I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.
There’s the ending, and then the ending after the ending. And then there’s the ending after the ending that undermines the other two endings by trying to play the moral of the film both ways by espousing the rejection of bloody vengeance, but giving the audience the violent thrill anyway. This is the central theme of the era of the genre this film initiated: the conflict between the moral imperative for forgiveness and the just demand for revenge, oft-dramatized as a conflict between Confucian filial piety (respect for one’s father/master/family demands vengeance on their behalf) and the Buddhist and Taoist belief in the cyclical nature of violence, that only by withdrawing from worldly concerns can the circle be broken. The moral and the bloody, the spiritual and the earthly, the desire to enlighten and the need to entertain.
The plot and locations are elegantly, archetypically simple: a gang of crooks wants their imprisoned leader back so they kidnap the son of the governor. A hero is sent to rescue him. She’s aided in her quest by a drunken beggar who turns out to be a kung fu master, one who has a history with the evil monk who turns out to be the true leader of the gang. Two opposed earthly factions: the hero and the gang; two opposed spiritual factions: the drunk and the monk. Four locations: inn, temple, cabin in the woods, countryside.
Cheng Pei-pei plays the hero, Golden Swallow, in the role that made her a superstar. Her actions scenes build slowly: a small one set in an inn as she demonstrates her skills with a variety of tricks, but little in the way of actual killing. Later in a temple a much bigger set-piece as she is besieged and takes on the gang single-handedly. Long and deliberately-paced, Cheng’s dancing movements and Hu’s precision editing creating the illusion of kung fu skill as Swallow is repeatedly encircled by men, breaks free and is encircled again. She slashes through most of them, but is defeated when Chan Hung-lit, playing the white-robed and white-faced villain (white being the color of death) shoots her with a poisoned dart hidden in his fan (a sneaky, feminine attack to be sure). After convalescing at the cabin in the woods belonging to the drunken master, Swallow engages in her third battle: an all-out fight as she and her band of women soldiers attempt to free the hostage from the gangsters on a grassy hillside.
It’s here that the convoluted series of endings begins. Swallow defeats the white-faced villain and chases after him as he runs away, bloody and afraid. She hopes to kill him but is stopped by the evil monk, who reminds her of the imperative for mercy. The monk then faces the drunk and is in turn defeated and shown mercy. Two endings: the earthly and the spiritual, both resolved in accordance with the moral imperative. Evil is defeated but not destroyed, good has acted justly but without cruelty.
But apparently that is unsatisfactory. We get an epilogue, back at the cabin in the woods where the evil monk again tries to kill the drunk. This battle is the goriest in the film, topping the ending of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro in the audacious use of arterial spray. Apparently this final ending of the film was the result of studio interference, an imposition by the Shaw Brothers, the fight over which led to King Hu’s leaving the studio for Taiwan, where he’d make the masterpieces Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen, among other films. Dragon Gate Inn is a straight-ahead action movie, a chase that starts at an inn and ends on a hillside and leaves little time for philosophical contemplation. It was a massive hit. A Touch of Zenis a sprawling epic that begins as a worldly comedy, detours through action scenes at a dilapidated mansion and a bamboo forest and ends on a note of transcendence. It was the first Chinese language film to win an award at Cannes.
The 14 year old Sammo Hung reportedly worked as an assistant action director on Come Drink With Me, and Jackie Chan claims to have been one of the children singing with the drunk in an early scene, though this is in some dispute and I don’t think any of the kids actually look much like him. The fact that the drunk spends his time singing with kids shows just how far this movie is from the drunken master characters Chan, Hung and Yuen Woo-ping would popularize a decade later. Cheng Pei-pei reprised her role a year later in Golden Swallow, this time under the direction of Chang Cheh and co-starring with Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh and Lar Kar-leung. More about that one another time.