Sunday, April 18, 2010

Twin Blades of Doom (1969)

Martial artist Chang Qi Lang (Ling Yun), nicknamed "the Twin Blades of Doom", kills another highly respected martial artist in a duel that wasn't supposed to be to the death.

Struck by guilt, Chang retires from the Martial World and hides away with his parents, doing menial jobs. One night, after Chang had to lift his incognito in one of those random sword fights that always happened in ancient China, and just before the swordsman and his parents can move on to another town, someone kills the nice elderly pair for no good reason the film is willing to impart, leaving behind a ghost mask. Chang - who was basically just around the corner for five minutes - is grief-stricken and very very angry.

A bit of research later, he knows that a group known as the Ghost Gang has killed his parents. Of course, being a swordsman, Chang swears bloody vengeance on them. His first bout with a group of the killers doesn't go too well. Although he is able to slay his enemies, Chang is wounded and poisoned by an expert in piggyback fu.

With more luck than anything else, the wounded swordsman stumbles right into the arms of a group of travelling artistes (whom the subtitles dub "art sellers", but who most certainly aren't). Their patriarch (Cheng Miu) has some skill in and the proper medicines for treating poison, and is too nice a guy not to use them. Yin-erh (Ching Li), one of his daughters, falls in love with the sombre swordsman at once, but Chang leaves the troupe at the first possibility to pursue his vengeance.

Little does he know that just going with them would have shortened the way to that vengeance considerably, for the main force of the Ghost Gang attacks the next village the artistes are visiting. Not many of them survive the attack, but instead of running away, the four surviving artistes (among them of course the patriarch and Yin-erh), travel into the next town threatened by the Ghost Gang to warn them about the Gang's plan to steal some precious jade figurines.

The rest of the film concerns itself with further whittling down Yin-erh's family, with Chang's attempts to take vengeance and a lot of back and forth over the jade figurines. Because a wuxia plot can't get complicated enough, Chang and the patriarch also realize that the artistes would have a good reason to take vengeance on Chang themselves.

Twin Blades of Doom is the final directorial work by Tao Qin (aka Ching Doe and variants of that), a Shaw Brothers contract director since the early 50s who was usually specialized in musicals and melodrama. Going by the titles in his filmography, this seems to be his only wuxia or martial arts film, but you wouldn't think him unaccustomed to the rules and regulations of the wuxia genre after seeing Twin Blades. Stylistically, the film stands between more traditional stylings of its genre and its post-One Armed Swordsman brutalization and loss of interest in female characters (outside of the films of Chor Yuen). Like the Cheng Cheh school of filmmaking of that time taught, Tao Qin's film concentrates on a single male hero, but it has much more time for civilians (that is, non martial artists) and especially its female lead Ching Li than a comparable Cheng film would have.

True, Yin-erh isn't allowed to be a fighter here, but the film treats her as respectfully as a heroine can expect to be treated, as if she were a proper grown-up able to take care of herself and not a simpering idiot only fit for being kidnapped.

I also found it quite refreshing how nice of a guy our hero Chang is. I'm used to seeing the good guys helping people in need by slaughtering the bad guys, but Chang is more than once sparing the lives of lowly henchmen of his enemies. Now that's a brooding hero I can get behind.

The fights are full of only the reddest blood the Shaw studios had to offer, but they are not as insane or violent as those in some of the film's contemporaries. Tao often frames the fights in a way that seems influenced by certain Japanese chambara, at times with objects in the foreground purposely blocking out some of the action. Moments of absolute stillness explode into short bursts of speedy violence.

More problematic than the action is the film's plotting. Twin Blades' first half is very straightforward and simple, but the longer the film goes on, the less sure it seems to be where it wants to go. I don't have a problem with the sudden bouts of melodrama in and of themselves - especially since they allow house favourite Ching Li to put on her very effective tragic face - but they seem to bring the film out of balance. I know, the wuxia genre is not exactly known for its focus, but focus is still what the film lacks.

Thematically, Twin Blades is your typical wuxia. It features the usual mix of guilt, karmic debts that have to be paid, the endless cycle of vengeance, the hero protecting the unwilling - you know, the stuff that's nearly always in there. There aren't any revelations about any of these elements, but that's alright with me.

A bit more revelatory, or at least surprising, is that Twin Blades grants its two lead characters a real Happy End, which is not the ending lovers usually get in a wuxia. For once, this is a film that believes in redemption without the need for a heroic self-sacrifice ending in death, and I, for one, am not going to contradict it.


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