“Fairly whizzes past – though not necessarily in a good way.”
The running time here is 86 minutes, but would probably be closer to two hours if they’d filmed the fights at normal speed. Because the undercranking – filming at a slower than normal frame-rate, so action looks quicker when played back at the normal speed – in this one is both copious in volume and excessive to its degree; I kept hearing the Benny Hill theme in my mind during the fight sequences. That’s a shame, because the performers here are talented enough they don’t need it, and the technique detracts from, rather than enhances, their skills. On the other hand, perhaps they needed to hurry things up to make room for the plot, because there’s quite a lot of that to fit into the film too. Let me try to summarize it.
There are two heirs vying for the imperial throne, Fourth Prince (Tony Lui) and Fourteenth Prince (fortunately, princes #1-3, 5-13 and 15+ are not apparently interested). To tip the balance his way, Fourth gets the assistance of dissident Lui Liu Liang (Ku), whose niece Si Niang (Leanne Liu) helps retrieve the emperor’s will, so #4 can doctor it and make himself the heir instead of #14. After taking over, Fourth exiles Fourteenth and “forgets” all his promises to Lui about not being so harsh an overlord. When Lui keeps showing up at court to remind Fourth of his broken oath, Fourth opts to silence his former ally permanently. But in so doing, he makes a mortal enemy of Si Niang, who joins forces with Fourteenth’s bodyguard, Tsang Jing (Chu) to take care of the usurper, who has hired some additional help of his own, in the form of a Japanese martial-arts master.
Despite the title, this is probably more of an ensemble piece, with Si Niang just one of many pieces to the jigsaw puzzle which is the plot, albeit one pivotal to proceedings. In particular, she’s the one who breaks into the Imperial Palace, locates the will’s secret hiding-place, and extracts it so Fourth can make himself the declared heir to the throne, thereby kicking off the events that follow. However, she is among a number of interesting female characters, also including Jade and Pearl, who assist Tsang Jing, and Lui’s daughter. While I have my previously-noted and significant qualms about the style of filming, which feels a good 15 years older than its actual 1983 date, I certainly cannot complain about the quantity of action, which is copious, and the people involved clearly know what they’re doing. The script is a bit of a mess though, with elements that just peter out, such as Fourteenth Prince, who must have had another engagement elsewhere. And the ending has to be among the most abrupt of all time, coming, literally, before the final body has even hit the floor. It occupies an uncomfortable position between old- and new-school Hong Kong cinema, and you can understand why the Shaw Brothers’ star was on the wane, and increasingly eclipsed by Golden Harvest.
Dir: Chin-Ku Lu
Star: Leanne Liu, Norman Chu, Tony Liu, Ku Feng