Dance of Death

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“Putting the ‘arts’ in martial arts.”

danceofdeathIn the seventies, Angela Mao was the queen of Hong Kong cinema, occupying much the same position as Pam Grier in the blaxploitation films of the decade. Probably best known in the West for her role as Bruce Lee’s sister in Enter the Dragon (for which she was paid the princely sum of $100!), she had much meatier roles in a slew of films. This is my first exposure to her work, albeit in a print which has seen better… well, never mind days, I’m thinking better decades. It was dubbed and had subtitles, though the English track often matched the English subs more in spirit than anything else. And it wasn’t even ranked in her top 25 by IMDB rating. But, whaddya know, it actually wasn’t too bad.

She plays Fei Fei, a nomadic orphan who comes across two fighting masters, that have been battling for years, without being able to decide who is better. She offers them a solution: they can both train her, and she’ll then go off and fight people – whoever’s training is most useful, is clearly superior. [This kind of thing only makes sense in a kung-fu movie. Fortunately, that’s exactly what this is.] In her first encounter, she sees off members of the Bird Gang, rescuing a member of the Five Styles School, which leads her to join the latter group. However, the rest of the Bird Gang continue their mission to wipe out their rivals, with Fei Fei the sole survivor. She returns to her original teachers to learn more and, after picking up a sixth style from a surprising location, is ready to take on Bird Gang leader, Mu Fa Shan, and his “Upside-down Horse” style.

Early on, I was ready to write this off, because Fei Fei’s fighting skills are second-rate at best. However, as things progressed, I realized that was actually the point: she progresses over the course of the film from being an enthusiastic amateur, through study and training, to someone who can credibly take on a top fighter. Her character may not have much of a story arc: instead, it’s her kung-fu that does. By the time of the final battle – which lasts about 15 minutes – she’s graceful and fluid, filmed by Lu in lengthy shots which do Mao justice. Now, it’s still a style of cinema very different to modern action films; but if you can accept the difference (which I’ll admit, takes getting used too, because it’s relatively slow and far more obviously choreographed), you’ll be fine. I kept being reminded of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – and that might give you a clue as to the source of the sixth style… Oh, never mind: the title gives it away. It probably helps that stunt co-ordinator on this was Chen Yuan-lung – whom you might know a bit better as Jackie Chan.

It does suffer too much from the perpetual bane of the genre – too many comedic elements, and a resulting horrid unevenness of tone: the revenge motif which is crucial to the plot never comes over as having any emotional punch, not least because the members of the Five Styles clan bite the bullet before Fei Fei has apparently done more than be introduced to them. But Mao has enough charisma and presence to stop you, just this side of throwing things through your TV. If this is one of her minor works, I’m looking forward to the better ones.

Dir: Chuan Lu
Star: Angela Mao, Shih Tien, Shiao Bou-Lo, Chin Pey

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