To Kill a Jaguar [絕不低頭] (1977)

Starring Chung Wah, Lau Wing, Nora Miao, Ling Yun, Wai Wang, Fan Mei-Sheng, Chan Shen, Hao Li-Jen, Siu Yam-Yam, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Lam Fai-Wong, Keung Hon, Lee Hang, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Gam Lau, Mak Wa-Mei, Alan Chan Kwok-Kuen, Wong Ching-Ho, Ting Lai-Na, Sai Gwa-Pau

Directed by Hua Shan

Expectations: Moderate. Don’t know what to expect, really.

I had never heard of To Kill a Jaguar until I compiled my chronological list of Shaw Brothers martial arts films, so I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. This is true of many Shaw films that I’ve reviewed, but in this particular case I feel that To Kill a Jaguar should be spotlighted as something unique and worthwhile. To Kill a Jaguar is every bit a ’70s Shaw picture, but it flirts with the multi-genre trade that would come to define Hong Kong cinema in the ’80s and ’90s, and perhaps most interestingly it is an adaptation of a non-wuxia Gu Long novel made amidst the sea of fan-favorite Gu Long adaptations from director Chor Yuen. I’m sure To Kill a Jaguar was greenlit due to the success of Chor’s films, and so then it should come as no surprise that the film is more similar to them than you might think at first glance.

Based on the 1973 Gu Long novel, Never Bow Down (絕不低頭, also the film’s Chinese title), our story begins with Bobo Kam (Nora Miao) arriving in Republic-era Shanghai in search of her father. It is a dangerous place where street gangs battle with knives and hatchets, and she stumbles into one such battle. One man stands out from the crowd with distinctive sideburns and a fistful of keys as his weapon; Jaguar (Chung Wah) is clearly not your average street thug. After the fight subsides, Bobo and Jaguar realize this isn’t their first time meeting. Jaguar was once known to Bobo as “Silly Kid,” a snot-nosed fat boy who played with Bobo and a mutual friend, He Lie, way back when in Stone Village. Things have definitely changed over the years for Bobo and Jaguar, and if you know anything about Gu Long stories, you know these characters are in for a lot more, as well.

Like the martial world of Gu Long’s wuxia stories, the triad-controlled underbelly of 1920s Shanghai is a treacherous test of survival, taxing both mental and physical skills. For all intents and purposes, this is a modern-day wuxia featuring firearms. There are a few moments of supernatural leanings, too, with Jaguar throwing keys like darts and pulling off an absolutely impossible wall jump. The inclusion of guns is probably the biggest modifying factor to the otherwise traditional storyline of betrayal and revenge, though. Where the characters in a wuxia must achieve their skills through years of practice and dedication, the residents of 1920s Shanghai can pick up a gun and become deadly without much effort. The world still showcases skilled weapons masters (often with wuxia-tinged nicknames), but the speed at which one can ascend (or descend) in this version of the martial world is ridiculously quick.

In addition to the gunplay and mental maneuvering, To Kill a Jaguar features a fair share of hand-to-hand battles (choreographed by the wonderful duo of Yuen Woo-Ping and Yuen Cheung-Yan). Don’t get too excited — it’s more of a triad melodrama with action than a straight-up martial arts movie — but the fights help the film maintain a brisk pace. The group fights are what you’d expect from a ’70s Shaw film: entertaining, but not too special. There are some nice one-on-one moments that shine, though, especially a fight between Chung Wah and Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, and another when Lau Wing (dressed almost exactly like Benny The Jet in Wheels on Meals) fights Johnny Wang Lung-Wei after beating up his buddies. Yuen Biao doubles Lau Wing, too, so there are more acrobatic elements in the fights than usual. It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’d like to note that neither of these are anywhere close to the great showdowns of the film’s contemporaries (like Executioners from Shaolin or Clans of Intrigue).

In regards to the choreography, it’s interesting to consider how To Kill a Jaguar was released only 8 months before Yuen Woo-Ping’s directorial debut Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. The fights in To Kill a Jaguar are nice, but nothing that suggests the powerhouse of choreographic wizardry brewing below the surface of Yuen Woo-Ping’s mind. I wonder how much of this is the difference between working in the Shaw environment vs. directing your own film while working with a open-minded independent producer. Yuen often took other choreography jobs during his Shaw days — films such as The Invincible Armour, Snuff-Bottle Connection, and Broken Oath were all from 1977 — so I’ll have to investigate those to see if they shed any light on the situation.

Hua Shan isn’t Chor Yuen, but he does a nice job with the material, even bringing the films together visually by peppering To Kill a Jaguar with Chor’s trademark out-of-focus obscured images in the foreground of many shots. My favorite visual was unique to this film, though. Whenever two characters would engage in a verbal battle, Hua would frame them at each ends of the frame so we get to see them actually facing each other down instead of cutting between them. It happens throughout the film, and I enjoyed it so much that I anticipated it every time two opposing characters got into an argument. Who knows if anyone else will enjoy it, but it made the movie much better in my opinion. 😀

If you’re a big fan of Chor Yuen’s Gu Long adaptations, I think To Kill a Jaguar is a very worthwhile companion to add to your watchlist. It exhibits a great, well-told story featuring a cast of interesting characters that only Gu Long and the Shaw Brothers could bring to life.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s first film back at the Shaw studio in Hong Kong after spending a few years in Taiwan: The Brave Archer! See ya then!