Wednesday, May 12, 2010

King of Kings (1969)

Warning! Not a film about the Sweet Baby Jesus!

We are in old, martial world China. A high up government person holds a tourney to bequeath the winner with the position of "county escort". It looks like the swordsman Shin is the winner, but when he is just in the process of being officially pronounced the new escort, a rather rude and impetuous guy with a face hidden by his insanely large hat who calls himself Thunder Sword jumps into the arena and demands a fight. A fight he gets.

Thunder Sword wins the duel, leaving Shin dying on the ground, to the despair of Shin's wife and children who witness everything. Instead of taking the position that is now rightfully his, Thunder Sword rides away, muttering something about only having wanted to test his mettle. Mrs Shin dies shortly thereafter of melodramatic shock, leaving her son and daughter penniless orphans. Both swear vengeance, and after a lot of crying each of the children is taken in by a different martial arts master.

Years later, the boy has grown up into Ku Chung, a fighter with the charming nickname of Man Killer (Peter Yang Kwan). He deserves the name too, for he spends his time roaming the country randomly killing everyone who just might be Thunder Sword. He really isn't very particular and follows a "better safe than sorry rule". Going by his state of mind, it won't take long until Ku Chung will lose it completely and become the first true serial killer of the martial world. Fortunately, Man Killer needs his sword sharpened and just happens to stumble into the abode of a certain Devil Blacksmith (Ma Kei?). The blacksmith isn't sharpening swords for just anyone, though, and begins to teach the murderous young man moral philosophy.

At first, it doesn't seem to take, but some dead bodies later, Ku Chung has a break-down. He begins to practice non-lethal forms of ass-kickery and tries to be a much nicer guy, largely with success. Alas, Ku Chung can't stop thinking about the vengeance he swore to take. He wants Thunder Sword to be the last person he will ever kill. The final confrontation with his elusive enemy will include a reunion with his sister (Cheung Ching-Ching) - also in the revenge biz - and two very dramatic revelations.

I mostly know King of Kings' director Joseph Kuo as the man responsible for countless Carter Wong (the most boring man in martial arts cinema, if you ask me) vehicles, but a closer look at his filmography shows a director active since the end of the 50s who had already made every sort of film, from melodrama to wuxia, before Wong was even born. Watching this film, you wouldn't believe how experienced a director Kuo already was, though. It's not that the direction is truly bad or incompetent, but the film does not show anything amounting to a stylistic personality. The way King of Kings looks is absolutely typical of Taiwanese wuxia of its time and place and could easily be confused with any film made by anyone at the time and place. If you are looking for visual excitement, you are in the wrong place.

The film is rather roughly plotted and filmed (and the print I saw is missing bits and pieces here and there), never developing a rhythm of its own. On the other hand, the genre standard scenes are done perfectly competent, and if you like bog-standard wuxia as much as I do, they make for pleasant enough viewing.

Kuo isn't completely ambitionless either. The "vengeance is bad and makes people to monsters" morals are used quite consequently, and treated with as much importance as the fighting and the jumping. The film doesn't even have a climactic battle, but can instead be proud of a climactic dialogue scene with lots of crying, a turn of events you don't see every day in martial arts cinema. Unfortunately, Kuo is no King Hu, and King of Kings isn't A Touch of Zen, and so what should be a tragedy drifts away into the realm of stiff melodrama. Still, Kuo is trying something different with the ethics of his film where many of his peers didn't bother, and that deserves a little respect, even if, as is the case with King of Kings, his trying doesn't amount to too much in the end.

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