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The Thundering Sword (1967)

Hsu Tseng-Hung

Hong Kong

90 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)

Review © 2004 Branislav L. Slantchev

If Cheng Pei-pei only starred in films like this one, we would never have heard of her! Director Hsu's fantasy-chivalry-drama-romance is a parade of woefully miscast decent actors and actresses who struggle valiantly against all odds to give the proceedings at least a veneer of respectability. They fail, and the result is one badly concocted picture that manages to frustrate and annoy at the same time. Chu Yuan would remake this in 1976 as The Web of Death without a dramatic improvement despite a more likeable cast and better directing. Louis Cha's story is yet to find a worthy adaptation.

Chang Yi, Shu Pei-pei, and Lo Lieh The Master in the Cupboard

And it has such great potential too. After three months of meditation locked in a cabinet, the teacher of Yuan Mountain School (Tin Fung) emerges with white hair and startling news. The ominous Thundering Sword has apparently re-entered the martial arts world and will cause great havoc unless something is done about it. It is the strategy of doing something about it that the teacher has contemplated until hoary. Fortunately, his talented three disciples immediately suggest the solution that has taken him so long to ponder: they will destroy the sword.

From playfully deadly... ...to expressly so, in 10 secs

But they will have to find it first, so on a quest they go even though Lo Lieh seems to be in shy love with Miss Gin (Shu Pei-pei). Fortunately, this would be so peripheral to the plot, I probably should not have mentioned it. And I would not have except that it is the occasion for a dreadful scene with Miss Gin ripping his present to shreds. Oh wait, that scene is also not that relevant. Anyway, off they go and hero Yu (Chang Yi) runs almost immediately into Cheng Pei-pei just as she is making good time dispatching a nearly limitless supply of extras to places behind the painted backdrops of the Shaw Brothers studio sets.

Would you trust these guys? The second draft of the Ten Commandments

There is instantaneous attraction between the two, enhanced by Miss So's (Cheng Pei-pei) cracking whip. And from these promising beginnings, the film strikes out to become... well, it just strikes out, for the next scene is an absolutely horrendous song that Cheng Pei-pei delivers without a hint of embarrassment. It is so bad, I nearly dumped the film there and then. Alas, as it turned out, not doing so proved a great mistake.

Trepanation Instructional Boudoir politics gone awry

Miss So happens to be from a rather objectionable family, the Wu Du Clan that specializes in its second-in-command (Wu Ma) sporting perpetually goofy headdresses while compelling people to kneel by waving a snake-shaped stick. So's bro (Chen Hing Lieh) is also one rotten apple, what with all that running around abducting wounded men, torturing and crucifying them, all because of that damnable sword that has been in possession of a wandering swordsman (Ku Wen-Chung) since, oh, the middle of the film. Since hero Yu is beyond reproach morally, physically, and artistically, their love is doomed by the fates of script-writing that implausibly ensure that tragic development by having Miss So wound Yu's best friend Chiang (Lo Lieh).

It's true, we are out of Tampax Cheng Pei-pei is atrociously miscast

I will not bother with the rest of the film except to point out that hero Yu is one pathetic character. He seems to be a decent swordsman even though the one time he has to showcase his skills, he prefers to perform the admittedly tricky feat of scribbling with his sword on a tree trunk. Below the bark. Without disturbing it. Other than that, he is good at falling in love and making stupid faces. I could not help but wonder how much better someone like Jimmy Wang Yu would have been in this role. At least he is intense. This guy is just a cry-baby.

That is Cheng Pei-pei Gratuitous shot of a suffering Cheng Pei-pei

This, however, is not the worst. Surprisingly, the worst is Cheng Pei-pei herself although not through a fault of her own. As everyone knows, I adore her films, mostly because she can't fight well but still manages to be so intense that one forgets her rather balletic-looking movements. She has a face that is perfect for the way King Hu cast her in Come Drink With Me, which was made a year earlier and which this film is obviously trying to capitalize on. However, Hsu Tseng-Hung's fatal mistake was to make her vulnerable in a feminine way, which suits her about as well as bronze armor suits a squirrel.

The hero of a thousand sniveling faces Gratuitous shot of Ching Li

Instead of having her run around singing and desperately trying to marry the sniveling coward of a main protagonist, the director should have fleshed out a more stoic and less verbose suffering of her destiny. She is portrayed as a rather unlikable character (e.g. strikes her beautiful maid, played by Ching Li, for no good reason, kills a lot of people with no trace of remorse, etc.) and it's hard to get into her transformation into an obedient and dutiful fiancee who wants to expiate her past sins. (Chu Yuan handled this differently by making his heroine quite a bit more attractive.) There is a lot of potential for high drama in the story, but it is squandered mercilessly on dumb male-centered ego-gratification.

Manliness, why hast thou forsaken me? Ku Feng does not believe a woman did it

When the finale comes, it is similarly destroyed by the totally unnecessary prolonging of Cheng Pei-pei's last moments with her hubby. We know that she will die from the moment we see the tell-tale trickle of blood from her mouth (sure sign in a Hong Kong film that one is irretrievably lost), and yet she drones on and on, even managing to marry and then widow the guy before the final credits appear. It was supposed to be moving, but instead it was exasperating. Not to mention it also made it necessary to watch Chang Yi's tortured features for another 10 minutes.

Tragedy about to turn into farce Please, die already!

The Celestial Pictures DVD is glorious, with a nice cover that is heroic and entirely misleading as to the film's actual content. The picture transfer is quite decent (perhaps surprisingly so considering the film's age), with lush colors at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Widescreen too. The Dolby Digital Mandarin soundtrack is crisp with no obvious defects, and the English subtitles are nearly error-free. A photo gallery, talent files, and trailers round up the extras. If you like fantasy, and like Cheng Pei-pei, and you are a completist, this is one DVD to own. Otherwise, stay away.

October 22, 2004