Yueh Hua was a stalwart of Shaw Brothers swordplay films for many years, after two quite prominent roles in his first two films; The Monkey King in Monkey Goes West (a story familiar to Aussie fans of the Japanese Monkey TV show) and Drunken Cat in Come Drink with Me, King Hu’s classic wuxia film. In The Twelve Gold Medallions, he plays the lone swordsman Miao Lung, fighting to prevent a traitorous minister’s plot to stop a general’s victorious battles against invading forces.
Like many of the period swordplay films that Shaw Brothers released in the late sixties and early seventies, this one has an episodic feel to it — we’re given an opening description that sets up what the story’s about, and it’s a small-scale struggle at a turning point in a larger war. There’s a closing description at the end, too. The minister Chin Kuei is trying to stop General Yueh Fei’s repeated victories by summoning him back to the capital with official imperial orders. These orders are in the form of golden tablets (the gold medallions of the title), and these tablets are dispatched in the General’s direction, carried by messengers. Patriotic heroes (of which there are a large number roaming the Chinese countryside) have taken it into their heads to find these messengers and prevent the tablets’ delivery, killing the messengers if necessary.
Miao Lung is one of these heroes, and a thoroughly effective one. Things begin to get more difficult when his master, seduced by power, joins the struggle and takes over the attempted deliveries himself. Miao Lung is sworn to fight against him despite his love for his master’s daughter, Jin Suo (played by Chin Ping). No-one can stand alone against the master’s abilities, so another old master is brought in, the lengthily named Green Bamboo Cane Old Master Meng.
Twelve Gold Medallions is directed by Cheng Kang, father of very prominent director and action choreographer Ching Siu-Tung. It felt a little uneven to me — there are a lot of scenes early in the film that didn’t work for me, but later on there are others than caused me to revise my opinion of the film upwards. There’s some excellent camera work and direction in places, and some impressive action scenes towards the end of the story. This film has all of the features that characterised the swordplay genre at the time — exotic weapons; supernatural fighting and flying abilities; warring clans; crafty, evil ministers; martial arts masters with beautiful daughters; and lots of bloodshed. Yueh Hua puts in a solid performance, as does Chin Ping. I also liked Ching Miao, who’s given quite a bit of screen time as the master-gone-traitor Jin Yantang — he radiates menace convincingly, and doesn’t seem at all conflicted over doing away with daughters for power’s sake. About the only fault that really stands out in the film is the relationship between Miao Lung and Jin Suo, which is a bit muddled and makes for some confused scenes between them occasionally. Their capacity for misunderstanding each other is limitless!
Check it out for some classic swordplay action, with great examples of many of the genre conventions and several buckets of red paint.