Friday, June 18, 2010

Killers Five with Li Ching

With assured direction from Ching Gong (father of Ching Siu-Tung), 1969's Killers Five is a short (81 minutes) wuxia crowdpleaser.

Yue Zhenbei (Tang Ching) is looking for the brother of Ma Jin Ling (Li Ching) to take on the vicious warlord, Jin Tianlong (Tang Ti).

After Li Ching disguises herself as a warrior -- albeit a cute warrior -- Yue allows the girl to join him on his quest. Soon, they enlist Water Rat Li (Ku Feng) on the boat ride to the stronghold.

(I think that was Lily Li as the girl rowing the boat and arguing with Ku Feng.)

This is one of those forming the band-kind-of-things. By that I mean that the plot about arriving at the villains' fortress is not nearly as important as the bits along the way as more heroes join the main characters' cause. Add to the mix the burly Niu (Cheng Miu) and the young and brash Liang (Wang Kuang Yu).

The goal of rescuing the duke's daughter, and not simply revenge, is the real reason the 5 approach the villains' fortress.

An exciting scene using a real seaside cliff location deserves mention. The sequence, soundtracked by insistent planking piano figures, is largely dialogue-free with Niu climbing up the hill, striking first, and lowering a rope ladder down the cliffside. Never mind that the climb would be the stuff of Olympic athlete prowess for these five warriors as we never see the entire effort on screen.

Soon the heroes are in the compound and wrecking vengeance at night, with Water Rat Qi (Ku Feng) caught up in a gambling match again and the the mysterious Liang on speaking terms with one of the main villains. Li Ching's swordswoman, showing fierce resourcefulness, looks for the duke's daughter and soon falls into a trap.

Carrie Ku Mei plays the duke's daughter whose kidnap is the source of this whole drama but she's not given much screen time.

As for Li Ching: My first thought was that this must have been a Cheng Pei-Pei role and somehow Li Ching got the part instead. But that's just guessing. It doesn't matter as Li Ching does add some unique touches to her heroine. There's a wonderful sequence where she's fighting and her face -- far more expressive in this scene than Cheng Pei-Pei's would have been -- seems girlish, registering shock and concern even as she's fighting a bloody duel. As her sword remains aloft and she is holding off the three swords of her attackers, she looks spent. Then, the baby queen of the Shaw studios uses her other hand to kind of claw her opponents' stomachs. It's a funny little moment that Cheng Pei-Pei, or Lily Ho, couldn't have pulled off in this role.

Watching Li Ching in this in 1969, it seems more ridiculous how little director Chang Cheh did with her in the same year's Have Sword Will Travel.

Check out that clip below and you'll see why I'm a fan. Watch it once for the fun action and then watch it again and study the range of expressions on Li Ching's face. The actress clearly knows what she's doing by contrasting her cute face with the bloody action unfolding around her. Her expression as she leaps to the top of the cabinet, dodging a hail of blades, is magical: it's a look of delight, surprise, shock, and relief -- it's almost as if she is saying to those goons: "You dare to try that with me?"

A film like Killers Five is not trying to reinvent the genre and I think it's easy to see why film scholars latch onto the machismo of Chang Cheh as, clearly, he was altering the genre tropes. Still, I'd argue with anyone that a film like this remains more fun. A cast of regular Shaw stars and a solid plot that delivers the goods for 81 minutes, Killers Five was a lot of fun.

You can order Killers Five on DVD here.