Magic Blade

Chor Yuen’s Magic Blade is a prime example of something I’ve always appreciated about kungfu films. You see, there are certain things that, while deemed horrible in real life, are perfectly acceptable and even admirable activities for the hero of a kungfu film. I’m not talking about the obvious will-nilly killing of anyone who offends you in some way. No, I’m talking about, first foremost, the stamp of approval kungfu films put on beating up senior citizens. Outside of an Adam Sandler film, no one is going to cheer for a hero who beats grannies and tries to skewer them with elaborate bladed weapons. Even street thugs who don’t give a damn about anything won’t stoop so low as to mess up someone’s grandma. That’s why grandmas can get in between two jackasses waving guns at each other and send them home with tail between legs using nothing but harsh words and an umbrella or oversized pocketbook or maybe an oversized copy of The Bible.

But in kungfu films, old people get beat up all the time, and not just by the villains. Of course, granted the old folks are themselves often the villains of the story, and they’re often imbued with near supernatural fighting powers, but the fact remains that there really aren’t any other genres where taking a swing at your elders is considered the proper thing to do. Even in other genre movies where oldsters are the bad guys, you still rarely see the hero just haul off and slug them in the jaw. Usually the movie serves up some contrived accidental death, and the old ne’r-do-well will be impaled by some trap of their own making. Evil old white guys who run heartless multinational corporations are usually sent off to jail while their underlings get blown up by Steven Segal, but even stops short of kicking 80-year-olds in the groin.

I know you can defend this behavior by pointing out what masters of the martial arts these old people are, but I stick by my claim. Even in other types of movies where the evil old people are competent at something, few and far between are the good guys who try to beat them up.

Kungfu films are also among the only genres where it’s considered heroic to gang up on someone. It’s hardly uncommon to find yourself with a finale where the hero has to team up with several other people to beat the main bad guy. Sometimes it’s because the main bad guy is so good that no one person can beat him. Other times, it seems like they do it just to be dicks. But again, regardless of the power of the villain, you don’t see too many other genres where they approve of the heroes going ten on one against the rakehell. Where’s the honor in that? When you add the fact that the rakehell is often old enough to call Bob Hope “young man,” then you’re really in dubious territory as far as the character of your hero is concerned.

Of course, you can flip it and say these movies teach us a valuable lesson about teamwork, though I’d say that you learn about teamwork by going to an Amish barn-raising, not watching a bunch of kungfu heroes beat up old people.

Not being an expert on social psychology, my theory as to why a kungfu guy can beat up old folks would go thusly: in China, they are famously honorable toward elders. Your grandmother can boss you around long after she dies, and usually you get stuck with three or more generations all living with each other or next door to each other. It stands to reason then, that if you have to devote so much to your elders in real life, you might want to see them get the tar kicked out of them once in a while in the movies. Conversely, in America we don’t give a rat’s ass about our elderly. We move out as soon as we can and ship them off to be confined in a nursing home the first chance we get. And yet, we want to deny our abuse of the elderly by treating them well in the movies. The reason people are afraid of vengeful grannies is because we fear the unknown. We expect old folks to drool and watch Matlock. It scares us when one of them goes off and gives everybody hell. Plus, we never want to directly physically abuse the old people. We prefer to do it through neglect, or by paying professionals to physically abuse them.

I doubt that theory would hold much water if out to the test, but then, what psychological theory does? And none of that changes the fact that kungfu superstar Ti Lung spends a lot of time in Magic Blade trying to beat up someone called Devil Granny. You can’t beat up people named Granny, even if they are evil and cackle a lot and possess amazing kungfu skills. Anyway, on with the show…

Ti Lung plays the poncho-wearing swordsman Fu Hung-hsu, who is challenged one dark night by rival swordsman Yen Nan-fei, played by Lo Lieh in “relatively ugly” mode. The late, great Lo Lieh was one of the true legends of the martial arts movie world, but very few would ever consider calling him handsome. Luckily, this never really mattered in kungfu films, where you could always find a greater proliferation of ugly heroes and leading men than in any other genre. Ugly men beating up old people. Anyway, Lo did have a few stages of ugliness he could employ. In the 1960s when he frequently starred alongside Jimmy Wang Yu in classic swordsman tales, he was “not especially ugly.” His characters were usually cool, and he was at times almost dashing in a weird way. In the 1970s, things really went downhill for him though, and while his fame grew bigger so too did his level of ugliness. Relegated primarily to villainous roles, Lo was usually in “relatively ugly” mode. It was only on special occasions that he’d trot out his “fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down” brand of ugly, which relied heavily on things like an excessively oily face, stomach-churning amounts of greasiness in the hair, and lots of close-ups of his mouth (and his mangy little mustache) when he’s doing stuff like eating chicken. Revenge of the Zombies may be his crowning achievement in the uglies, because it combines all the oiliness of the above-mentioned grades of ugly with a vile, flared 1970’s wardrobe.

Being ugly doesn’t stop him from being a fan-favorite, though. Think of him as the Ron Jeremy of kungfu. The fact that he lacks the dashing good looks of Ti Lung makes him someone more real to most of us. We also understand that almost no guy looks good when he’s shot in lots of sweaty close-ups. All of this, of course, ignores the fact that ugly or not, Lo Lieh was one hell of a performer; a great actor and a dazzling martial artist. He could play anything from the hero to the villain (the Shaw Bros’ most dependable baddie next to Wang Lung-wei) and even the comic relief (a la his role in the terrific Buddha’s Palm). He is one of the great stars of kungfu’s gritty Golden Age.

Both he and Ti Lung are in top form here. When the two rivals find themselves under attack from a legion of mysterious goons, they put aside their friendly attempts to kill one another and join forces to see who is behind the would-be assassination. They soon discover that the evil Lord Yu is trying to kill the both of them off. Why? Well, to rule the Martial World of course. Fu and Yen are the only two swordsman who can challenge the evil lord’s attempts to bully everyone. Key to his plans for domination is a sacred weapon called the Peacock Dart, which isn’t so much a dart as it is a massively powerful collection of grenades in the shape of a peacock’s tail fan. Needless to say, Fu is judged trustworthy enough to possess the dart, but the weapon’s owner also sends his daughter Yu-cheng (Ching Li) on the quest to put an end to Lord Yu’s evil ways – a quest that has always been difficult since no one actually knows who Lord Yu is, though they do know he employs some the most lethal assassins the Martial World has ever beheld.

Tops among Yu’s henchmen is the aforementioned Devil Granny (played by Ha Ping). I guess to be fair, I should point out that if old people want to stop getting beat up by kungfu heroes, they should stop taking jobs where their primary goal is to start fights with kungfu heroes. I’m all for seniors in the workplace, but with some jobs, you have to accept a certain degree of being rammed through with a sword without complaining about it. All the henchmen have supernatural powers, and everyone spends a lot of time indulging in the requisite fantastic feats like disappearing into puffs of smoke and jumping through ceilings. If you were looking to get rich in medieval China and didn’t want to resort to becoming a corrupt official, you could always go into roof repair. It seems not a movie goes by where someone doesn’t go flying up through the roof.

Our trio of heroes manage to overcome most of the obstacles thrown in front of them, and those obstacles are plenty creative. During one scene, our trio of heroes find themselves standing amid a bustling market where no one is moving because they’ve all been killed so efficiently that they remain sitting exactly as they were the second before they died. Another encounter finds our heroes in a battle set atop a giant chessboard, with Devil Granny on the sidelines cooking people and cackling incessantly. I guess if I met an old person who indulged in cannibalism and never stopped cackling, maybe I’d take a swing at her too. So Fu is forgiven for beating up old people. Other opponents include a transgender kungfu master, a saucy monk, a duo of lute-playing female assassins, and several dozen nameless lackeys. One conflict after another leads to the big showdown with the enigmatic Lord Yu in his elegant estate. Once again, Fu gets to beat up some old people!

Devil Granny is a wonderful example of just how over-the-top creative Kung Lu’s original stories were. Not every genre of film can give you an elderly character who drinks human blood, boils people alive, and wheels around a food cart armed with explosive Thunder Bullet weapons and filled with armed henchmen waiting to burst out at a moment’s notice. Her catering cart could give Ogami Ito’s baby cart a run for it’s money, that’s for sure. People tend to attribute the whole “quirky assemblage of characters” thing to a post-Tarantino cinema landscape, but kungfu films were filling themselves with deadly killer hermaphrodites (or whatever those guys become when their kungfu makes them change sexes), naked lesbian assassins, and flesh-gobbling grandmas long before it was cool.

Of course, this being a Chor Yuen film based on a Kung Lu novel, nothing and no one is ever exactly as it seems. Fu must contend with the never-ending legion of killers who possess all sorts of crazy supernatural martial arts ability, and at the same time must unravel the complicated plot and figure out who is on his side, and who is just trying to kill him. Ching Li, of course, we know we can always trust, but what about that Lo Lieh?

As with the other films in the Chor Yuen – Lu Kung collection, which includes Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, this film strikes a perfect blend of martial arts madness, fantastic supernatural shenanigans, a dash of eroticism, and a mystery plot so convoluted that it takes multiple viewings to comprehend everything and catch all the little nuances. There are several instances where the plot twist is overly obvious, and Yuan seems aware of this. That doesn’t stop them from making the twist, which toys with disappointing you until he subverts the whole thing and twists the twist. He’s the Chubby Checker of martial arts films. Despite some storyline curveballs, Magic Blade is probably the easiest of Chor Yuen’s films to follow. The plot keeps you on your toes, but it’s fairly straight-forward and concentrates less on the mystery and more on Ti Lung chopping people to bits in the name of righteousness. It’s relative accessibility compared to many of the other Chor Yuen/Kung Lu films makes it a perfect place to start if you’re new to the director.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chor Yuen’s films is his ability to take the same cast, same crew, and come up with something fresh each time. Although they all share certain similarities, each of the director’s films has a unique feel that is generated primarily from the characters. Because Fu is a serious, no-nonsense kind of guy, Magic Blade has a serious, no-nonsense kind of feel despite all the unbelievable things going on. Although he plays essentially the same type of character (the superhuman, can-do-no-wrong swordsman) in Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, Ti Lung goes for a more relaxed, playful characterization resulting in a lighter-feeling film (once again, despite all the mayhem). The fact that Chor Yuen never lets action steal the movie from his characters means he can tweak each film and make it different, something Chang Cheh was unable to do thanks to his dedication to the character as a symbol rather than as a human being.

And where his character in subsequent Chor Yuen films is regal in appearance, Ti Lung’s Fu is a more rough and tumble sort of guy. His look, especially the scruff and the poncho, seems derived directly from Clint Eastwood’s appearance in Sergio Leone’s Western epics like The Good the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars. Westerns, kungfu films, and Japanese samurai movies all share a common, somewhat tangled bond that keeps them forever linked to one another and allows new fans of each genre to discover the connections without ever growing tired of the game. So Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, inspires Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, which in turn inspires the look of a character in Magic Blade, which coincidentally stars Lo Lieh who would later star alongside Lee Van Cleef in the Western/kungfu cross-over film Stranger and the Gunfighter. All three genres of film deal with the same basic types of characters and even underwent similar changes in theme and appearance (the transformation of the Western from the heroic, polished old days to the gritty, sweaty Leone era, the move of kungfu films from the classical settings and theatrical structure of the early films to the greasy, grimy grittiness of the 1970s, and samurai films from the lofty Kurosawa classics to the gore and blood-soaked Lone Wolf and Cub films). All that Magic Blade is missing is Walter Matheau running up behind people and shooting them in the back with a double barreled shotgun.

As was his trademark, Chor Yuen drapes his film in eye-popping beauty, and I don’t just mean Betty Tien Ni and Ching Li (or Ti Lung, for the ladies…or Lo Lieh for the crazy people). Relying almost exclusively on sets within the Shaw Bros sprawling compound, Chor Yuen is able to control every last detail of each scene, filling them with lavish decorations and splashes of color and augmenting them with inventive camerawork that shows once again a kinship with the outrageous gothic horrors of Italian director Mario Bava. Only one sequence is filmed outdoors, an encounter in a misty forest and hillside. There is an additional scene set in an open-air courtyard, but even that is strictly controlled. The rest is on sets and allows Chor Yuen to show off the highly stylized look.

Matching the director’s vision pace for pace is the superb cast lead by the always-charismatic Ti Lung. For my money, he was the number one martial arts star in the history of the Shaw Bros studio, and nowhere is his prowess both physical and dramatic. The only problem here is the same one he has in Clans of Intrigue – his character is so bad-ass and so skilled that you never doubt the outcome of a conflict. Fu is always one step ahead of the game, sometimes in the most outrageous ways possible (wait until you see what he can do with his sinus cavity). It’s still fun watching him find a solution to every problem, but sometimes you wish he’d be caught off-guard at least once. Even when he’s getting beaten up, it’s because it’s all part of his plan. Or so he says. At least here he does have to fight a lot. In his Chu Liu-Hsiang role, Ti Lung seems almost along for the ride, just to amuse himself and relieve the boredom of living in a floating boat-palace where his every need is attended to by a trio of beautiful women. Fu at least has to work for a living, and pretty much every fight scene involves his character.

Lo Lieh is also in top form as Yen. Lo Lieh is known for playing villainous roles, and the movie exploits his reputation as the heavy to its advantage. He does a decent heroic turn here, but his past typecasting keeps you wondering whether or not you can trust him. Ching Li has a lot less to do here than in other outings with Ti Lung and Chor Yuen, but she’s always a sight for sore eyes. Speaking of which, Chor Yuen does like to pepper his movies with nudity, and we get here an actress who doffs her duds and orders two nubile nymphs to make out with each other in a bid to bring Fu over to the dark side. Personally, if I was Fu I’d be much happier with sort of attack than with Devil Granny trying to cut my throat. Like Fu, I would valiantly endure the onslaught of beautiful maidens performing wanton acts of carnality. Perhaps someday he and Sir Galahad from Monty Python and the Holy Grail can go a-questing together.

The supporting cast is made up of an endless parade of Shaw Bros. stalwarts and recognizable faces. Their job is primarily to laugh and kill, and next time you’re on a job interview and they ask you what your previous job duties entailed, simply say, “I was there to laugh and kill.” Ku Feng, who also appears alongside Ti Lung in Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, plays one of the killers, and Fan Mei Sheng, who starred as “the smiling fat guy” in just about every movie ever made, plays the evil yet jolly monk. Devil Granny Ha Ping had a long career playing a surprising variety of characters. Sometimes she’s an aging brothel matron (as in Human Lanterns), and other times she plays a character named auntie, Mrs. someone, or someone’s mother or grandmother. As far as I can tell, she was born playing elderly characters, sort of like Peter Cushing. Very few of her other roles allowed for this much toothless cackling and eating of human flesh, though.

What really makes this film a fan favorite, though, is the amount of swordplay it showcases. While other Chor Yuen films rely heavily on whodunit plotting and feature numerous scenes of people trying to figure stuff out, Magic Blade sports a much faster, blood-soaked pace. The fight scenes come fast and furious but never so endlessly that they become boring. The choreography by Tong Gai is exhilarating and definitely ahead of its time. Most filmmakers and action choreographers wouldn’t learn how to shoot fight scenes this fluid and exciting until well into the 1980s. Although the movie is full of fantastic elements, when the fights get down to the nitty gritty, they’re pretty realistic within the realm of realism that includes the ability for a single guy to ward of dozens of armed attackers. But he doesn’t fly or shoot lasers out of his eyes. If your top demand from a martial arts film is breathtaking action, then Magic Blade has you covered.

Magic Blade was the second pairing of Chor Yuen with the literary source material of Kung Lu (the first was Killer Clans, released the same year). It was the beginning of a long and impressive series of films in which the director relied on the author’s martial arts novels, usually with Ti Lung cast in the lead and Ching Li as the supporting female heroine. Ti Lung would even reprise the role of Fu Hung-hsu in a cameo for Chor Yuen’s Death Duel starring David Chiang’s younger brother, Derek Yee. Chiang and Lung were, of course, practically inseparable as the dynamic duo of director Chang Cheh’s output throughout the 1970s. Chiang himself (along with many of the Shaw Bros. stars) has a particularly insane cameo in the same film.

Although lost for many years as a result of never being released on video, the recently released DVDs from Celestial offer fans of martial arts films a look at the work of the man who was arguably the best martial arts director working at the studio, and one of the best martial arts directors of all time. He took the classical wuxia tradition of directors like King Hu and Chang Cheh in the 1960s and revolutionized it with his eye for artistry, beauty, and frenetically paced action sequences. Without Chor Yuen, there might very well have never been a Hong Kong new wave, and the no-holds-barred swordsman pieces of the 1980s would have looked very different had it not been for Chor Yuen’s pioneering work. As an example of the director and author’s love of complicated plots and nonstop storyline twists, Magic Blade is a fine specimen. As an example of the director’s mastery of staging fast-paced, action-packed swordplay drama, Magic Blade simply cannot be beat.