Review: Clans of Intrigue (1977)

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Clans of Intrigue is a later (1977) wuxia/swordplay film from a specialist in this genre, Chu Yuan. And he was a specialist — according to the documentary on the disc, he was generally making seven or eight films at once at any given time for Shaw Brothers, and I can count at least thirty wuxia/swordplay films in his filmography from the mid-seventies to mid-eighties. A large number of these were adaptations from the work of novelist Ku Lung, and this is one of them. They’re often quite similar and vary in quality, but Clans of Intrigue (along with The Magic Blade) is one of the better ones.

As the opening credits roll, we see three deaths in quick succession — someone with long hair, dressed all in red and wearing a mask, is murdering the leaders of clans, which are families or groups of fighters in the “martial arts world” in which these films are set. We are then introduced to our leading character, Chu Liu-hsiang, played here by Ti Lung. He’s having dinner with two friends, one of whom is the obviously much respected and enigmatic monk, Wu Hua (a surprisingly different role for Yueh Hua). Dinner is interrupted by a bevy of female fighters from the Magic Water Palace, who accuse Chu of stealing their Magic Water, with which several of the earlier murders were committed — it’s got a distinctive bloating effect! Chu denies it and is given a month to find the murderer and clear his name… on pain of death, of course.

The story quicky progresses from here and twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. And then some. There’s ninjas, orphaned children, lesbian love, assassination, zen, madness, cavernous lairs and venomous spiders. All illuminated by Chu Yuan’s trademark coloured lights and dressed up in the most sumptuous costumes the Shaws could provide — it’s a notch up from The Magic Blade (which is pretty impressive in its own right) and almost as visually over the top as Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. Nonetheless, Clans of Intrigue is a hugely enjoyable film to watch. The twists are hard to see coming and the film has aged surprisingly well. Ti Lung glows even more than usual, turning on all of the considerable charisma he can manage. His character’s a grinning master thief and swordsman with three female disciples (the subtitles have him calling them “his babes”) who doesn’t bat an eyelid at threats and leaps happily into danger without a second thought. Yueh Hua is excellent as Wu Hua Monk, too, giving the character a measured calm and dignity that looks like it really deserves the deference with which the others treat him. Nora Miao (who’ll be familiar to fans of Bruce Lee’s films) is graceful and the subject of many much-deserved closeups as the head of the Magic Water Palace. Betty Pei Ti plays her maid and lover, though both women have relationships with other characters as well. All of the acting is great, and several of the characters have a few surprises that allow them to display quite a bit more range and development than you’d think.

There’s quite a bit of swordfighting and some open-handed fighting in the film, choreographed by Tong Gaai and Huang Pei-chi. Quite a few people meet rather bloody ends, and there’s several characters who lose an arm at various points in the story. It’s almost a Shaw Brothers convention, really. Fighting is not the major focus of the film, however, and what there is in the movie is uniformly excellent.

In addition to the film, the disc also has three trailers for other films (and the trailer for Clans of Intrigue) and an excellent 50-minute documentary on kung-fu films. It’s slanted towards Shaw Brothers films, but it gives a very good history of the genre, from the early “Wong Fei Hung” films with Kwan Tak Hing through to Hollywood’s adoption of Hong Kong stuntmen and action directors.

9 poisoned clan leaders out of 10.
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