The Avenging Eagle [冷血十三鷹] (1978)

Starring Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Ku Feng, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Eddy Ko Hung, Tang Chia, Austin Wai Tin-Chi, Peter Chan Lung, Yuen Bun, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Cheung Kwok-Wah, Shih Szu, Yue Wing, Yang Chi-Ching, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Jenny Tseng

Directed by Sun Chung

Expectations: High.

The Avenging Eagle is made with undeniable style and skill, standing tall against its many fantastic contemporaries as one of the best kung fu films of 1978. I first saw it in March 2011, back when I was just a few films into this review series. After watching the first few mid-’60s Shaw films, it seemed like a vision into the future, a reminder of how badass kung fu movies were. I’ve anticipated arriving at this moment of reviewing The Avenging Eagle ever since (didn’t think it would take 10 years 😮 ), and now that I’m here I don’t know what to say! It’s a movie everyone who loves Shaw films has already seen multiple times, y’know?

Chik Ming Sing (Ti Lung) is bloody, exhausted and near-death, riding a horse in a similar state. They travel across a barren desert, until Chik falls to the dirt, sprawled and unconscious. Thankfully for him, Cheuk Yi Fan (Alexander Fu Sheng) happens by on a horse of his own, and gives Chik some water. What a nice guy! Chik introduces himself as “The Rover,” and Cheuk replies that his name is “The Homeless.” These guys really hit it off; I love them! Unfortunately, Chik is a jerk who takes this friendly gesture and repays it by stealing Cheuk’s healthy horse, riding it off into the distance. How dare he! These two men haven’t seen the last of each other, though, as unbeknownst to them, their fates are intertwined!

The on-screen credits list Chin Hung as the writer, alongside Ni Kuang as the screenwriter. Usually this means the story is adapted from a novel, and I assumed Chin Hung was a romanization of Jin Yong (he’s usually credited in Shaw films as Chin Yung). This sent me on a lengthy hunt to figure out which Jin Yong novel it was adapted from, even though it never once felt like a Jin Yong story. After scouring the Internet in two languages, I came up with exactly zero leads. Eventually I figured out my error — the next day, while writing a version of this paragraph — but the research was done. Now I can rest easy because I’ve proven definitively to my dumb ass that Jin Yong had nothing to do with The Avenging Eagle. You’re welcome, Will.

Later still, though, while editing the above paragraph, I decided to give it one more go. I knew it wasn’t Jin Yong, but who was this mysterious Chin Hung? They wrote the novel that inspired this incredible martial arts film; they deserve their time in the spotlight! My only definite info was the Chinese/English on-screen credit for Chin Hung. Since I can’t write or understand Chinese, I pulled up a Wades-Giles to Pinyin chart to convert Chin Hung to Jin Hong. That didn’t bring me any closer, so I took Jin Hong to the character dictionary at MDBG. I started comparing characters until I pieced together the name 秦红, which is Qin Hong in Pinyin (Qin in Wade-Giles is ch’in, pesky apostrophes!). Armed with this info, I found this biography of the Taiwanese wuxia novelist Qin Hong (real name: Huang Zhenfang 黄振芳), born 1936, who wrote many wuxia novels, including one with the same Chinese title as this film: 冷血十三鹰 (literally Cold-Blooded Thirteen Eagles)! I couldn’t find much else about him, and absolutely nothing in English, so perhaps this is a “scoop” for the English-language reading audience. 😀 I’ll be on the lookout for other movies adapted from his work!

Anyway, The Avenging Eagle is exceptionally well-written from start to finish. It unfurls the history of our dual leads at a beautiful pace, giving us just enough to be thoroughly engaged, while keeping back enough to allow the entire film to thrill. It’s not an average wuxia, though, as it balances a great amount of intriguing twists and characters while never becoming impenetrable. The storytelling is much more Western in this sense. The focus never leaves the central struggle, instead collapsing in on itself as the character pool whittles down. It’s for this specific reason that The Avenging Eagle is a rare wuxia suitable for introducing newcomers to the martial arts. As much as I love a dense wuxia, it is the genre’s main obstacle to enjoyment.

The other, more obvious reason to recommend The Avenging Eagle is the exceptional action. It’s about as “classic kung fu movie” as it comes. Tang Chia and Huang Pei-Chih choreograph like their jobs are on the line, creating a wonderful series of fights that stand the test of time. I’m especially partial to Ti Lung and Fu Sheng fighting over the torch towards the beginning, but the wealth of greatness contained in the last half hour cannot be understated. Everything escalates into an incredible finale, punctuated insightfully with director Sun Chung’s trademark slow motion. He also chooses some wonderful, unique camera angles that keep the action fresh and exciting, even for the most seasoned kung fu fans.

The real downer is that the most available copy, the Celestial remaster, edited about a minute out of the finale, most likely due to print damage. I’d much rather see the damaged section than it just not be there, but I wasn’t consulted. 😛 None of Celestial’s transfers retain much in the way of filmic qualities, though, so it’s not surprising they did what they did. From what I understand, there’s a lot of little edits throughout the catalog, but this is one of the worst. Until a better option comes, we’re all stuck with older copies or watching this YouTube video at the precise moment in the movie.

The Avenging Eagle is a fantastic film, and worthy of multiple re-watches. If you haven’t seen it, you must. It was a huge hit at the time of release, too, ranking #13 for local HK films, just ahead of The Five Venoms.

Oh, and for those keeping score, Yuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Master released about three weeks after The Avenging Eagle, right ahead of the next movie on my schedule.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a sidestep away from the pure kung fu films: Li Han-Hsiang’s The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung! See ya then!