock from Chang Cheh’s successful male-led films?
I’m not much of a fan of Pao Hsueh-Li’s work as a director, although he does surprise me on occasion. His work is generally less refined and cohesive than I’d like, and I find that his best work comes when he is working with Chang Cheh and credited alongside him. I bring this up because the potential for a good movie lies within Heroes of the Underground, but Pao failed to pull everything together to make it happen. It’s a drama, so everything lives or dies on that drama pulling in its audience. Heroes of the Underground never gives us enough to work with, so there is little connection to the characters that grows over the course of the movie. Their actions hold little weight, even though intellectually we know that they are fighting the good fight for the Chinese people to have a better life. For instance, the whole movie revolves around a Japanese military map, but we never really know why it’s important or what will happen if the revolutionaries don’t steal it. I understand the broad implications of the setting, but I didn’t get that understanding from the movie, nor did I get any real specifics to latch on to.
Thanks to this lack of focus and compelling drama, Heroes of the Underground is a boring experience. It only runs 85 minutes, but it felt like a good 150. Nearly every scene is filled with uninteresting dialogue between the uninteresting characters, so I longed for something to happen that wasn’t dialogue-based. There are a few situations that could’ve easily developed into fights, too, which only made the film sting more (not that that’s any way to watch a drama). The latter half of the movie does pick up some with a good heist scene and a whole load of bullets and explosions to close the movie, but it’s definitely too little too late. The action isn’t well-shot, either, and oftentimes it just feels like random scenes of machine gun fire cut together without any thought paid to where characters were or are supposed to be.
Heroes of the Underground didn’t do much for me. There’s always the possibility that I just missed the point entirely, but I’m fairly certain that isn’t the case with this one. If you do decide to take the plunge, hopefully you find more to like than I did.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s Boxer Rebellion! See ya then!