Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Deadly Breaking Sword (1979), starring Ti Lung, Fu Sheng, Shih Szu, Michael Chan Wai Man, Ku Feng and Lily Li Li Li. Directed by Sun Chung.

(All images courtesy Celestial Pictures, unless noted otherwise.)

BACK when The Deadly Breaking Sword was released on 4/12/79, the second movie by director Sun Chung to co-star Fu Sheng and Ti Lung had to contend (primarily) with the kung fu comedies then trending at the HK box office. As a result, the Shaw Brothers production simply (according to writer Mark Pollard) "appeared at the wrong time", and it wasn't long before it was gone, replaced by other Shaw pictures of varying quality. Today, the film lingers in the shadow cast by its predecessor, the cult classic The Avenging Eagle (1978), rescued from obscurity as much by Fu Sheng's untimely death in 1983 as it is by recent critical reassessments of Chung that rank him as one of Shaw's better directors.

left to right: Fu Sheng and Ti Lung
Somewhere in the martial arts world, there are two heroes. The experienced one is Tuan Changqing (Ti Lung), who is called "The Deadly Breaking Sword" because his dead adversaries wind up with a piece of his sword punctured in their chests. He's arrogant about his proficiency with a sword; in fact, he's a bit of an eccentric about it, which is reflected in his pre-fight customs of arriving early, wearing a new change of clothes and providing coffins to those he slays. Then, there's Xiao Dao (Fu Sheng). He's "The Little Dagger" because his weapon of choice is a knife. Though he's a scoundrel, barely getting by on his wits and kung fu prowess, he's anything but evil.

left to right: Ti Lung and Michael Chan Wai Man
Changqing's latest battle is with Lian Shan, "The Throat Piercing Halbred" (Michael Chan Wai Man). Where he has taken out only bad guys, Shan's own high body count has partly come through indiscriminate killing, so Changqing knows he must be done away with. Unfortunately, it ends as a draw with both wounded, though Shan escapes with a bit of broken sword embedded in him.

In a town not far from Changqing's location, Dao finds himself temporarily working as a security guard at a gambling house, owned by Luo Jinhua (Lily Li Li Li), in order to pay off his gambling debt. If that wasn't bad enough, Jinhua's smitten with him, and she's determined to keep him there permanently. As soon as Dao earns any taels of silver, she tricks him out of his money.

Shih Szu
Changqing and Dao eventually cross paths due to their mutual interest in Lin Linxyu (Shih Szu), a high class prostitute who's recently set up shop at the local brothel. In secret, she's looking for Guo Tiansheng, who she knows by the nickname "The Killer Doctor" (Ku Feng). She wants him dead for double-crossing her thief of a brother, Chen Yinggang (Ngaai Fei), collecting the reward for his capture and leaving him to rot in prison. Initially, she tricks Changqing to see her and proposes to pay him to slay Tiansheng. As a hero, Changqing won't take money and isn't sure Tiansheng (a doctor with good standing in the community) is "TKD", but, liking Linxyu, he goes to see him and determine if he's "TKD". He's not convinced.

left to right: Lily Li Li Li and Fu Sheng
Undeterred by this setback, Linxyu hires the desperate-for-money Dao to kill Tiansheng, but Changqing, who has grown to respect him after their many hot-headed encounters, persuades him not to follow through, paying off Dao with a money order double the amount Linxyu offered him. Ecstatic, he returns to the gambling house and shows Jinhua the money order, bragging he now can pay off the debt and be free of her. As he boasts about this victory, she quietly sets the piece of paper on fire. Finally deducing she's responsible for hindering his exit, Dao grabs her and carries her to a nearby well. He holds the screaming lady by the ankles over the top, optioning whether to drown her or not....

left to right: Michael Chan Wai Man and Ku Feng
All the while, the wounded Shan has been recovering at Tiansheng's residence after the doctor removed the sword fragment from his chest. Discovering Shan is a rare survivor of a battle with the great Changqing, Tiansheng realizes he has at hand a fighter superior to all his hired goons combined. Through the wonders of acupuncture, he nurses Shan back to health, making him stronger than he ever was, and after his confrontation with Changqing (who threw wine on the old man), Tiansheng's resolved to use Shan to kill the hero as revenge.

left to right: Ngaai Fai and Ti Lung
Meanwhile, Changqing tells Linxyu he stopped Dao from killing Tiansheng, still believing he's not "TKD". She begs him to hear Yinggang's side of the story at the prison. Listening to her brother, he finds out she was right after all and frees him. With help from Yinggang and Linxyu, he plots to lure Tiansheng to the brothel and kill him. When Tiansheng shows up, he brings with him the new and improved Shan, and the guy's got a score to settle with Changqing....


Unlike Chung's previous two wuxias (The Proud Youth and TAE, both '78), Ni Kuang's script for TDBS is not an adaptation from a work of popular Chinese literature, which is a big plus. Minus the hang ups of a complicated scenario with too many characters to keep track of, the story (save for a few hiccups) flows nicely with no trace of padding. Along with a balance of the usual action and suspense is a marked streak of satire that pokes fun at the kind of movies that were Kuang's bread and butter, as evidenced by the narcissistic, quirky Changqing and the "loose cannon", comedy relief Dao. (Some consider Dao to be a Jackie Chan-type of clown, but I think Kuang could've been inspired by Sammo Hung as well.)

The cinematography by Cho On Sun and Lam Nai Choi is rich and atmospheric, notable for some flourishes with the Steadicam and the occasional use of a freeze frame for punctuating some of Dao's antics. The editing by Chiang Hsing Lung and Yu Siu Fung keeps pace with the varying tempos of the film with assurance, particularly giving a spark to Tong Gaai and Wong Pau Gei's fine action choreography, which keeps mostly to the ground except for rare wirework.

Another picture of Shih Szu, just for the heck of it.
With the cast, we have the novelty of some of the lead (and supporting) actors from TAE also appearing here. As Changqing, Ti Lung brilliantly plays it straight, subtly letting the viewer know he's enjoying his role of a pompous swordsman. Though some are turned off by his clowning, I think Fu Sheng gives likability to his grating interpretation of Dao, making him the perfect foil to Changqing. (Like on TAE, Sheng and Lung work well with each other.) Michael Chan Wai Man and Ku Feng are in familiar territory as Shan and Tiansheng, respectively, but they perform their parts well. While Shih Szu doesn't get to kick ass here, she demonstrates her acting range capably (in addition to looking lovely) as Linxyu. Compared to Szu, Lily Li Li Li gets a more involving (albeit limited) role as Jinhua, continually thwarting Dao's attempts to escape her until she goes too far. Among the supporting players, look for Chan Shen, Lam Fai Wong, Shum Lo, Wong Ching Ho and Kara Hui Ying Hung.

(Image Entertainment)
Two versions of TDBS are currently available. The IVL DVD has a good picture, but (like some other IVL reissues of Chung's films) newer music and foley are needlessly tacked on; while this import has no English dub, you do have the option of listening to the feature in Mandarin or Cantonese. The Image DVD is much better, having the original Mandarin and English soundtracks; the picture isn't quite as good as the IVL's, but it's not awful, either. Interestingly enough, after comparing the English subs on both discs, I notice there's a slight difference between parts of the translations, but they're not major ones. "Extras" on these discs are limited, ranging from photo galleries to trailers from Celestial Pictures.


I should say I have a slight bias toward TDBS, having seen it before TAE, and after watching both several times, I still get a kick out of TDBS, while conceding TAE is the stronger picture. With Kuang's original story, Chung doesn't have the (presumed) burden filming an adaptation can have, so he directs with a relish that carries over to the cast and crew. There's a near-perfect balance of light and dark that helps sell the heroes and the leading ladies; if the mood were all somber, it would be hard to find affinity with four people who aren't exactly amiable. Overall, TDBS is another enjoyable film with the winning combination of Chung, Lung and Sheng, and it's lamentable the fates conspired in such a way there wouldn't be any more.

Brother Fang Cuts to the chase: "A subversive send up of 'Old School' wuxia movies that doesn't lack for drama or thrills. An essential addition to your Shaw Brothers collection if you love Sun Chung, Ti Lung and Fu Sheng. Three and a half stars (out of four)."

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S.-- Buy The Deadly Breaking Sword here.