Death Duel (1977)

Death Duel [三少爺的劍] (1977)

Starring Derek Yee, Ling Yun, Candice Yu On-On, Ku Feng, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Chen Ping, David Chiang, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Ku Kuan-Chung, Ngaai Fei, Gam Lau, Fan Mei-Sheng, Teresa Ha Ping, Yeung Chi-Hing, Lam Fai-Wong, Liu Wai, Cheng Miu, Shum Lo, Yueh Hua, Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Nancy Yen Nan-See, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Chan Shen, Yuen Wah

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: High. I like these Chor Yuen wuxias.


I’m not exactly sure what I expected going into Death Duel, but I felt off-kilter throughout most of the movie. I assumed it would be another in the lineup of great Chor Yuen adaptations from Gu Long novels, but I found it to be a somewhat poorly structured tale, and the character cameos from Chor’s previous films really threw me off. I’m not sure my experience is entirely the movie’s fault, though, as Death Duel is never boring or anything other than completely entertaining and fun; it all just felt sort of odd. I have a sneaking suspicion that like The Magic Blade, I’ll eventually re-watch the movie, love it, and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote this. In any case, Death Duel is both a great Chor Yuen film that delivers similar thrills to his previous mid-’70s wuxias, and a film in need of some focus.

Death Duel starts stunningly, though. Based on a relatively new story — serialized from June 1975 to March 1976, sharing the film’s Chinese title 三少爺的劍 (which translates to Sword of the Third Young Master) — the tale begins with Yen Shih-San (Ling Yun), as he arrives in a copse of trees at sunset. He’s called a meeting of elite swordsmen to test his martial skills, challenging the entire group at once and boasting that he will kill them all within 13 sword strikes. With this completed, only one man stands in Yen’s way to the top of the martial world: The 3rd Master, also known as the God of Swords. The 3rd Master is said to have an invincible sword technique, and Yen hopes to test his own invincible technique against it in a bid for the spot at the top of the ever-moving, tumultuous martial world. But when Yen tracks down the 3rd Master, he only finds his coffin. For all intents and purposes, Yen is now the greatest swordsman alive, but without challenging the reigning champion, what is this by-default glory worth?

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Jade Tiger (1977)

Jade Tiger [白玉老虎] (1977)

Starring Ti Lung, Yueh Hua, Ku Feng, Lily Li Li-Li, Fan Mei-Sheng, Lo Lieh, Derek Yee, Shih Szu, Chiang Nan, Hsiao Yao, Ng Hong-Sang, Shut Chung-Tin, Yeung Chi-Hing, Shum Lo, Ngaai Fei, Ku Kuan-Chung, Chan Shen, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Wang Hsieh, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Cheng Miu, Fanny Leung Maan-Yee

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Pretty high.


For Chor Yuen’s second film of 1977, he once again returned to the fertile literary work of Gu Long. The film adapts a standalone novel of the same Chinese title, 白玉老虎, often translated as The White Jade Tiger. Where this film differs is that Gu Long himself co-wrote the screenplay, and while he wrote nearly 30 movies in his career, this was his only direct collaboration with Chor Yuen. Jade Tiger was Chor’s favorite of his Gu Long adaptations, citing its focus on sacrifice and how it shapes the lead character, Zhao Wuji (Ti Lung), over the course of the film. Perhaps the clear, emotional resonance of the themes is a product of this collaboration; who better knows the ins and outs of a work than its author? Whatever the case may have been, Jade Tiger is a largely successful film that is sure to please fans of wuxia cinema.

It is Zhao Wuji’s wedding day, but instead of getting ready for the occasion, he’s on a rocky outcropping dueling Dugu Sheng (Norman Chu). Dugu offers to fight on another day so that Zhao won’t risk dying on his wedding day, but Zhao would rather die a bachelor and leave no troubled widow behind. Zhao also respects the rules of the martial world implicitly, so honoring the fight was never a choice, but it is these deeply held tenets that will ultimately challenge Zhao to the most difficult struggle of his life. The Tang clan has always been at odds with the Zhao’s, and when they do not receive an invitation to Wuji’s wedding, they don’t take it as a simple slight. This act of disrespect is a catalyst to the film’s tumultuous plot, bringing the long-simmering Zhao/Tang fued to its boiling point.

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Clans of Intrigue (1977)

Clans of Intrigue [楚留香] (1977)

Starring Ti Lung, Yueh Hua, Li Ching, Nora Miao, Betty Pei Ti, Ling Yun, Tin Ching, Nancy Yen Nan-See, Chan Sze-Kai, Lau Wai-Ling, Chong Lee, Ku Feng, Ku Wen-Chung, Cheng Miu, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Ku Kuan-Chung, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Yeung Chi-Hing

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Super high.


Clans of Intrigue was Chor Yuen’s first of five films released in 1977, and if it is anything to go by, I am in for some real treats. While Clans of Intrigue isn’t the greatest action film, it’s one of the most engrossing and well-plotted wuxias I’ve seen. It’s as much of a mystery film as it is a wuxia, and as a fan of both genres this was a dream come true. I’ve always heard that Chor Yuen was an influential director in the wuxia genre, but after seeing this run of Killer Clans, The Magic Blade, The Web of Death and Clans of Intrigue, I have a newfound appreciation for him. Within these four films he laid the basic groundwork for the wuxias of the ’80s, redefining the genre beyond the precedent set earlier by King Hu and Chang Cheh. Chor Yuen is the link between the two eras, and his work is nothing short of brilliant.

Clans of Intrigue begins with a string of three mysterious murders. Someone clad in red and wearing a mask assassinates the masters of three martial arts clans by using the ultra-poison Magic Water. Meanwhile, the Thief Master Chu Liu Hsiang (Ti Lung) is hosting a meeting aboard his boat. Nan Gong Lin (Tin Ching), the head of Beggar’s Gang, and the Ingenious Monk Wu Hua (Yueh Hua) are his guests, but mid-way through their meal, another arrives. Kung Nan Yen (Nora Miao) from Palace Magic Water has come to arrest Chu for stealing the Magic Water and killing the masters. She reasons that he must be the one that did it, because only the Thief Master could have gotten inside the palace and taken the Magic Water back out with him. He assures her that he is innocent, and she gives him one month to find out who really did it, otherwise they will kill him. And just like that, the game is afoot!

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The Web of Death (1976)

The Web of Death [五毒天羅] (1976)

Starring Yueh Hua, Lo Lieh, Ching Li, Wang Hsieh, Angela Yu Chien, Wong Chung, Lily Li Li-Li, Cheng Miu, Ku Feng, Kong Yeung, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Chan Shen, Chan Mei-Hua

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Excited to see another Chor Yuen movie.


Chor Yuen re-defined the wuxia film genre with Killer Clans and The Magic Blade, but The Web of Death is more of a step in a different direction. Elements introduced in the previous films (like the focus on survival and the true danger of the martial world) are still present and relevant in The Web of Death, but they are no longer the primary focus. In The Web of Death, Chor Yuen goes full-on fantasy, delivering a tale of magical powers and deadly clan rivalries that could only come out of ’70s Hong Kong. If the previous films were about avoiding subtle tricks like a poisoned drink, The Web of Death is about more overt threats such as a trapdoor that opens into an acid bath. This move towards fantasy is significant, though, as Shaw’s prior wuxia films always contained elements of fantasy but were never all-out extravaganzas. In this way, The Web of Death is like a bridge between the early days of trap-laden, studio-bound wuxias and the fantasy heights the genre attained in the ’80s and ’90s. As a huge fan of those later offerings, I can’t help but love The Web of Death just a little bit more for pushing the genre in that direction.

The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of the most fearsome weapon in the martial world: the Five Venoms Spider. It may look like nothing more than a smoking lantern adorned with a red spider handle on its top, but it’s actually a cage for the fearsome spider within. This spider is capable of incredible things, including deadly lasers and a poisonous mist. Nothing is known that can defeat the power of the spider, or even defend against it. If your opponent wields the spider it’s basically time to say your goodbyes, if you only had the time. The spider is so deadly that even the Five Venom Clan itself is scared of it. They lock it away in an unknown location, and there it stays until a few members of the clan want to take control of the martial world at an upcoming tournament with it. The mere idea that the spider may re-emerge in the martial world sends shock waves through the clans. Fei Ying Xiang (Yueh Hua) of Wudang — or Wu-Tang if you’d prefer — and his brother Fei Ying-Jie (Wong Chung) are dispatched by their master to learn of the spider’s whereabouts and stop its use. The brothers split up to search separately, and the twisting, dense adventure begins.

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The Magic Blade (1976)

The Magic Blade [天涯明月刀] (1976)

Starring Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Ching Li, Tang Ching, Tanny Tien Ni, Lily Li Li-Li, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ku Feng, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Lau Wai-Ling, Cheng Miu, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Ku Kuan-Chung, Kong Yeung, Ng Hong-Sang, Chan Sze-Kai, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Very excited to finally re-visit this.


The Magic Blade is a highly regarded wuxia in the Shaw Brothers catalog, and the nearly unanimous praise led me to review the film in 2010 (two months after starting Silver Emulsion). At the time I thought it was OK, but I didn’t understand why it was so well-loved. As the weeks went on, I kept thinking about the film, and how I must have missed something. I determined that context was the thing missing from my viewpoint, so later that year I began my chronological Shaw Brothers review project to fill my head with all the context I could handle. It’s now seven years later and I have finally arrived back around to The Magic Blade. It seems most people love the film right away, but for me I definitely needed the context to truly appreciate its mastery of the wuxia form.

The Magic Blade portrays a martial world full of strife and treachery. Like Killer Clans, it focuses on the dangers of the martial life and how prepared & alert one must be to survive against others’ devious intellect. The film opens on the deserted and quiet Phoenix Town, but this peace doesn’t last long. Out of the silence comes a procession of musicians, dancers, courtesans and other servants who prepare the town square for a grand display of entertainment for their master Yen Nan Fei (Lo Lieh). The celebration is cut short when a poncho-wearing Fu Hung Hsueh (Ti Lung) ominously appears out of the shadows. The two men have an appointment and a score to settle. Midway through their fight, though, a pair of expert assassins, Wood Devil and Tree Devil, ambush them. Fu and Yen are both swordsman of considerable skill and talent, and they have been targeted by the current leader of the martial world, Master Yu. Despite their vendetta to fight to the death, Fu and Yen team up for the time being to combat their shared threat.

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Killer Clans (1976)

Killer Clans [流星蝴蝶劍] (1976)

Starring Chung Wah, Yueh Hua, Ku Feng, Ching Li, Wong Chung, Lo Lieh, Danny Lee, Yeung Chi-Hing, Cheng Miu, Ngaai Fei, Wang Hsieh, Lam Wai-Tiu, Chen Ping, Ling Yun, Fan Mei-Sheng, Teresa Ha Ping, Kong Yeung, Tin Ching, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Ku Kuan-Chung

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Super high. Been looking forward to these Chor Yuen wuxias for a long time.


In the lineage of Shaw Brothers wuxias, Killer Clans represents the dawn of a new paradigm. The number of wuxia films released by the studio had diminished considerably from the early days of the genre, when literally every martial arts film was a sword-swingin’ tale of chivalrous heroes. In the few years prior to Killer Clans, a good portion of the wuxias released by Shaw were actually holdovers from earlier years, finally released and then promptly forgotten. But Killer Clans, based on Meteor, Butterfly, Sword (流星·蝴蝶·劍), a 1973 novel by Gu Long, performed well enough to make the year’s box office top 10 (either #6 or #7, depending on the source).

To say that this new direction in wuxia filmmaking was a success is an understatement, but it almost never was. Like Chang Cheh, ever searching for a subject that would light the fires of passion, Chor Yuen felt stagnant and in need of a fresh style of film. Chor had abandoned wuxia filmmaking for Cantonese comedies (The House of 72 Tenants, etc.) and dramas (Sorrow to the Gentry, etc.), but the diminishing box office takings of these films demanded he look elsewhere for his film ideas. He decided to adapt some wuxia novels in a style unlike the traditional Shaw wuxia film, but Run Run Shaw rejected every one of his pitches saying that they wouldn’t make money.

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Top 10 Shaw Brothers Wuxia Films @ ShawBrothersUniverse.com!

 

How’s it going, Emulsionaires! I teamed up with Matt from Blood Brothers Film Reviews to write up a list of the Top 10 Shaw Brothers Wuxia Films for the official Shaw Brothers site! Check it out here and enjoy! And feel free to let me know what we got wrong in the comments. 😛

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