1979 | Hong Kong
AKA: 孔雀王朝 (Kong que wang chao)
Director: Chor Yuen
Chor Yuen came to Shaw Brothers with deep roots in the Cantonese language cinema of Hong Kong. His father, Cheung Wood-Yau, had been a popular actor in Cantonese film, which makes it no surprise that Chor, as a young student, turned to performing in films when he needed to make ends meet. Being a quick learner, and well-aware that he lacked the qualifications of a successful leading man, Chor turned his attention to work behind the camera and soon went from being an assistant director to directing his own films. During this period in his career, while working for the studio Kong Ngee Co., as well as through an independent company that he established with his wife, the actress Nam Hung, Chor specialized in social realist dramas and romances, mostly small-scale films that focused on characters and relationships rather than action. He also broke new ground with his 1965 hit, The Black Rose, one of Hong Kong’s first contemporary action films to incorporate modish elements inspired by Bond films and TV series like The Avengers.
As the sixties neared their close, the Cantonese language film industry went into steep decline. Given that its product was mostly limited to a local audience, it simply couldn’t compete with the comparatively lush production values seen in the Mandarin productions coming out of Cathay and Shaw Brothers. In addition to that, the new style of action films being created over at Shaw—specifically the violent, fast-paced, and decidedly male-driven films of Chang Cheh—had come to be favored by audiences who’d grown weary of the female-centered films that had previously dominated Hong Kong’s screens and which were the bread and butter of the Cantonese industry. HK audiences of the sixties were basically saying, “Aw Jeez, not another heroic swordswoman, for Christ’s sake! How about a guy for a change?”
And so, out went the chaste and chivalrous ladies of the sword played by Connie Chan Po Chu and Josephine Siao, and in came the shirtless, glistening torsos of Wang Yu, Ti Lung, and David Chiang, all ready to display their gory contents in response to an opponent’s sufficiently savage blows. Chor always considered himself above all a commercial director, one who survived by following the prevailing trends, so despite having deep affection for the industry that raised him, he read the writing on the wall and headed over to the Mandarin language studios.
His first stop was Cathay where, in 1970, he made his first swordplay film, Cold Blade. Later that same year, he began his long and prolific relationship with the Shaw Brothers. His first effort for that studio, Duel For Gold, was another swordplay drama, but one that made a distinctly gritty departure from the displays of honor and nobility that had characterized wuxia cinema up to that point, possessed instead of a cynical, morally ambiguous tone that was more in keeping with the new cinema being made in the States by the young mavericks of the new Hollywood.
The film impressed Shaw Brothers boss Run Run Shaw—as it also did, reportedly, Chang Cheh—and went on to modest box office success. After next ushering Cantonese film superstar Connie Chan Po Chu into Mandarin cinema with The Lizard, Chor delivered a more resounding hit with his Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, a film very much in the vein of the “one part art, one part exploitation” type of female-driven period revenge films that were coming out of Japan at the time.
Despite tasting some success with his early forays into Mandarin cinema, Chor didn’t forget his roots. When it came time, in 1973, to adapt the popular stage play The House of 72 Tenants for the screen, he insisted, over Run Run Shaw’s objections, that it be shot in its original Cantonese. The film went on to become one of the year’s biggest hits in Hong Kong, out-grossing Enter The Dragon, and in the process performed the seemingly impossible task of reviving Cantonese cinema at a time when no production in the language had been made for over a year. Now an acclaimed director with a major hit on his hands, Chor was in a position to do whatever he wanted. What he wanted to do, apparently, was spend the next two years filming a series of tearjerkers adapted from popular television dramas that would all prove to be miserable failures at the box office.
After capping off this string of duds with nine months of inactivity, Chor was desperate to get his career back on track again. Deciding to try his hand at swordplay films again, he began work on a series of screenplays based on the popular wuxia novels of Ku Long. Ku Long, like Chor, was known for spicing up his works within the traditional genre by incorporating contemporary elements, and so his tales of swordsman heroes in the vaguely medieval setting of the mythical Martial World were marked by James Bond-inspired gimmickry and noirish notes derived from contemporary detective thrillers. He was also very prolific, churning out more than sixty novels before drinking himself to death at the age of 48.
Despite this, however, Run Run Shaw was unimpressed with Chor’s efforts. Fortunately, an even more prolific scribe, Shaw Brothers’ screenwriting dynamo Ni Kuang, steered Chor toward a more recent book of Ku Long’s, the 1974 novel Meteor, Butterfly and Sword, which the author had based on The Godfather. Chor turned the novel into Killer Clans, a massive hit that resulted in Shaw Brothers putting him on permanent Ku Long duty for the next several years.
By the time of making Murder Plot in 1979, Chor Yuen had already filmed thirteen adaptations of Ku Long’s novels. As a result, his approach to these films had become what some might uncharitably describe as “formulaic.” Chor himself has as much as said so, saying in an interview that “Without the maple leaves and dry ice, I’d be lost.” To me, however, that phrase is misleading, because it suggests something routine, and Chor’s approach, while consistent from film to film, is something uniquely his own, utterly distinct from what anyone was doing at the time. So let’s just settle for saying that Chor’s style, at least in terms of his wuxia films, had “crystallized” by this point, which indeed it had.
At the same time, Chor had yet to weary of his subject matter to the point that he would by the early eighties, at which point some signs of laxness began to creep into the work, along with some grasping attempts to mix things up with new gimmicks—for instance, an increased, and overmatched, reliance on special effects in response to the success of Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. This trend wasn’t helped by the reduced budgets he had to work with as a result of the Shaw studio’s declining fortunes during that decade. All of these factors make Murder Plot an excellent example of that style at its peak, when it was at its most refined and time-tested.
Trends being what they are, audience interest in Chang Cheh’s testosterone-fueled punch-fests had begun to wane by the late 1970s. Chor Yuen, through his Ku Long films, emerged as sort of an anti-Chang Cheh. Where Chang’s films could be technically sloppy and homely in appearance, with the director compensating through sheer gusto, Chor’s were meticulous, even fussy in their detail, and exhibited an unerring dedication to the presentation of visual beauty in every shot. Where Chang’s action highlighted power, speed and violence, Chor’s, while equally frenetic, showed an emphasis on elegance and grace that blended suitably within the dreamlike settings he created.
Chor, perhaps in allegiance to his background in Cantonese cinema, also to some extent reasserted the primacy of the female in his films by having richly drawn female characters fight against and alongside his male heroes on equal footing, an aspect of HK film that Chang had effectively tried to banish via his macho filmmaking ethos. In fact, the mere presence of dimensional characters, as well as the aspiration to emotional resonance beyond simply the clanging reverberations of vengeance and bloodlust, put Chor’s martial arts films at odds with most of Chang’s work and would be a hallmark of his style throughout the Ku Long films.
Another aspect of Chor’s style in regard to these films is a result of the source material, as well as the manner in which that material collided with the restrictions that Chor had to work within. Among the defining characteristics of Ku Long’s wuxia novels are that they are generally lengthy (The Untold History of the Fighting World, the 1965 book on which Murder Plot is based, comprises 44 chapters), dense with back-story, filled with an astonishing number of characters, and feature plots rich in complex intrigues, frequent switching back-and-forth of allegiances, and layered identities. To a film, each of Chor’s adaptations shows the strain of having to compress these narratives to fit within the standard Shaw ninety-minute format — while, of course, at the same time having to include the requisite heavy amount of martial arts action, which in Murder Plot‘s case translates into a rollicking, intricately-staged swordfight at least every five minutes.
As a result, these films—despite the languid exterior that Chor’s fog-drenched, and unnaturally-lit art direction presents—appear to be flying by in fast motion, with the actors spitting huge chunks of expository dialog at each other with tongue-twisting alacrity, and scenes careening into one another as if in a rush to the finish line. In the case of Murder Plot, I was taken by surprise when it became clear that the film’s events were meant to be taking place over the course of several months because their presentation made it seem as if they could just as likely have taken place in an afternoon.
While such hurried pacing provides the films with a crackling energy, it also in some instances makes it tempting to throw up your hands and give up on following their plots altogether. It’s even advisable in some cases, given that some necessary connective tissue was occasionally stripped away in the course of the narrative downsizing. Even so, these films still offer more than enough to enjoy. With their beautiful sets, intoxicating atmospherics, engaging characters, eccentric gimmickry, and exquisitely staged action set pieces, they are a standout example of the type of cinema that one can immerse oneself in without having to resort to the brute mechanics of comprehension. In the case of Murder Plot, the effort is worth making, because among Chor’s wuxia films it is one of the more linear and transparent in terms of story—a fact that, once you’ve watched it, might scare you off of ever dipping into any of the others.
Chor liked to infuse his wuxia films, just as Ku Long did with his novels, with elements gleaned from contemporary pop culture. Among the sources that he drew from on more than one occasion were the Spaghetti Westerns. Magic Blade in particular owes a special debt to Sergio Leone’s Dollar films, in that it presented Ti Lung as basically a Martial World incarnation of The Man With No Name, replicated right down to his ragged poncho. Murder Plot‘s opening pays tribute to this source in equal measure, showing us a shadowy, black-clad figure, hat brim pulled low over his face, leading his horse into a seemingly deserted town under the cover of night, a corpse draped across the animal’s back. As he nears a large manor, the figure stops at a wall on which a number of wanted posters are displayed, tearing down the one that pertains to his recent prey.
This man is the hero Shen Lang, and the fact that he is portrayed by Shaw superstar David Chiang. Having had the requisite brief scuffle with the guards outside Man Yi Mansion (judging from these movies, the Martial World custom is for everyone, upon first meeting, to immediately engage in a sword fight, often for no apparent reason and regardless of the parties’ allegiances), Shen Lang is ushered inside. He’s been summoned, along with the six top heroes of the province’s main schools, by the master Li Chang Chun.
Li Chang Chun addresses the group, speaking of a battle that occurred fifteen years previous in which 900 of the Martial World’s top heroes died fighting for possession of an apocryphal manual containing the secrets to an allegedly invincible fighting style. The rumor of that manual, it turns out, was spread with the very intention of provoking such a battle (a battle that, by the way, is described in the novel in harrowing detail, but here dispensed with in a couple of rushed lines of dialog), and as a result, the perpetrator, through eliminating a large number of his competitors in one go, has come that much closer to dominance over the territory. That perpetrator, according to Li Chang Chun, is a mysterious figure known as the Happy King, who, in the years since the battle, has displayed knowledge of secret techniques previously known only to certain of the battle’s vanquished combatants.
Soon after this revelation, a young woman barges into the meeting and, as is the custom, engages in a brief sword fight with all present except Shen Lang. It turns out that she is Shen Lang’s fiancé, Zhu Qi Qi, the daughter of a wealthy tycoon. Shen Lang, at some earlier point, left Zhu Qi Qi behind, saying only that he had to go on a mission to “find someone” and that he would be gone for several years. Zhu Qi Qi, having grown impatient for his return, decided to come after him. Shen Lang will later, with an amusing combination of weariness and resignation, describe Zhu Qi Qi by saying that she is “unruly, headstrong, and likes to create trouble.”
In addition to conforming in some respects to the stereotype of the pampered, tantrum-prone rich girl, Zhu Qi Qi is also a brave and accomplished sword-wielding hero in her own right. As portrayed by Chor’s favorite leading lady, Ching Li, she is also Murder Plot‘s most endearing character. You get the sense that she’s exactly the kind of woman that a guy like Shen Lang, who comes off as a bit smug and humorless, needs in his life, and you can’t help liking and respecting him all the more for loving her. Their relationship, despite a lot of playful bickering, is clearly one of mutual respect. With the two of them sharing equally in pursuing the mystery at the film’s center, Murder Plot ends up playing out as sort of a martial arts version of The Thin Man, a conceit which ends up being one of the films most appealing aspects.
It’s true that many of Chor’s wuxia films are infused with a sense of melancholy, a reflection of the tragic web that the Martial World’s heroes, honor-bound to an eternal struggle for dominance, find themselves trapped in. Probably the most stark examples of this are the Sentimental Swordsman films, in which Ti Lung portrays a consumptive, alcoholic hero unable to escape his gloomy past. On the other end of the spectrum are films like Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, which feature the worldly, swashbuckling hero Chu Liu-hsiang, also played by Ti Lung, that, despite having some dark, supernatural undercurrents, play out more as rollicking adventures yarns. Murder Plot fits in comfortably alongside these films and serves as a fine example of this strain in Chor’s work. While other of his attempts to meld elements of detective story and swordplay drama were less successful, here he does so to great effect, while at the same time providing an enveloping atmosphere of mystery and romance for those elements to play out in. From interviews with Chor you get the clear impression that he never considered himself anything more than an entertainer and, whether you agree with that or not, in that sense he is here at the top of his game.
Having introduced its main characters and the central conflict in record time, Murder Plot really kicks its action into gear when Shen Lang, Zhu Qi Qi, the master Li Chang Chun, and the six heroes travel to Yi City. They have heard reports that the Happy King’s ill-gotten treasure is stashed there, and upon arriving are shocked to find the streets clogged with a procession of coffins. They are told that a rumor had spread of a fabulous treasure housed in a nearby tomb, and that the many swordsmen who rushed to plunder it were killed by way of poison painted on the tomb’s door.
Shen Lang, Zhu Qi Qi, and the six heroes go to the tomb and immediately upon entering see a number of their entourage killed by a series of booby traps hidden within. Shen Lang pushes further into the crypt, where he encounters and fights with Jin Wu Wang (Wong Chung), who is the Happy King’s treasurer by title but, of course, is also a master swordsman. Though they are apparently on opposite sides, the two express mutual respect and forge a temporary truce when they find themselves, along with Zhu Qi Qi, momentarily trapped inside the crypt. Upon emerging, they find that the six heroes are nowhere to be seen and, since they were the only ones known to be in the tomb with them at the time, are accused of foul play by Li Chang Chun. Shen Lang asks that Li Chang Chun grant him a month’s time to prove his innocence, and the master agrees.
Later that night, Zhu Qi Qi trails a procession of ghostly, white-garbed women to the cavernous lair of the mysterious Madam Wang, where she finds the six heroes suspended in some kind of comatose state. This is the result of the exotic secret weapon—every one of these movies has at least one—wielded by Madam Wang’s son Lian Hua, the “Enticing Ice Arrow”, which is a finger-sized shard of ice that Lian Hua tosses like a dart. Alert viewers will note that Goo Goon-Chung, the actor playing Lian Hua, looks to be about the same age as Chen Ping, the actress playing his mom, the result of Shaw Brothers apparently not having any actresses over thirty-five contracted to them. After briefly mixing it up with Lian Hua, Zhu Qi Qi escapes without having found out exactly why Madam Wang wanted to kidnap the six heroes in the first place. Shortly thereafter, she comes upon an old crone (played again by an actress obviously still in her prime) who, for reasons I was never really able to sort out, drugs her with poisoned smoke, ties her up, and throws her into a coffin with another bound young woman, Bai Fei Fei, played by Chor regular Candice Yu On-On).
Luckily, Zhu Qi Qi has around this same time had a chance encounter with Panda, the sooty, rag-wearing chief of the Beggars Clan (played by Danny Lee, forever beloved for his starring roles in such singular Shaw Brothers ventures as Inframan, The Mighty Peking Man and The Oily Maniac). Panda took the opportunity to nick Zhu Qi Qi’s family pendant (sort of a Martial World ATM card enabling him access to her family’s wealth) and when, later, Shen Lang and Jin Wu Wang catch him with it, he leads them to where Zhu Qi Qi is imprisoned. After yet another frenetic scuffle, Panda, Shen Lang, and Jin Wu Wang make peace and cooperate to free Zhu Qi Qi and Bai Fei Fei. Bai Fei Fei tells them that she was sold to the old woman after being taken from outside the territory, and that she is now far from home as a result. Shen Lang tells her that they will escort her back, as they are going that way in their pursuit of the Happy King, a pledge which leaves the jealous Zhu Qi Qi audibly displeased. Panda, having become immediately smitten with Bai Fei Fei, also offers to come along.
With Shen Lang and Zhu Qi Qi traveling the road on the way to meet with a yet unseen ruler of mythical power, gathering up forces from among a ragtag band of characters with disparate motives within a phantasmagorical setting, Murder Plot really started to remind me of The Wizard of Oz. Danny Lee, in particular, with his combination of bravery, affable goofiness, and canine loyalty struck me as an all-in-one stand-in for all three of Dorothy’s companions. And while Zhu Qi Qi is definitely no Dorothy, Bai Fei Fei, as a wide-eyed innocent trying to find her way back to a home that circumstances beyond her control have taken her away from, fits the bill quite well.
After Jin Wu Wang takes his leave of the crew, giving Shen Lang the standard “next time we meet, it may not be as friends” speech, Zhu Qi Qi leads the rest to Madame Wang’s lair, where another fast-paced fight is engaged with Madame Wang and Lian Hua. Madame Wang remains mysterious about her motives but does allow that she kidnapped the heroes in order to draw Shen Lang to her, though without saying for what purpose. Before being routed, Lian Hua manages to make off with Zhu Qi Qi’s family pendant and, after freeing the heroes, the group heads off toward Fen Yan City, the home of Zhu Qi Qi’s family, to intercept him before he can drain her family’s fortune.
Once there, Zhu Qi Qi, acting on her own, tracks down Lian Hua and, after a furious fight, manages to temporarily paralyze him by striking one of his “pressure points” (another practice that you will get very used to seeing after watching a few of these movies). Despite this, Zhu Qi Qi gets a dressing down from Shen Lang, because he had asked her to stay with Bai Fei Fei at the family mansion and protect her. In a fit of jealous pique, Zhu Qi Qi takes off on her own with the frozen Lian Hua in tow, telling her brother in law that she is doing this so that Shen Lang will “know he should have me in his heart.” This leaves Shen Lang, Panda and Bai Fei Fei to trail after her, trying to guess at her ultimate destination. After a roadside ambush by the Happy King’s wine master and his acrobatic, jug-balancing bodyguards, a scene follows in which Bai Fei Fei, apparently feeling responsible for driving a wedge between Shen Lang and Zhu Qi Qi, tells a stricken Panda that she will be following her own course from this point on.
By this time, Chor was shooting his films exclusively on interior sets, even going to the extreme of sometimes using miniatures for establishing shots to avoid the chance of anything conspicuously natural interfering with the fully enclosed world that he was creating. It was in this manner that he provided an environment in which the dream-like logic of his stories could play out unconstrained by any reference points to the “real world.” It also allowed him to, in painterly fashion, use his settings to express mood, a practice of which Bai Fei Fei’s farewell scene is a stirring example. The scene plays out more as one idealized in memory than an actual occurrence, with the impossibly deep autumnal hues of the rural surroundings rendered gilt-edged by the dying light bleeding through the gauzy veil of mist above. It would be incredibly sad even if Danny Lee and Candice Yu-On On were to do absolutely nothing, because the landscape they inhabit itself is an expression of heartbreak.
After Bai Fei Fei’s departure, Shen Lang and Panda finally catch up with Zhu Qi Qi at Shanghai Gate. Unfortunately, once they have reunited, Lian Hua, who has been subjected to the humiliation of being dressed up as Zhu Qi Qi’s old granny, escapes from his paralysis and overpowers the three. Upon finding themselves back at Madam Wang’s lair, they are finally filled in on the Madam’s true motives. It seems she is the Happy King’s ex-wife, and that she wants Shen Lang to protect the king from the other Martial Heroes who are after his head, so that she alone can enjoy revenge against him for some unspecified wrong.
To insure Shen Lang’s compliance, Lian Hua renders Panda and Zhu Qi Qi comatose with his Enticing Ice Arrows, saying that he will not provide the antidote until Shen Lang has completed his mission. Having no other choice, and at Madam Wang’s direction, Shen Lang tracks the Happy King to a gambling house called the Happy Forest — and he’s Lo Lieh! A very James Bond-inspired scene follows in which Shen Lang and the King size one another up over the gaming table, after which David Chiang gets to show off his empty-handed kung fu skills in a sequence where Shen Lang defends the King against a gang of attackers who storm the casino.
After this, Shen Lang makes the case for the King to hire him on as a bodyguard, and soon finds himself within the walls of the palace. There he is surprised to find that the concubine the King is on the eve of marrying is none other than Bai Fei Fei. Bai Fei Fei will then be the first of many of Murder Plot‘s characters to reveal that she is not what she had previously represented herself to be. In fact, the final fifteen minutes of the movie — in classic Chor Yuen/Ku Long fashion –render false much of what I’ve recounted so far. But for me to reveal more than that would spoil the fun — or the frustration, depending on how you tend to react to having a laboriously-woven narrative rug pulled out from under you at the last moment.
In either case, what really matters is that Murder Plot puts paid to its real obligations by seeing out its final moments with a lavish sword and kung fu battle — choreographed by Chor’s regular collaborator, the great Tong Gai — that sees all of the characters whirling and flipping across the screen at a pace that makes the rest of the movie seem stately by comparison. If you have lost the thread of the plot by this point, chances are that you won’t end up caring. And if you do, a painless remedy is at hand, because Murder Plot is so crammed with nuance and detail that a second viewing can only yield further enjoyment.
I imagine that it’s pretty obvious that I love Murder Plot. It looks beautiful, the actors and the characters that they play are incredibly appealing, the action is wonderfully staged and literally non-stop, and the atmosphere is so rich with romance and intrigue that it’s enough to send you into a ninety-minute swoon. Still, it’s far from my favorite of Chor Yuen’s wuxia films, which should give you some idea of just how deep the damage goes with me when it comes to these movies. The world that Chor creates in them is, simply put, one that I never tire of visiting, and I’m happy that his prolific output has provided me with ample opportunities to do so. Upon consideration, maybe I do agree that, with time, Chor Yuen’s Ku Long films became somewhat routine and predictable. And by that I mean that they are routinely awesome and predictably rewarding.