Clans of Intrigue

When Celestial Entertainment announced in the early 2000s that they’d inked a deal to release everything in the vaults of the Shaw Brothers studio onto DVD, complete with digital remastering, subtitles, and extras, many people had a “believe it when I see it” attitude. After all, such a deal seemed far too good to be true. The Shaw Brothers, of course, were one of the premiere studios in the history not just of Hong Kong cinema, but of global cinema as a whole. Along with Cathay Studios, the Shaw Brothers defined Hong Kong cinema and helped create what many consider the Golden Age during the ’50s and ’60s. Unfortunately, after their initial release into theaters, the vast majority of Shaw Brothers films disappeared, locked away in secret vaults and jealously guarded like some crazy long-haired drunken monk guards the manual for his secret style of Wild Toad Kungfu.

A few titles snuck out in badly cropped formats with those subtitles where only about four words are visible and the rest run off the sides and bottom of the screen. More made it into the bootleg realm, also in inferior formats and often dubbed and edited. And even those that did make it out were almost exclusively the kungfu films of Chang Cheh and Liu chia-liang – fine films, but a tiny smattering of what lie hidden somewhere out there near Clearwater Bay.

In December of 2002, however, dreams became a reality, and the first batch of remastered Shaw Brothers films hit the DVD market. Suddenly, the dearth of quality new productions seemed less important. As long as Celestial kept a steady stream of old classics coming our way, it didn’t really matter that new films offered nothing worth taking note of. There were more than enough unearthed classics to keep fans busy for years, and with such an aggressive release schedule (they do have over 700 films to get through, after all), there’d be little down time between waves of rediscovered treasure.

Initially, I’d been excited primarily about the idea of getting my hands on beautiful copies of all my old favorites. The first day, however, my focus shifted dramatically, and I fond myself far more excited about the prospect of delving into the unknown, the films and directors and stars I’d never seen before. And there are plenty of them. From weepy melodrama to pop-art go-go musical extravaganzas, I was in for one treat after another. And one of the yummiest treats was discovering, at long last, the films of Chu Yuan, aka Chor Yuen.

Chor Yuen is probably most recognizable as the evil Mr. Koo from Jackie Chan’s Police Story. Before he was whacking Jacking with an umbrella and causing him to fall off speeding double-decker busses, Chor Yuen made a name for himself as one of the most accomplished and artistic martial arts directors in movie history. Where most kungfu films were happy to point the camera at a couple guys and let them wave their arms in each other’s faces, Yuen was determined to maintain and build upon the more stylish, lyrical, and poetic artistic approach of early masters like King Hu while throwing in plenty of visual flare that seems to have been derived from ground-breaking Italian productions like those of Mario Bava: lots of mist, splashes of brilliant color and surreal lighting, and unique use of the camera as something more than just a thing to point at people.

Equally detailed are the sets employed in each film. While cheaper, less ambitious films just plopped the hero and villain down on top of that grassy hill or the rock quarry looking thing where 90% of all kungfu fights in the 1970s took place, Yuen placed his films amid lavish sets that became as essential to the film as the characters themselves and help lend to them a dreamlike elegance missing from so many of the more straight-forward films of the era. Each scene looks like a painting, filled with swirling mists, swaying cherry blossoms, and flowing silks. Yuen’s “villain lairs” were often more outlandish and inventive than anything seen even in the wildest dreams of the old Batman series. They were caves full of spooky lighting and boiling pits of fire, or temples filled with sparkling gems and booby traps.

The final piece of Yuen’s puzzle comes in the form of fabulously labyrinthine plots where every single person has something to hide, nothing is what it seems, and everyone will be crossed and double crossed as often as possible. Part fever dream, part detective novel, the stories behind Yuen’s films were often the handiwork of famed martial arts novelist Lung Ku. Martial arts adventure novels in China have always been astoundingly complex, filled with hundreds of characters and sometimes dozens of main characters. Most famous among the classic tales is The Water Margin, also known as Heroes of the Marsh and 108 Heroes. These novels have served as the basis for scores of movies including new wave classics like Swordsman (written by Louis Cha) and Golden Age gems like Brave Archer (also from the pen of Lung Ku). Despite the era and despite the author, all the film’s share the traditional love of complex, sometimes confounding plots.

Previously, deciphering the events in one of these movies was a Herculean chore. The only versions available were often cropped on the edges so that fully half the action fell off the screen, and subtitles went with the picture. For any given line of dialogue, you were lucky to get three or four words that didn’t drop off the bottom or the side edges of the screen. Thus, if any character said something more complex than “Yes,” or “Kill him!” you were in trouble. Since films of this nature offered so many twists and turns and so many characters with secret identities and agendas, keeping track of the plot was well nigh impossible. Luckily, the DVD releases of these films rectify the situation, providing viewers with the full scope of action and subtitles that are actually placed in a position where you can see them. From time to time, even this doesn’t make some of the more outrageous plot twists any more comprehensible, but at least we’re in a better position to enjoy what’s going on. And what better place than one of Chor Yuen’s coolest films to begin?

Ti Lung stars in Clans of Intrigue as the accomplished swordsman Chu Liu-hsiang. His heroics and reputation have earned him a life of luxury which he spends in his decked-out palatial boat where he is attended to by three drop-dead sexy female assistants, not unlike Derek Flint or L. Ron Hubbard. His idyllic life is upset when a maiden from the Palace of Magic Water (played by Bruce Lee film veteran Nora Miao) arrives to accuse him of murder. Seems that someone has assassinated the leaders of three of the great martial arts clans, and the word around that ever-tumultuous Martial World is that Chu is the man responsible for these heinous deeds.

Determined to clear his name and unmask the true killer, Chu sets off on a investigative quest that bring shim into contact with a variety of clans and killers, all of whom seem to have some strange secret that connects them to the murders. Along the way, he first fights and then befriends a swordsman for hire (played by the impressive Ling Yun) and the daughter of one of the slain clan leaders. He’s also badgered at every turn by a mysterious masked killer in red and a variety of icily beautiful hit women from the Palace of Magic Water, who are lead by Betty Pei Ti. And did I mention the mysterious monk or the subplot about orphaned ninjas?

Clans of Intrigue, like most Chor Yuen – Lung Ku collaborations, keeps the viewer guessing primarily by providing a twist at every single opportunity. While it’s not always the most logical turn of events, it certainly keeps you watching and paying attention. Unlike the more brutal kungfu dramas of Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen emphasizes story and characters over kungfu action. Ti Lung is more than up for the challenge of carrying a character-driven story, even though his character is in many ways the least complex. Ti Lung was always one of the best all-around performers at the Shaw Bros studios. He was handsome, majestic, and equally adept at drama, comedy, and deadly kungfu action – all of which he gets to display here. The character of Chu Liu-hsiang is rarely serious or at a loss for words, and his reaction to everything seems to be to smirk, make a joke, then kick some ass. It’s nice to see him in a role unlike hi usual Chang Cheh roles, where he would invariably have to take off his shirt and get stabbed in the belly.

His polar opposite is the mysterious swordsman in black played by the enigmatic Ling Yun. With motives less pure than those of his compatriot, Yuen’s grim killer-for-hire is the straight-man of the duo. The rest of the cast round out the film nicely. Nora Miao is as beautiful as she is talented, and Chor Yuen always gives his female characters something interesting to do – another of the many things that set him apart from his contemporary Chang Cheh and links him more to past masters such as King Hu (who, incidentally, directed Yuen Hua alongside Cheng Pei-pei in the ground-breaking Come Drink With Me) or another of Shaw’s up and coming directors, Liu Chia-liang — who made a hero out of Kara Hui Ying-hung when very few heroic female characters existed in the Chang Cheh dominated kungfu films. After the trendiness of wu xia (fantastic swordsman) films wore off and was replaced in the 1970s by grittier, more brutal, and less lyrical kungfu films, female heroines tended to disappear from Shaw Bros martial arts epics, thanks primarily to Chang Cheh’s domination of the market. He was much more interested in male bonding than in women, and his films reflect his own macho tastes. Contrary to reports that Shaw Bros. producer Mona Fong was the driving force behind eliminating women from heroic leading roles (out of jealousy, as the story goes), it seems the blame lies far more on Chang Cheh. It wasn’t until Chor Yuen and Liu Chia-liang became the dominant forces behind the studio’s martial arts films that we saw a return of the valiant female fighter.

As the heroic Black Pearl, Shaw Bros stalwart Ching Li is wonderful. With her “best friend’s cute little sister” good looks and quality acting chops honed in dramatic roles like the schizophrenic young woman in When Clouds Roll By, Ching Li was a real force to be reckoned with. Chor Yuen was certainly fond of her, and he used the talented young actress in both Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat as well as Killer Clans, Magic Blade, and the director’s comedic blockbuster House of 72 Tenants among others. She also has the distinction of being one of the only female stars to every carve a decent character out of a Chang Cheh film, that of the doomed woman in Blood Brothers. She also got to do some ass-kicking in Chang’s early Ti Lung – David Chiang “spaghetti western” kungfu film Anonymous Heroes. Her mixture of true acting ability and athletic prowess made her one of the most versatile and enjoyable to watch female stars in Shaw Bros film history — quite a feat when youn consider that puts her int he company of women like dramatic actress Linda Lin Dai, Ivy Ling Po, Lily Li, and kungfu superstar Hui Ying-hung.

The venerable Yueh Hua stars as Ti Lung’s friend and ally, Monk Wu Hua. As with nearly everyone else in the film, he is far more than he appears to be, and his role in the story keeps you guessing as to his true motives and history. Yueh Hua plays the character with a wonderful subtlety that imminently displays why he was considered one of the Shaw Bros. most treasured performers. Few and far between are the films with such an impressive ensemble cast of men and women who are actually allowed by the story to live up to their potential as both characters and actors.

Another of Chor Yuen’s trademarks was his eye for beauty and his tendency to add a little flesh and spice to his films. A naked female rear here, the glimpse of a breast there did a lot to titillate viewers even though it was shot with the same striking artistry as the rest of his film. Clans of Intrigue is no exception to the rule, and Yuen serves up some decidedly adult fare with the lesbian overtones between Nora Miao and Betty Pei Ti. In fact, there are versions of the film that contain a steamy kiss between the two women, though that particular instance is missing from the official cut of the film as was presumably only added for international distribution. Its absence, and the absence of a flash of frontal nudity during a bathing scene involving Betty Pei Ti, have lead some to claim erroneously that Celestial – the company who has remastered and released the film onto DVD – censored the print. This is not the case. The moments were never officially part of the film as it played in theaters, though those of you in desperate need of seeing Bruce Lee’s favorite female co-star kissing another woman can still get an eyeful thanks to the DVD’s stills gallery. Neither scene is vital to the movie of course, nor has any real bearing on the action that isn’t communicated through other scenes. It’s just, well, you know us and our fondness for nudity.

That’s not the only place the film plays with gender, however. In a series of twists that foreshadow the gender-bending antics of Hong Kong new wave films like Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II and Swordsman III: The East is Red, as well as Ronnie Yu’s Bride With White Hair, we get not only the cult of sword-swinging lesbians but also a character who is able to change genders at will and wreak all sorts of havoc as a result. And while it’s not exactly part of the gender bending subtext, the shots of a paralyzed Ti Lung sitting in a flowery white swing above a misty perfumed pond look like something right out of your better gay nightclub floor shows. Not that toying with gender was anything new. Kungfu films have always enjoyed doing things like taking beauties such as Cheng Pei-pei and Shang Kuan Lung Feng and dressing them up as men. Unconvincing men, but men never the less. And Hong Kong entertainment in general has a fondness for men in drag that remained unsurpassed until the advent of the Spanish-language cable network Galavision.

All of Yuen’s work in these adaptations of Kung Lu novels, and indeed much of the director’s work in general, is infused with a more feminine quality than the films of other directors in the genre, even other directors like Liu Chia-liang who appreciated female heroines. Part of this comes from intricate delicacy of Yuen’s set-pieces. They are, as stated previously, absolutely gorgeous. Part of it comes from the fact that his female characters are allowed to be strong and feminine where most female kungfu stars were simply women acting the same as the men. There’s nothign wrong with that, of course, but the fact that Yuen protrays his women as women, with their own unique character traits, makes for deeper, more interesting figures.

It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Chor Yuen is also known for upping the anty when it came to exposing female flesh. Not that nudity was anything new to the kungfu film, and in fact in comparison to many films fromt he same era, Chor Yuen’s films are relatively tame in the amount of nudity they show. They only seem saucier because the director handles it in a very adept way. It’s not the amount of flesh that is revealed, but the way Chor Yuen reveals it. There is nothing vulgar or obvious about his handling of the saucier bits. They’re quite poetic, and because of that, quite erotic. It’s that classy handling of the material that makes it seem much naughtier than it really is. It’s because he makes what little nudity there is really count, instead of just giving us a parade of gratuitous boob shots during rape scenes. It’s, well, hot. As such, even his coy use of female nudity seems artistic and feminine in its touch. And that’s the touch that probably explains why, despite his fondness of nubile young nudes, Chor Yuen has garnered so many female film admirers who are turned off by all the chest-beating maleness of Chang Cheh. Chor Yuen’s heroines can be naked without ever seeming debased, and his heroes can read poetry and give each other flowers without seeming wimpy. Like everything else surrounding the director’s work, it’s really quite refreshing and very unique.

As an action film, Clans of Intrigue doesn’t disappoint, though it is heavier on discussion than some people might want. Chor Yuen’s work is the missing link between the classic wu xia films of the 1960s like Come Drink With Me and Temple of the Red Lotus, and the wildly over-the-top new wave swordsman films of the 1980s such as the Swordsman trilogy and Zu. Although the relative obscurity of Chor Yuen’s body of work has caused it to be overlooked when drawing the map of Hong Kong film trends, its availability on DVD will hopefully allow the director to take his rightful place as one of the most innovative and influential directors in action film history. Without his work, it’s likely the much-talked-about flying swordsman films of the 1980s and 1990s wouldn’t have come to pass, or at the very least, would have looked remarkably different. Directors like Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark owe a tremendous debt to Chor Yuen. That said, Clans of Intrigue is not the kungfu blow-out as delivered by guys like Chang Cheh. While it certainly doesn’t skimp on the sword fighting and jumping over high castle walls, it’s not the center of attention. That position belongs to the esoteric plot.

But when the action does heat up, it’s frequently fast-paced and impressive. The final duel between our trio of heroes and the characters eventually unmasked as the villains of the piece is phenomenal. For starters, you’ve never seen so many double-crosses in such a short amount of time. Moreover, one of the characters, upon having their hand chopped off, angrily picks up said hand and flings it with such force that impales another character. You just can’t get much tougher than that, unless you’re the guy in Story of Rikki who uses his own intestines to strangle his opponent.

The Chor Yuen films have been the definite highlight of the recent Shaw Bros. DVD releases, and Clans of Intrigue is a sumptuous example of why. It is extravagantly filmed and directed, sporting eye-popping artistry and visual flare, lavish sets, mind-numbingly complex plotting, beautiful women, heroic men, and sword fights galore. While the team of Lung Ku, Chor Yuen and Ti Lung would top themselves the same year with the exquisite Magic Blade, Clans of Intrigue proved vastly popular – and rightly so. It’s a tremendously impressive film, and it spawned a sequel called Legend of the Bat, reuniting Ti Lung and Ling Yun in another tale of intrigue and deception. If you are looking for a good introduction to one of the most astounding and unjustly unrecognized talents in Hong Kong film history, then Clans of Intrigue is indeed a grand place to begin.