Emperor Chien Lung [乾隆皇奇遇記] (1976)
Starring Lau Wing, Wong Yu, Tin Ching, Shut Chung-Tin, Shum Lo, Chiang Nan, Cheng Miu, Kong Yeung, Lam Fung, Teresa Ha Ping, Chan Shen, Cheng Kwun-Min, Shih Ping-Ping, Mi Lan, Lun Ga-Chun, Cheung Chi-Hung, Wang Han-Chen, Pang Pang, Lee Pang-Fei, Wong Ching-Ho, Chu Siu-Boh, Ching Si
Directed by Wong Fung
Expectations: I don’t know what to expect, honestly.
I added Emperor Chien Lung to my chronological lineup of Shaw Brothers films for a few reasons. For one, I knew it had some limited martial arts content, and that it starred Lau Wing and Wong Yu. Secondly, it was the top grossing Shaw Brothers film of 1976 and it spawned multiple sequels (which might have more martial content than this one). It was also directed by Wong Fung, who intrigued me with his film Rivals of Kung Fu and his legacy with the original Wong Fei-Hung series starring Kwan Tak-Hing. Thankfully, my curiosity was well-placed, and Emperor Chien Lung is a fantastically fun and well-crafted film.
Emperor Chien Lung is absolutely sick and tired of the sheltered life of an emperor. He is fed the same foods and dressed in the same clothes every day, and literally every aspect of his life is governed by tradition and routine. One day, he hears a tale of how Emperor Tang Ming-Huang disguised himself as a commoner and mingled amongst his people. Chien Lung decides to do this as well, and his adventures outside the palace are what makes up the bulk of the film. It bears an anthology feel, with each tale wrapped up tight before proceeded ahead with the next one. Chien Lung learns things along the way, and he even picks up a sidekick, Chau Yi Qing (Wong Yu), but nearly everything else is self-contained within each story.
The stories range from encounters with snail and jelly street vendors to dealing with a pair of shyster magicians, but they all share a common through line: Emperor Chien Lung arrives, assesses the situation, and then outwits the villains with his quick wit (and occasionally his skilled fists). Most of the villains are of the power-hungry type who oppress those beneath them in status, and many of these characters are doing so under the guise of carrying out the emperor’s will.
To describe it this way makes it sound like it would get boring seeing a similar course of events repeat themselves, but within the film it flows very well. The stories are all different enough to be entertaining on their own, and after a couple of them a familiarity develops that only increases the fun of the later stories. Knowing the formula, it’s engaging to see just how exactly Emperor Chien Lung and Chau stick it to each new set of villains, and to be honest I could watch tons of these little stories. It makes total sense that the film spawned sequels, because when the film ended I immediately wanted to see another adventure.
The action is very minimal, to the point that no action choreographer is credited. Tang Chia and Huang Pei-Chih are credited on all the sequels that include the credit — three out of four films — so perhaps it’s not too big of a stretch to assume they might have done some quick work on Emperor Chien Lung. There are a few small fights, and they definitely don’t look they were just quickly handled without a choreographer. Anyway, the fights are quick and relatively inconsequential (they should not be the reason anyone watches this movie!), but they do add to the overall fun of the film quite a bit. Emperor Chien Lung wears a treasure coat with five pearls that bestow incredible power on him, such as making him weapon-proof or unable to drown. This means that he performs with ease and confidence in the fight scenes, so there’s never really any tension. It’s just another element of entertainment that the film has in its arsenal.
If you’re looking for a different style of Shaw Brothers film, I highly recommend Emperor Chien Lung. It’s a great mix of comedy and moral drama that feature wonderful performances by Lau Wing and Wong Yu. It’s also interesting to note that Chien Lung was the Qing Dynasty emperor who was in power during the years when most of the Shaolin Cycle films are set. So on one hand we have Emperor Chien Lung as a kindhearted man of the people, while in Heroes Two those in Chien Lung’s service are hunting down Hung Hsi Kuan and Fang Shih-Yu, survivors of the burning of the Shaolin temple.
Anyway, I loved Emperor Chien Lung and I hope the sequels, all from director Li Han-Hsiang, are equally entertaining!
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s return to Shaolin (with co-director Wu Ma), The Shaolin Avengers! See ya then!