Pursuit of Vengeance [明月刀雪夜殲仇] (1977)
AKA Moonlight Blade: Vengeance on a Snowy Night (literal translation of Chinese title)
Starring Ti Lung, Lau Wing, Lo Lieh, Paul Chang Chung, Derek Yee, Shih Szu, Wai Wang, Ku Kuan-Chung, Cheng Miu, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Chen Ping, Lam Fai-Wong, Fan Mei-Sheng, Wa Lun, Chan Shen, Ngaai Fei, Yue Wing, Liu Wai, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Keung Hon, Wong Ching-Ho, Shum Lo, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Mama Hung
Directed by Chor Yuen
Expectations: High. Can Chor Yuen go five for five in 1977?
I expected to enjoy Pursuit of Vengeance, but the film surprised me and outdid every expectation I had for it. In researching the previous Chor Yuen films based on Gu Long’s Little Li Flying Dagger series (The Sentimental Swordsman & The Magic Blade), I read a basic plot synopsis of the novel that Pursuit of Vengeance is based on, Bordertown Prodigal (邊城浪子, Biancheng Langzi). It mentioned that the main characters, Ye Kai (Lau Wing) and Fu Hong-Xue (Ti Lung), both had love interests, and that the events of the book are what leads Fu to becoming the disillusioned, hard-boiled swordsman we see in The Magic Blade. So naturally I expected some sort of typical romantic storyline within the dangerous Chor Yuen martial world. The film is far removed from this, though, with nary a single love interest to be found. The film definitely does not need them, but because I was expecting it to figure in somewhere along the line, I spent the film looking for the seeds of this non-existent sub-plot and wound up admiring how cleverly plotted and perfectly paced the film is without it.
Like any good wuxia, Pursuit of Vengeance is full of twists that shouldn’t be revealed in wholesale by the likes of me. The Wan Ma clan is inviting swordsmen to their school, and they refuse to take no for an answer. When Fu Hong-Xue says he will not visit, the emissary for the clan says that he will remain there in the road, waiting for Fu’s acceptance, as long as it takes. Of course, this can’t be an innocent gesture, and Fu is too savvy to agree. Ye Kai is also invited, as are others, and it becomes clear that a specific group of people are being pulled together by the Wan Ma clan. What is their purpose? Who is in pursuit of vengeance? You’ll have to watch the movie! It’s too good for me to delve any deeper into the story, suffice it to say that many things are not what they seem and it will take our heroes’ every wit and sense to survive.
The opening titles play over the somber images of Fu Hong-Xue walking over the same frozen rivers and snowy valleys where parts of The Sentimental Swordsman were filmed, lending the impression that Pursuit of Vengeance might be a similarly somber tale of vengeance. This couldn’t be further from the truth, though, as Pursuit of Vengeance is the closest I’ve seen Chor Yuen come to making a wuxia romp. The pace is relentless and the fun literally never stops until the final freeze frame, which itself has to be one of the best Shaw Brothers freeze-frame endings of all time. It’s hilarious, and that sort of levity runs through the entire film, separating Pursuit of Vengeance from the pack of Chor Yuen favorites. On the surface it seems like humor wouldn’t mix well with the serious tone of the treacherous Chor Yuen martial world, but it is handled here with such skill in both the script and the direction that it works brilliantly. The world is just as dangerous and filled with people attempting to murder our heroes around every corner, but now it’s just as fun as it is tense. To boil it down: it’s basically my perfect ’70s wuxia, exhibiting all the qualities I love about the genre except for wild, FX-driven thrills (for which The Battle Wizard had enough that I still feel satisfied and I watched that months ago at this point 😀 ).
Pursuit of Vengeance is based on the prequel novel to The Magic Blade, but I’m not sure the film is actually supposed to be a prequel. Fu Hong-Xue seems about as world-weary as he does in The Magic Blade, and I didn’t explicitly notice anything that “sets up” things for the earlier film. Lo Lieh plays a different character, but his relationship with Ye Kai and Fu is similar to how Fu and Yen Nan Fei are bonded in The Magic Blade by a desire to kill one another. Derek Yee does reprise his role from The Sentimental Swordsman, though, and Ti Lung’s character from that film, Li Xunhuan, is mentioned. The novel series isn’t traditional in that instead of following a single character through multiple books, it’s more focused on the Flying Dagger technique of Li Xunhuan, and the practitioners of it in later years. In Pursuit of Vengeance, Ye Kai is Li’s apprentice and uses the flying daggers liberally throughout the film. Apparently, he’s the main character of the novel, but the balance is definitely shifted in favor of Fu Hong-Xue for the film version. The interplay between the two characters is one of my favorite in all of wuxia films; I could watch tons of movies with these guys. When they later meet up with Lu Xiao Jia (Lo Lieh), it makes it even better!
The action is about as good as anything in 1977, especially within the wuxia genre and Chor Yuen’s films in particular. Chor Yuen’s tendency towards quick, short fights is in rare form here, with dope fights waiting in every nook and cranny of the film. Choreographers Tang Chia and Huang Pei-Chih have their work cut out for them to make them all varied and filled with excitement, but as you would expect they do a bang-up job. Of course, they are given great works of imagination to work with, from Fu’s unique sword to the myriad of villains each with a unique flavor and/or weapon of choice. Fu’s Man with No Name-style poncho is a wonderful contrast against the traditional Chinese robes that nearly everyone else wears, and the wardrobe particularly shines when Fu twirls mid-fight. The sword interplay is some of the best I’ve seen in a while, which is subjective and vague, but to help qualify it know that I was fully engaged with every moment of the action, while in lots of other films I am more kicked back and in observation mode. The Magic Blade is more action-focused than the usual Chor Yuen wuxia, and Pursuit of Vengeance is a perfect follow-up in this regard. I hesitate to say it betters its predecessor, simply because the more lavish set pieces of that film are pretty hard to top. I will say that I enjoyed Pursuit of Vengeance more, though.
If you consider yourself a fan of Shaw Brothers films, wuxia, Ti Lung, Lau Wing, Lo Lieh, or all the above and then some, then you simply must see Pursuit of Vengeance. I think it plays better after seeing The Magic Blade and The Sentimental Swordsman, but it can also stand on its own just fine.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the final film of my time with 1977, and another non-Shaw box office hit: Karl Maka’s Winner Takes All! See ya then!