The Imperial Tomb Raiders [盜皇陵] (1973)
AKA The Emperor’s Tomb Raiders

Starring Wang Yong, Tso Yen-Yung, Chiang Yang, Hsueh Han, Chang Ping-Yu, Chu Ching, Yeung Lee-Gwan, Ling Yin, Yang Lian-Ying, Wang Li-Yun, Yuan Shen, Ko Hsiao-Pao, Shan Mao, Cheng Fu-Hung, Li Chiang, Kwan Hung, Tsai Hung

Directed by Ting Shan-Hsi

Expectations: Don’t know what to expect from this previously lost film.

Thanks to the restoration efforts of Celestial Pictures, who acquired the Shaw library in the early 2000s, it’s not too hard to see the majority of Shaw Brothers films. Prior to this, it was a completely different story; the challenge to access films was one of the defining characteristics of being a Hong Kong movie fan. A few films still slipped through the Celestial cracks, though. The Imperial Tomb Raiders didn’t receive a remastered DVD re-release with the rest of the Shaw catalog, nor was it found on the ZiiEagle set-top box that had a few other remastered, but unreleased films. To be honest, I was under the impression that Imperial Tomb Raiders was just flat-out lost. I could never uncover much information about it, so it was quite a shock when it popped up on the Internet in remastered quality!

According to Imperial Tomb Raiders, in the 19th Century the Xianfeng Emperor‘s favorite concubine was buried with a huge, luminous pearl in her mouth, worth an untold fortune. The tomb’s location was kept a secret so the Empress Dowagers Cixi and Ci’an could not plunder the treasure. The concubine was interred along with eight handmaidens, who were locked inside and left to starve to death… but one of them escaped! The bandit leader Chin Da-Kui (Chiang Yang) has heard these rumors and set his sights on that great big beautiful, luminous pearl! Unfortunately for him, the hero Luo Qi (Wang Yong) has been sent by a security bureau to exterminate him and his gang, which is where we come into the story.

Enough beating around the bush… this movie is absolutely terrific. It only runs 73 minutes, but it’s packed to the brim with just about anything you could want in a movie like this. Do you like hand-to-hand fights? How ’bout sword fights? You’re probably cool with bows and arrows, too. In addition to our badass male hero Luo Qi, we’re also gifted with not one, not two, but a whole group of five female badasses! And let’s not forget the horses, the guns, and the furry hats! Put all of this into a wuxia-tinged blender and you have one hell of an entertaining movie. There were even some horror-inspired moments and a Rio Bravo-style nighttime raid on a house, as if this incredibly energetic movie wasn’t already cozy and safe within my heart.

This is the fourth Ting Shan-Hsi film I’ve seen, and it’s by far the best. I liked the others (Flight Man, Well of Doom, and Golden Harvest’s Whiplash), but I don’t remember any of them having the sharp directorial style of Imperial Tomb Raiders. This movie is just bursting with vitality, propelled by moving camera and a relentless pace. It reminded me of Tsui Hark’s films a lot, which is never a bad thing. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, too, with some of the best composed dutch angles of nasty looking bandits I’ve ever seen. Just in general, though, the film is filled with incredible compositions full of life and enough depth to wish the film was in 3D. This might sound like hyperbole, but I genuinely loved everything about this movie. It’s not a movie to watch for the fights; it’s all about the combination of elements that makes this movie exceptional. The choreography would have to be pretty bad to derail this train, though, and Kwan Hung’s work is pretty solid for the era. Kwan also worked on the action for Jimmy Wang Yu’s incredible Beach of the War Gods the same year!

The only thing that hindered my enjoyment had nothing to do with the work of Ting Shan-Hsi and his cast & crew. As a part of Celestial’s general remastering methodology, they chose to “framecut,” removing any damaged sections of film, including splice points, instead of doing the more challenging work of restoring the complete film. Some films fare worse than others in this regard — notably a chunk of the final fight in The Avenging Eagle is missing — and in Imperial Tomb Raiders there seems to be quite a bit of framecutting going on. Some shots during the action literally last microseconds, well below the time where you can register what is happening on-screen. I had to go frame-by-frame in order to see what certain shots were. This is an extreme example, but it comes up multiple times during the movie. I’m glad to see the movie in any form, but I would love for Arrow (or anyone willing) to re-scan the film and restore it properly. In addition to this, the English subs I found on left me scratching my head multiple times, but luckily the embedded Chinese subs allowed me to use the Google Translate app to figure out certain lines a little better. As an example: one character calls to their elder brother, but the subs have it as “Mouth 1 Mouth 2.” Huh?

I am so thankful this movie eventually found its way out of the vault, because it’s an absolute gem. I loved it, and it’s one that any Shaw Brothers fan should have a good time with. Also of note is that Lee Tso-Nam (director of Shaolin vs. Lama, The Hot, the Cool and the Vicious, etc.) and Lily Liu Lili (co-director of Snuff-Bottle Connection) were the assistant directors!

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the second (of two) previously lost Shaw films that I need to mop up before I hit 1979: Lee Tso-Nam’s Crazy Nuts of Kung Fu! See ya then (hopefully soon)!