Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Death Valley with Angela Yu Chien

This 1968 Lo Wei-helmed extravaganza opens with an exciting robbery foiled by swordsman Yueh Hua and watched over by comic shopkeep Lee Kwan. Death Valley then kicks off as Yueh Hua takes to the road after paying for the burial of the guys he's just slaughtered. The credits roll and the film begins in earnest.

I've watched some Shaw Brothers stuff lately that felt like work and with something like Death Valley I feel like my enjoyment will hopefully introduce films like this to one or two more people out there. For every weak 1970s Shaw kung fu flick, there's probably a good wuxia flick from the 1960s and it's probably starring Yueh Hua.

Director Lo Wei also stars as a teacher of a martial arts school where the cute Angela Yu Chien is a star pupil. Her perkiness in a yellow outfit in a sea of guys in grey probably helps her chances in this school.

Chiu Jien Ying (Angela Yu Chien) wants to inherit the martial arts school from her uncle (Lo Wei) but the imminent arrival of her cousin Jin Fu seems to put an end to that idea as the guy is set to take over the school.

Angela plots her scheme and I'm pretty sure that her seductiveness will play some role in it.

Soon, there's a sex scene with an American surf-style tune playing on the soundtrack and Angela has got her patsy (Chiu Hung).

Chiu Yu Lung (Yueh Hua) partners up with Jin Fu (Chen Hun-lieh) for an exciting fight in a gambling den with Lee Kwan providing a bit of comic relief under the tables.

It would be silly to recount the plot of Death Valley as there are the usual crosses-and-doublecrosses, mistaken identities, inn duels and arguments, and other devices typical of these wuxia flicks.

The charms of this film are Angela Yu Chien's seductive ones, Yueh Hua's agility and wit, and an effective-and-not-overused musical score.

Death Valley is not a classic but it's not a bad genre picture. And, significantly, Angela Yu Chien is a bit sexier here than other Shaw starlets in other films of this era. A hint of the stuff the studio would do later? Maybe. She has fun with her role and the effect is like Ann Margaret doing an action movie. Sexy but playful.

Lo Wei was an economical director and he doesn't seem to waste a lot of time here. There's not much depth to any of the characters and there's not much of an explanation for Angela's attempts to get the school for herself.

But I like stuff like this and if it seems routine, sometimes the routine is refreshing. The very fact that the Shaw Brothers studio could crank out so many similar films in the 1960s is something I respect.

And a final mountaintop standoff with Yueh Hua is particularly bloody and memorable -- one of the better uses of a real location that I can recall in a wuxia film from the Shaw studios in this era.

You can buy Death Valley on DVD here.