Wednesday, October 6, 2010

King Cat (1967)

Some time in imperial China. The intensely righteous (and very brown-faced) Judge Pao (Cheng Miu) executes a regional governor for embezzlement and being a big meanie, although he knows the governor to be a relative of the highly influential Grand Tutor (Tin Sam) of the imperial court.

Pao's setting of justice before politics does indeed have its first consequence the following night, when the Grand Tutor sends out some of his men to assassinate the judge. Fortunately, the wandering swordsman and hero Zhan Zhao (Chang Yi) is around and uses his remarkable martial prowess to fight off Pao's would-be killers. Pao is so enthused about Zhan Zhao that he asks the hero to help protect the Emperor (Ching Feng) at a parade the next day.

The swordsman agrees, and not only manages to prevent the Grand Tutor's main henchman, Hua Chong (Lo Lieh in an especially evil turn), going under the not really properly evil sounding nickname of "Variegated Butterfly", from assassinating the Emperor himself, but also saves the Emperor's sister Yongan (Carrie Ku Mei) through judicious use of his cat-like ability to walk on walls. The Emperor, like Pao before him, is quite excited about Zhan Zhao, names him an Imperial Guard and gives him the honorific title of "King Cat".

Zhan Zhao doesn't seek this sort of honour, though, and also knows that this sort of public exposure can only bring trouble to a member of the martial world, so he sneaks away from court the next night to continue his heroic wanderings. At least (and after the judge has followed him through the night), the swordsman leaves Pao with a way to contact him when there is need for his service.

Zhan Zhao was just too right about his new nickname being bound to bring trouble. When word of "King Cat" carries to the martial arts brothers known as the "Five Mice of Xiankong Island", the youngest brother, Bai Yutang the Brocaded Mouse (Kiu Chong) is livid about this perceived insult by someone he has never met. So livid in fact, that he insults his fiancée, the swordswoman Ding Yuehua (Pat Ting Hung), by sneaking away to the capital to try and provoke Zhan Zhao into a duel against her wishes. The eldest brother (and the only one of them with a brain larger than that of a mouse, which would explain why these guys are known as the Five Mice) sends the three other mice after him, but a few overheard jokes about mice and cats later, and these three goofs are all too willing to help Bai Yutang in his stupid plans.

He thinks the best way to get in contact with Zhan Zhao is to break into the imperial palace and steal something precious, like that fantastic jade stove Princess Yongan has just been gifted. The theft goes rather well, but just after the brothers have left the palace again, the despicable Hua Chong sneaks in and kills and rapes (and it really might be this way around with that guy) the Princess' three maids. Initially, Hua Chong was just planning to kidnap Yongan to then rape her and become prince consort by default, but this Butterfly is never willing to let an opportunity for rape pass by, as the rest of the movie will continue to demonstrate.

Soon, Zhan Zhao is hunting the Five Mice, helping out Ding Yuehua in a spot of bother, and will in the end have to save Yongan from some rape-drugged incense sticks.

Director Hsu Tseng-Hung isn't one of the best known directors of the Shaw Brothers (he's probably best known for his later Golden Harvest phase), and - not surprisingly - delivers King Cat in the production house's house style of 1967. Of course, while lovers of auteur-oriented movies won't be satisfied by this, the Shaw house style for wuxia movies in 1967 was pretty damn great to look at. So Hsu's film spoils its viewers with a very pleasant mix of colourful costumes, a lot of neat sets, two or three beautifully realized scenes taking place in real-life nature, dynamic editing and fight choreographies of the fun and professional sort with more than enough rubber ball jumping to royally piss off anyone babbling about the need for "realism" in martial arts movies.

I suspect the film's script must have already felt a little old-fashioned in 1967, what with very straight heroes like Zhan Zhao who don't have that much personal emotional involvement in the evil plots they are preventing fastly going out of fashion for grimmer heroes. Despite all that raping and attempted raping (which is all handled off-camera), King Cat is far from grim and instead has a pleasantly light feel. As a viewer, you have the feeling that everything will turn out all right in the end, and even the melodramatic bits will be solved in friendly ways. This is the sort of film that ends without tragic renunciations of love, and half of the cast bleeding to death in the gutter, which makes for a very nice change even for someone like me who likes his downer endings.

Apart from the high level of craftsmanship the film shows on the visual side, and the mostly fine acting (Kiu Chong is a bit too theatrical for my tastes), King Cat also delights through the sort of pacing that threatens to make me use the phrase "merry romp". Hsu and his scriptwriter Ding Sin-Saai manage to control their typically sizeable cast and typically complicated plot so well that everything that might seem preposterous or under-explained in a less well done movie comes together into an actual story. Mostly, the plot even makes sense, or at least as much sense as a film including plans concerning rape-drug-incense can do.

There are also a lot of small, likeable details sprinkled throughout King Cat, like the identity of the person who is allowed to deliver the killing strike against Lo Lieh, or the simple delight of a film that ends with the scene of an Emperor trying to reward the heroes for their deeds, but the heroes declining, not out of the "patriotic" reasons of serving the state being reward enough and so on, but because they don't want to become officials, prince consorts, or that other boring stuff.


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