Killer Clans [流星蝴蝶劍] (1976)

Starring Chung Wah, Yueh Hua, Ku Feng, Ching Li, Wong Chung, Lo Lieh, Danny Lee, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheng Miu, Ngaai Fei, Wang Hsieh, Lam Wai-Tiu, Chen Ping, Ling Yun, Fan Mei-Sheng, Teresa Ha Ping, Kong Yeung, Tin Ching, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Ku Kuan-Chung

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Super high. Been looking forward to these Chor Yuen wuxias for a long time.

In the lineage of Shaw Brothers wuxias, Killer Clans represents the dawn of a new paradigm. The number of wuxia films released by the studio had diminished considerably from the early days of the genre, when literally every martial arts film was a sword-swingin’ tale of chivalrous heroes. In the few years prior to Killer Clans, a good portion of the wuxias released by Shaw were actually holdovers from earlier years, finally released and then promptly forgotten. But Killer Clans, based on Meteor, Butterfly, Sword (流星·蝴蝶·劍), a 1973 novel by Gu Long, performed well enough to make the year’s box office top 10 (either #6 or #7, depending on the source).

To say that this new direction in wuxia filmmaking was a success is an understatement, but it almost never was. Like Chang Cheh, ever searching for a subject that would light the fires of passion, Chor Yuen felt stagnant and in need of a fresh style of film. Chor had abandoned wuxia filmmaking for Cantonese comedies (The House of 72 Tenants, etc.) and dramas (Sorrow to the Gentry, etc.), but the diminishing box office takings of these films demanded he look elsewhere for his film ideas. He decided to adapt some wuxia novels in a style unlike the traditional Shaw wuxia film, but Run Run Shaw rejected every one of his pitches saying that they wouldn’t make money.

Luckily for Chor (and us), screenwriter/novelist Ni Kuang was present during one of these meetings and he brought up Gu Long’s most recent work, Meteor, Butterfly, Sword. Run Run Shaw asked Ni to write a script based on the enthusiasm that Ni and Chor showed for the story (and Chor was merely playing along with Ni to get his way; he hadn’t read the book at that time!). Ni Kuang eliminated several key characters to slim down the script, but as soon as it was in Chor Yuen’s hands, the director put them all back in and made exactly the film he had initially wanted to make. The new style of wuxia was born, and Chor Yuen went on to make something like 20 or so Gu Long adaptations at Shaw. Whoa.

Elaborating on what defines this “new style” of wuxia is a little harder than simply recounting the details leading to its inception. Chor’s 1972 film Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is one of the most beautiful and well-crafted wuxia in the genre, and elements of it carry over. Killer Clans is gorgeously shot, leaning heavy on Chor’s affection for placing out-of-focus objects between the camera and the subject. This technique could easily become frustrating and distracting, but in the hands of Chor Yuen it bathes the screen in swaths of color that establish a thick mood of romance and intrigue. He uses this in every film of his that I can remember, but never is it as evocative and gorgeous as it is in Killer Clans. These visuals define the film to a degree, but what really sets it apart from its wuxia brethren is its approach to action and the martial characters.

Nearly all Shaw wuxia films up to this point focus in some way on the physical prowess of the characters involved in their tales. In a genre defined by intricately choreographed action scenes, this seems like an integral element to a successful martial arts film. Killer Clans dares to change the focus from our character’s physical prowess to their mental capabilities. We are still shown how adept the characters are martially, specifically during the opening act that establishes the characters, but these displays are quick flashes of power that speak to the ease with which these characters wield immense power. The bar is high, and we know that all the players are dealing with this sort of power just below the surface. With this established, Chor Yuen delves into the mental battles that dominate our characters’ lives. The martial world is one of treachery and deceit; to retain power in such a world you must remain constantly vigilant and ready for anything.

Due to this shift in focus, Killer Clans is not exactly a spectacular action film. The choreography by Yuen Cheung-Yan and Tang Chia is awesome, but it is rarely given the room necessary to reach the highs the genre had hit over the last couple of years in the Shaolin films and the like. The fights here are more constructed through editing than intricate performance, but within the shorter edits the evidence of the production year shines through. Elements of the quick sharpness that defined the choreography of Lau Kar-Leung and Tang Chia is evident throughout, and the Yuen clan love of smashing people through wooden stuff is also on full display. The action feels like a new, somewhat shaky step towards the innovation that would later define the genre in the ’80s under directors like Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung. Like King Hu’s Come Drink With Me and Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman, I wouldn’t hesitate to call Killer Clans one of the most influential films to shape the wuxia genre going forward.

I loved Killer Clans, and it’s got me even more excited for the wealth of Chor Yuen films to come in my chronological series. I love the wuxia genre, so to see it revitalized in this manner, after years of hitting the same note over and over, is truly exciting and refreshing. Highly recommended.

I’d also like to note that the Chinese title of the film is the same as the novel it’s based on: Meteor, Butterfly, Sword. The 1993 remake starring Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen, is commonly known as Comet, Butterfly and Sword (or just Butterfly Sword), but the Chinese title literally translates to New Meteor, Butterfly, Sword. 🙂 Now I want to re-watch that one to see how similar it is to Killer Clans.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts is Chang Cheh’s war film 7-Man Army! See ya then!