Sunday, June 21, 2009

Valley of the Fangs with Li Ching

Valley of the Fangs

A rousing, stunning mini-masterpiece delivered with flair by Korean director Jeong Chang Hwa, this 1970 film is a perfect wuxia romp. The director had success with Lo Lieh in 1972's King Boxer (sometimes retitled Five Fingers of Death in the West) shortly after this and his skill at staging is really on display here. Camera angles, zooms, and compelling compositions abound in this fast moving tale of the delivery of an imperial shield across enemy lands in the hopes of freeing an innocent man.

With most of these films, the plot device is not as important as the action and the same is true here; the setup takes a few minutes and then things kick in as a mother and daughter begin their trek and the heroic Lo Lieh shows up at the important moments to help out.

Li Ching may not get to fight very much in this film but she certainly portrays the innocent with a lot of conviction. The role of a daughter on the run with her mother through hostile territory is an easy one for the baby-faced queen of the Shaw studio and the actress' yearning expression only makes her seem more vulnerable.

Her best scene is perhaps the one with Fan Mei Sheng, the Battle-Axe from The Shaw Brothers classic, The Water Margin, here playing a villain -- surprise, surprise! As the mother-and-daughter duo pose as travelling street musicians at an inn, Fan Mei Sheng badgers the girl into singing to entertain the drinking patrons. What starts as a typical inn scene -- the sort before a big fight breaks out -- turns into something funny as the burly Fan Mei Sheng leads Li Ching in the type of song he would like to hear.

And what was I saying earlier about Lo Lieh being better at playing villains rather than heroes? I think I made a mistake as the actor does a fantastic job in this film. If Jimmy Wang-Yu is a killing machine with the emphasis on the word machine, Lo Lieh here is simply an unstoppable weapon of justice. As the actor soars on foot after the fleeing villain, his sword is carried down-and-behind him and the actor leans into the wind like an eagle. The evil character played by Wong Hap runs in terror, casting backwards glances at his fate personified by Lo Lieh.

Praise might also be due to action choreographer Lau Kar-Leung as well as each major set piece takes place in an entirely different locale, adding to the momentum of the film as a whole.

A thrilling scene in another inn with the mother and daughter taking shelter from an oppressive rain storm is a highlight. The scene echoes Kurosawa and Hollywood Westerns as the tension ramps up higher and higher. The arrival of Lo Lieh in a doorway with the camera zooming up to his face, shadowed by the brow of his hat, echoes any number of similar scenes in American Westerns -- one half expects John Wayne to be in that doorway given the style of the scene!

And a following sword fight in the mud pits of a nearby kiln/construction site is another marvel. The scene feels natural and entirely different from the other duels earlier in the picture with the filmmakers using a real set as opposed to a studio backlot.

A cousin of Li Ching's has a weird sequence where he appears to be staggering off to his death after battle only to reappear later in a convenient moment near the end. The improbability of that appearance is overshadowed by that near-death scene where the actor staggers up a grassy hillside as a heavenly choir sings on the soundtrack. Sure it *is* a bit cheesy but as the actor then stumbles in profile across a beach at sunset (or sunrise?), it's clear that the director is attempting to do something with the visuals of this film that many of his peers at the time never tried.

The final duel between Lo Lieh and Wong Hap is an almost wordless duel on a desolate plain -- again a real locale and not a backlot.

I also loved how this film had a good five minutes after the conclusion of the action to show us how the characters finally said their goodbyes; too many of these Shaw wuxia genre pics have the final title card play out almost immediately after the final death-blow is delivered.

Here we see how -- like the heroes in disparate works such as The Road Warrior and Yojimbo and The Searchers -- the hero is needed by the civilized world but inevitably must find his own way alone in the uncivilized wilderness.

A real surprise, Valley of the Fangs was as enjoyable for me as many of the Cheng Pei-Pei wuxia films I watched a few years ago.

You can order Valley of the Fangs on DVD here.

[Pictures: YesAsia/Celestial Pictures]