The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung [乾隆下揚州] (1978)
AKA The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung Part II
Starring Lau Wing, Lee Kwan, Chiang Nan, Yueh Hua, Cheung Ying, Wang Sha, Wang Lai, Kara Hui, Hao Li-Jen, Lun Ga-Chun, Ng Hong-Sang, Chan Shen, Yang Chi-Ching, Wang Han-Chen, Aai Dung-Gwa, Ku Wen-Chung, Shum Lo, Fanny Leung Maan-Yee
Directed by Li Han-Hsiang
Expectations: Pretty high, I liked the other ones.
The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung was director Li Han-Hsiang’s second film (of four) about the undercover monarch from Beijing traveling through South China. In my review of The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung, I surmised that even though Li’s film followed Wong Fung’s successful 1976 film, Emperor Chien Lung, he was in fact starting his own series (with roughly the same cast). Watching this sequel, I was almost 100% sure, and a few passages from the Hong Kong Film Archive’s Li Han-Hsiang, Storyteller affirmed my suspicions. There I also learned that Emperor Chien Lung has been something of a folk hero — in general and in the cinema — for many generations. For instance, Unique Film Productions, the first film company run by the Shaws, made a series of Chien Lung films from 1929–1931, and there were plenty others in the years leading to The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung. Jin Yong’s 1955/1956 serial novel The Book and the Sword — adapted in 1981 by Chor Yuen as The Emperor and His Brother — also re-framed the character and reignited interest in him.
Without a deep Chinese cultural knowledge in place, a movie like this is fairly impenetrable. Li’s writing often plays on Chinese language and culture, with the wit and comedy often coming directly from these elements (a standard of Cantonese-language comedy). Over the years I’ve learned to identify where these things happen, but I don’t always understand why they’re funny. It’s easy to overlook wordplay in a goofy Stephen Chow movie, where there are many other comedic elements in play, but here it’s almost entirely based on language/cultural satire. I was lucky if I made it more than a few minutes without being thrown out of the movie. The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung won the Golden Horse award for Best Adapted Screenplay, so it was regarded as a well-written piece of work, but I am absolutely the wrong person to critique it. I wish I looked at the HKFA book before watching the movie, but I felt confident I’d be fine with two previous films under my belt. Wong Fung’s film is much more accessible to a non-Chinese audience, though, and seeing it first altered my expectations of what Li’s films might contain. 😳
In The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung, the emperor is accompanied by Minister Er Rong-An (Chiang Nan) and Treasurer Liu Yung (Lee Kwan), while Wong Yu’s Zhou Ri-Qing character is nowhere to be found. I’m unsure how traveling with two officials qualifies as “blending in with the locals,” but perhaps that’s part of the joke (since he gets recognized quite a bit :D). Treasurer Liu Yung is surprisingly the most prominent character, though. He’s the guy in the first movie who outsmarted the Emperor, securing himself a healthy pay raise, and was subsequently ordered to jump into icy water. This is recounted at the beginning of the film for anyone who didn’t see it, as this dynamic is essential to understanding the movie. This time it isn’t just a segment, the whole movie is based on it! As for the adventures, our guys have run-ins with a noted painter/poet/calligrapher (Yueh Hua), a fortune teller (Cheung Ying), the irreverent sons of the governor (Lun Ga-Chun & Ng Hong-Sang), a barber (Wang Sha), and a suspicious lottery draw. These interactions are independent of each other, but they’re also woven together by the end of the film seamlessly, as only a great writer can.
The film is about 99% comedy, so hopefully you aren’t watching it for the martial arts content. The film credits the esteemed duo of Tang Chia and Huang Pei-Chih with the choreography, but there’s so little that it’s possible they banged it out during their lunch break from another film. Everything is ridiculously sped-up, too. Not like the sped-up motion from the earlier martial arts films, but like over-the-top fast motion purely for comedic effect. There are some fun moments that result from this, but it’s more of a distraction from the dialogue-based comedy than anything substantial. Kara Hui makes a cameo in this section, and gets a couple strikes in for good measure.
As a Westerner doing his best, I enjoyed The Voyage of Emperor Chien Lung for what it was. It’s definitely my least favorite Chien Lung film, but I’m open to revisiting it in the future (and perhaps understanding it better!). Hopefully, with this knowledge firmly in mind, I’ll be ready for whatever the third film has in store, although that won’t be until I get up to 1980 in my review series.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a Chor Yuen film I’ve wanted to see for a long time: Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre! See ya then!