Review: The Wuxia Stories: Heroes of Ancient China (DVD box set) (1970)

Now that Siren have a large catalogue of releases from the celebrated Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong, they’ve started boxing them up into box sets, all the better to tempt you with. Wuxia Stories is the first one, showcasing five films from Shaws’ prolific swordplay director Chu Yuen and one from Cheng Kang, father of action director Ching Siu Tung.

For those readers who aren’t aware of it, wuxia refers to a particular genre of Chinese film and literature, one focused on the epic struggle between wandering heroes for control of the “martial arts world”. It’s a genre that became a speciality of the Shaws studio before the coming of directors like Chang Cheh and Lau Kar Leung, with their interest in more realistic martial arts.

Chu Yuan joined the Shaw Brothers studio in the early seventies and became one of its most prolific directors, specialising in swordplay films. He was particularly adept at transferring wuxia novels to the screen, particularly those by writers Jin Yong and Gu Long. These are flamboyant films, mixing swordplay and detective stories and displaying all the elaborate set design and outlandish costuming that Shaws is famous for.

The Magic Blade and Clans of Intrigue are both Gu Long adaptations from the mid-70s, starring Ti Lung as a dashing young hero investigating the disappearance of a piece of exotic weaponry. They’re both quite unusual films — the former for its nod to Sergio Leone’s westerns (Ti Lung is a poncho-wearing swordsman!), and the latter for its theatrical, twisting plot.

Director Yuan ratchets up the coloured lights and fantastical superweapons for The Web of Death, starring Yueh Hua. This film’s an adaptation of a Jin Yong novel and has a slightly different feel from the previous two: it’s even more fantastical, bordering on the absurd in parts. It’s great fun, nonetheless, and Yueh Hua and Ching Li both put in good performances.

The fourth Chu Yuan film in the collection is Death Duel starring Derek Yee (followers of more recent HK film may be more familiar with him as the director of One Nite in Mongkok and Viva Erotica). Here we return to the writings of Gu Long, but in an oddly self-referential way. As the plot progresses, the young hero meets other, older heroes who’ve retired from the martial world, eager to hide themselves away where they won’t be forced to fight endless duels and recover stolen items of power. It’s a quieter, less flashy film than the others listed above, but a more complex take on the genre as well.

It should be noted that all four of the above films were produced in 1976 and 77, and represent only a fraction of Chu Yuan’s output: he made many, many films in the wuxia genre for Shaws, often shooting several films with the same group of actors simultaneously. Like Chang Cheh, he established a very distinctive directorial style that makes his films instantly recognisable.

The final film in this collection is The Twelve Gold Medallions, directed by Cheng Kang (father of HK’s king of wirework action, Ching Siu-Tung). Unlike Chu Yuan’s films, this one begins with a story grounded in history — the main characters are patriots, siding with the famous general Yueh Fei against the traitorous minister Chin Kuei. However, the plotting and action sequences are pure wuxia: our lead, Yueh Hua, is a swordsman of supernatural skill, and every major character has an exotic, one-of-a-kind weapon or secret technique. It’s not got Chu Yuan’s pyrotechnics or elaborate twists, but it’s a solid film.

All in all, Siren have given us a nice collection of decent films from Shaw Brothers at the height of swordplay’s popularity as a genre, before its displacement by “harder” martial arts cinema. There are other wuxia films from Shaws worth checking out, too: chief among them is King Hu’s much earlier film Come Drink With Me, which laid down many of the genre’s conventions in film and has been endlessly referenced ever since. Check out these five for a taste of where the genre went, and a dose of the Shaw Brothers’ house style at its most spectacular.

7.5 searches for stolen all-powerful superweapons out of 10.
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