The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung [乾隆下江南] (1977)
Starring Lau Wing, Wong Yu, Lee Kwan, Chiang Nan, Cheng Miu, Wang Han-Chen, Yueh Hua, Yeung Chi-Hing, Chen Ping, Kam Ting-Hsun, Wang Sha, Aai Dung-Gwa, San Shu-Wa, Wong Ching-Ho, Chan Shen, Ng Hong-Sang
Directed by Li Han-Hsiang
Expectations: High. I really liked the first film.
The first film in this series, Emperor Chien Lung, introduced us to an emperor bored with his rigid, dependable life in the Imperial palace. He longed for adventure and the knowledge of how his subjects lived, so he disguised himself and embarked on a journey across his lands. Along the way, he helped those in need and stopped more than a few crimes perpetrated by officials in his name. It’s a nice setup for an episodic film, and the first film left me hungry for more adventures with Emperor Chien Lung. The sequel delivers (although the first film actually tells more adventurous tales), but it does so in many unexpected ways that build the character in different directions. The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung was the first sequel (of four) to Shaw’s highest grossing film of 1976, and I’m in for some real fun if the others are anywhere near as good as this one.
Taking over for director Wong Fung is one of Shaw’s most well-respected directors, Li Han-Hsiang. He directed all the sequels, and judging from his work on The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung it’s possible that he saw the first film as more of a test run for his series, and not an actual “first film” that he was making follow-ups to. The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung begins before Chien Lung is born, showing us how his father, Prince Yong (Yueh Hua), met his mother, Stable Maid Li Jia (Chen Ping), and eventually how Chien Lung became the favored grandson of the long-reigning Kangxi Emperor (Yeung Chi-Hing). The star of the first film, Lau Wing, doesn’t even appear until over 20 minutes into the film! Chien Lung’s sidekick, Zhou Ri-Qing (Wong Yu), fares even worse, only appearing in the final act of the film. To be honest, I can’t recall exactly how they met in the first film, but here we again see them meet for the first time. Things like this are what leads me to believe the Li wasn’t looking back on Wong’s film when making his.
This is also what I mean when I say that the first film has more adventuresome tales. Both films are episodic, but only the final story in The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung shows Chien Lung disguised and out among his people. If you told me this prior to watching the movie, I would have been disappointed. I loved the adventuring of the first film, so the idea of watching a Chien Lung film with him mostly in the palace just seems like a bad choice. This is not the case, though! Chien Lung is a playful character, and the tales at the palace in The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung show this exceptionally well. He showcases a sense of humor and a wit in his dealings with the various officials that is hard to describe, but it’s a pure joy to watch. I thought I just wanted more of the first film, but it turns out that I actually wanted something unique and fresh like this.
When Chien Lung finally ventured out among his people, it felt too much like a rehash of the first film without much of a new angle on the formula. Perhaps this is because Li chose to reintroduce Zhou Ri-Qing, which naturally repeats certain beats of the first film. The one major difference here is the addition of more traditional action. The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung ends with a giant brawl set in and around an inn, and while it’s lacking in tension, it’s hard to argue that it’s not entertaining. Chien Lung’s treasure coat, imbued with its supernatural powers, is not mentioned here at all, but the Emperor still fights with the same ease and power shown in the first film. It’s great fun, but it’s a little underwhelming compared to its contemporaries; without tension, the fight never feels like it is delivering all that it could be. Within the confines of this particular film, though, it mirrors the jovial, light tone perfectly and provides a nice finale to an otherwise low-key, dialogue-based comedy.
I’m torn to choose which film I prefer, though. Emperor Chien Lung is not nearly as well-crafted as its sequel (due to the shift in directors, I’m sure), but it’s arguably the more fun film. I also loved the sequel and how it showcased new sides of the character, which I only fully appreciated because of what was established in the original. In any case, both films are great and I look forward to further exploring the character and his world in the sequels.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the next Chor Yuen wuxia… Death Duel! See ya then!