Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shaw Brothers marathon: Have Sword Will Travel

Have Sword Will Travel (1969, Chang Cheh)
Have Sword Will Travel. That title has a strange ring to it. It does not sound quite right. ‘Have a sword and you will travel?’ ‘Have a sword and your will shall help you travel?’ It is the kind of title that hopes to be catchy and succinctly express something noteworthy but is unsure how to go about it. There are movies like that as well. Movies that, upon watching them, one knows where the story wants to go, what it wants to do with its characters, but is faulty in how it utilizes the tools at its disposal. By the end, the film is not as good as it really should have been, which is all the more disappointing, since the greater the expectations, the greater the disappointment. I estimate that the readers can guess in which direction this review is headed. Oh, dear.

Chang Cheh directs Have Will Will Travel, the story of which, like many of the Shaw Brothers productions, transpires some hundred years ago in China, exact location undisclosed. Every year a master swordsman, Ying Ke-Feng, helps transports large sums of money, called silver taels, to the capital. Very early on the audience is privy to the fact that Ying is no longer a young man and cannot perform his swordsmanship with the same command and power as in years past. He therefore calls upon the aid of two swordsman in their prime, Hsian Ting (Lung Ti) and Yun Piao-Piao (Ching Lee), faithful warriors who also form a couple and are to be married in the fall. The road to the capital is layered is even greater threats than before, with the Flying Tiger gang being the most reprehensible and ruthless of potential enemies. Things get complicated however when Hsian Ting and Yun Piao-Piao make the acquaintance of a poor, lonely, but god-gifted swordsman named Yi Lo (David Chiang). Piao-Piao is impressed by his skills and is perhaps a little bit attracted to the young man. Ting, on the other hand, is convinced that Lo is a member of the Flying Tiger gang. Will they reconcile their differences in order to fight off the Tiger Gang and successfully transport the silver taels to the capital?
Chang Cheh has done some good work for the Shaw Brothers studio. Despite some reservations, The One-Armed Swordsman was neat, and there are other films to be discussed later in the marathon that earn a lot of points in terms of story and entertainment, which makes Have Sword Will Travel such a little mystery. Certain cheap effects are over-used, character beats falls flat, the dialogue as frequently as uninspiring as can be, and some of the acting is just plain boring to watch. Things smell a bit fishy from the opening minutes, in a scene where Yi Lo, whom the audience has exactly identified as a protagonist just yet, is teasing some of guards outside the Flying Tigers stronghold. The scene, like many others to come, feels clumsy. Yi Lo refuses to answer the guards’ questions most of the time, jumps into a bush and just lies there while the guards as him to leave. They even offer him some money, which he refuses despite that very soon after this scene the viewer learns that Yi Lo is dirt poor. Almost everything that happens in this scene does little to set up anything at all in the overall story, in particular with regards to setting up the character of Yi Lo, who behaves rather desperately throughout the remainder of the film given his economic status. Take the money and run, lad!

 As stated above, the issues which plague this early moment of the story infest much of what comes later. The film wants to establish that, although Yun Piao-Piao and Hsian Ting, the young warriors who are to assist Ying in escorting the silver taels, are in to be wed, Piao-Piao takes a liking to the wandering Yi Lo. Fine enough. What’s more, Hsian Ting, whether because he feels his love is threatened or some other reason, refuses to believe that Yi Lo is not with the Flying Tigers. Also fine. Yet, the way the film handles this situation is unexciting nor is it sophisticated. There are multiple reasons for Hsian Ting to relinquish his mistrust of Yi Lo and give him a chance, yet he never does, preferring to be a stone in the face of increasing hints that Yi Lo is a viable ally, drawing out this plot point far longer than it needs to be. Piao-Piao place in this love triangle is oddly handled as well. She continuously gives him pretty eyes and smiles and supports the notion of him joining their party to transport the valuable goods to the capital. When one also takes into account Hsian Ting’s uninspiring and borderline inconsiderate behaviour, it might be expected that one of either Piao-Piao or YI Lo will make a move and confess their feelings to the other. Not a chance. During the film’s massive climax, Piao-Piao readily accepts that she and Hsian Ting shall marry in a few months as if she had forgotten. Hsian Ting himself never really earns her hand. I imagine that the film wants to imply that he has already ‘earned’ her, but he still comes across as a grouch, so seeing Piao-Piao just acknowledge that she will marry him after all that is hinted at seems strange. This is compounded by some very dry, boring dialogue. Chang Cheh was a ridiculously busy director at this time, making multiple films in very brief time spans, so maybe he was stretching himself too much by the time he got around to directing Have Sword Will Travel.
It is not as if nothing of interest is gestating in Have Sword Will Travel. There are notions of prejudice (not judging people by their appearance or what little one knows about them), the desire for things one cannot have (Piao-Piao’s unsubtle interest in Yi Lo even though she has linked herself with another man already), and the acceptance of greater responsibilities by new generations (the protagonists’ willingness to assist an elderly Ying Ke-Feng). The movie gives indications that these pertinent themes will be explored, but by my own estimate director Chang Cheh has trouble balancing these potentially worthwhile elements with the necessity to insert the obligatory action scenes. While the latter aspect comes across well enough, which is frequently the case anyways with Shaw Brothers movies, the former aspects are left to wander around a little bit, in circles if you will.

There is the saving grace of the action, which is nicely executed. Have Sword Will Travel even features a signature kung fu sound and motion mixing trick from the 1970s: whenever Yi Lo jumps up atop trees and wherever it is he is aiming for, it happens in slower motion with the soundtrack blasting that odd, wavy, synthesised crescendo. I did not know Have Sword Will Travel featured that, which was a delight to discover. The climax, which sees Yi Lo and Hsian Ting cut their way through an entire army of Flying Tiger soldiers in the many stories of a tower where the gang’s leader is hidden, is genuinely pulse pounding. If only the drama which came before it was worthy. Chang Cheh gives the viewer a tremendous moment during this monumental bloodshed, wherein Piao-Piao, now injured, pleads Yi Lo to go up the tower to help her future husband. Yi Lo suddenly has a mental image of his own death, where he finally succumbs to the leader of the Flying Tiger gang after desperately butchering as many soldiers as he could. There is a tremendous sense of weight and urgency to the moment which almost the entire rest of the film lacks. Bittersweet, I suppose.
One last note, I had read and heard about how Shaw Brothers films were infamous for stealing music from other pictures, but it was not until watching Have Sword Will Travel that I actually found one. More than once a few distinct cues from John Barry’s From Russia With Love score make an appearance, more specifically the cues which play when Bond visits the Gipsy camp outside Istanbul. It was unmistakable.
So, the Shaw Brothers marathon hits a bit of a snag. It would have been quite presumptuous to assume that each film would be a terrific hit, but nor could I have thought I would encounter a film that left me so disappointed. I needed three sittings to get through it after all. Well, let us leave Have Sword Will Travel behind because Have More Shaws Will Watch.


Duke said...

Very nice review. Never heard of this film.

edgarchaput said...

@Duke: Thanks for reading. I just took a quick glance at your own site. Very nice. I'll be paying visits every now and then!

As for the film, I would not suggest it as a gateway movie for Shaw Brothers productions. I would rather point you towards their Goldfinger: 36th Chamber of the Shaolin. Check that out if you're curious for Shaw Brothers stuff.

lily said...

I come to visit you blog naka. ^-^

edgarchaput said...

@Lily: Alright, thanks for visiting!