The Brave Archer [射鵰英雄傳] (1977)
AKA Shaolin Archers, Kung Fu Warlords
Starring Alexander Fu Sheng, Tien Niu, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Ku Feng, Ku Kuan-Chung, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Danny Lee, Li Yi-Min, Dick Wei, Lau Wai-Ling, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Chu Jing, Yue Wing, Chan Shen, Fan Mei-Sheng, Suen Shu-Pau, Tsai Hung, Lam Fai-Wong, Lo Meng, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Lu Feng, Chiu Chung-Hing, Chow Git, Kara Hui, Yu Hoi-Lun, Wang Ching-Liang, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Lee Siu-Wah
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: High. I’ve wanted to see this one for a while.
Sometime during the Jin-Song wars, two heroes of the Song dynasty are living with their wives in a quiet corner of the world. They’ve sworn their newborn children to be blood brothers, and when a wandering Taoist visits, he names the boys — Yang Kang & Guo Jing — and inscribes their names onto small swords. Unfortunately, this happy opening quickly turns sour when Jin soldiers attack and kidnap Yang Kang and his mother. In the wake of the skirmish, the Weird Seven, a group of powerful martial artists, take in Guo Jing and his mother, agreeing to raise the boy as their own. The Taoist promises to monitor and train Yang Kang, and in 18 years’ time, they will all meet up to see which boy possesses the superior kung fu. It’s a great setup for the film, but don’t get too attached. It does not resolve in this film at all, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun on the journey that The Brave Archer provides. This is a different sort of wuxia, unique from Chang’s previous genre-defining work or Chor Yuen’s genre-redefining films.
I’ve heard a lot about The Brave Archer over the years; everything from “It’s great” to “It’s awful,” and everything in between. I arrived to the movie with my own baggage, as well. Knowing that this was Chang Cheh’s first film back in Hong Kong after the artistic freedom he experienced in Taiwan, and that in his memoir he states, “the five years of my second spell at Shaws warrant little mention,” it’s hard not to come into The Brave Archer with the idea that Chang was frustrated with the situation and the state of the Hong Kong industry. Having been the leader of the charge in the action genre for so many years, to now be relinquishing that title to Lau Kar-Leung and Chor Yuen (and those not at Shaw like Sammo Hung, and later Yuen Woo-Ping and Jackie Chan), make it a distinct possibility that he was coerced into making a wuxia — a genre he felt was tired and had reached its pinnacle with Golden Swallow — to satisfy the fanbase revitalized by Chor Yuen’s films. I have a feeling that’s only partially true, though. Chang also talks in his memoir of his great friendship with Jin Yong, so I can imagine Chang choosing the project and feeling a personal responsibility to do the work of his friend justice.