“Good, but don’t believe the hype.”
Perhaps I was expecting too much, after reading reviews that described this as, “one of, if not the, greatest martial arts film of all time.” It’s not, at least, not from my perspective, with a storyline that is sparse and badly-finished; the heroine and chief villain vanish before the climax and there’s absolutely no resolution, with the film suddenly diverting into a battle between a pair of supporting characters. It’s a shame, as Cheng Pei-Pei [the Jade Fox of Crouching Tiger was once a very intense teenager] deserves better. She plays Golden Swallow, the sword-adept daughter of the Governor, who is sent to rescue her brother after he’s kidnapped by bandits who want to exchange him for their leader.
The action is a mixed bag; there are some very bad effects, which jar the viewer out of an appreciation of the real, almost balletic, physicality, easily appreciated through the long tracking shots. These are as much dances as fights – Cheng had being doing ballet since she was eight. Less effective is the alcoholic beggar Drunken Cat (Yueh), who wanders through the storyline, with his band of ragamuffins, bringing things to a grinding halt when they appear. Of course, it’s giving little away if I say he turns out to be a martial arts master with entirely his own agenda, but unfortunately, that’s where the film heads, the further things go on.
Poor Golden Swallow is all but abandoned, and that’s a shame: the scene where she sits calmly in a tea-house, as the villains work at gauging her skills, is a masterpiece of suppressed, yet inevitable violence, up there with the best moments of Sergio Leone. There’s also a very odd subplot in which Swallow is initially mistaken for a man; it’s so utterly implausible as to make us wonder if it was a subtitling mistake. And maybe it was, for half-way through, this is discarded without explanation. It’s unsatisfying, and adds to my feeling that, while I can see the influence of this 1966 movie, it’s a case where later entries that build upon the foundation, do a better job.
Dir: King Hu
Star: Cheng Pei-Pei, Yueh Hua, Chen Hung-lieh, Yeung Chi-hing