Friday, October 14, 2011

Shaw Brothers Marathon: Golden Swallow

Golden Swallow (1968, Chang Cheh)

Here is a first in the ongoing Shaw Brothers marathon: a sequel. A few months back Between the Seats produced a review for King Hu’s masterful classic, Come Drink with Me, which starred Chang Pei Pei as a Golden Swallow, codename for a sort of local government agent who was sent on a mission to rescue her brother from a gang of malicious terrorists. The colourful characters, stunning action set pieces and even the musical score struck us as sheer brilliance. The steadfast and courageous agent played by the talented and pretty Chang Pei Pei was of particular interest to us. Truth be told, the interest was to such a degree that the fantasy of a sequel ruminated in this reviewer’s mind in the many months following the discovery of said movie. Unbeknownst to the blog was indeed the existence of such a film, simply titled Golden Swallow, just recently released on DVD (only. A shame) under the famous Dragon Dynasty banner, or Alliance in Canada, and here we are.

The time frame of the story remains unknown, for there is no mention of the titular character working for the government unlike in the preceding picture, but for it is worth Chang Che’s film opens with the talented and deadly heroine (Chang Pei Pei, returning in the role) falling under attack while attempting to perform a Robin Hood-esque gesture towards a poor family. Her assailants are not as skilled as herself, but succeed in poisoning her with a special dart. Before they can finish her off, a swordsman named Han Tao (Lo Lieh from King Boxer) fends off the hoodlums, takes Swallow away with him to heal and bring her back into shape.  Time elapse, Han and Swallow get to become rather close friends, but their blossoming bond is tested when news breaks out about a cunning, ruthless vigilante who travels land, delivering hard justice to all evildoers. The description of the character, who goes by the name of Silver Roc (Jimmy Wang from One Armed Swordsman) reminds Swallow of a fellow student from long ago with whom she had a, some would say, flirtatious relationship with (flirtatious in the context of extremely prudish martial arts culture, but one gets the picture).

There are many reasons for which Golden Swallow may be praised. Chang Cheh, who even in the films discussed throughout this very marathon, has not shied away from stamping some of his films with personal and uniquely appealing visual style, and he makes effort to put a spin on the cinematography in the case of the film under review today. The story not only revisits one of Shaw Brothers most memorable characters, but awards her with a story carrying more emotional depth than in her previous adventure. Lastly, the movie unites three of Shaw Brothers studios most cherished actors: Chang Pei Pei, Jimmy Wang and Lo Lieh. On paper, these are good signs. On film, each ends up serving rather mixed results, thus resulting in a sequel which disappoints, especially when knowledgeable of its association with the beloved Come Drink with Me.

Chang Cheh, a talented visual storyteller, stretches his muscles with regards to editing and cinematography this time around. There are moments when his efforts bear fruit, to the delight of the viewer. When looking back at the first instalment, Come Drink with Me, it was the choreography of the fights which impressed. The camera served its full purpose by allowing the audience to soak in the intensity of the encounters. It was not the most dynamic of cameras, but it got the job done very well. For Golden Swallow, director Cheh decides to shake things up in dramatic ways, such as when shooting fights from overhead angles, which look fantastic, other times transforming the picture frame, partially at least, into the eyes of someone in participating in the fight, with a bit of shaky movements and even some strange diagonal tilts, as if us, the combatant, were ducking and shaking around like any real fighter would. Such moments work tremendously well, adding a special vibrancy to the action scenes. Not all is well however. There are fights scenes when Cheh is a bit too in love with the close up shaky cam style, using it with such an intensity that specific dramatic moments are lost and hidden from the viewer, which in this reviewer’s opinion is an absolute and utter no-no when it comes to martial arts picture. The purpose is to be amazed by the talents of the individuals, not to go for a sense of verisimilitude and hence confusion. This is especially frustrating during one of the final contests featured in the movie, when Han Tao and Silver Roc, who both vie for Swallow’s attention, finally duke it out. We actually do not ‘see’ much of the fight. Tremendously frustrating.

As stated above, some of Golden Swallow’s story based elements prove to be double edged swords, no pun intended. The decision to reveal some of Swallow’s backstory, albeit minimally, is not a bad one by any stretch of the imagination, nor the one to finally give that character more emotional beats than she ever had in the original film. Seeing such a tough cookie like Swallow demonstrate a level of vulnerability humanizes the character, with the hopes of the director being that audiences can now relate to her more readily. That being said, the process of humanizing her in Golden Swallow culminates in a far less desirable effect: she is not as interesting here as she was in Come Drink with Me. In that movie, her toughness was part of the character’s charm really. Such a pretty flower behaving like an absolute bad ass in the name of justice while learning to partner up with someone else was amazing to see develop. In Swallow, she ends up being a wishy-washy hopeless romantic.  There is no problem with a film showcasing her sensitive side, but to relegate her to the part of a beautiful woman caught in between two headstrong males with looks that could kill is not what the doctor ordered. In fact, using the term ‘relegated’ is not even that much of a stretch, seeing as the vast majority of the picture awards both Silver Roc and Han Tao with ample screen time to flex their swordsmanship, while Golden Swallow is frequently elsewhere, or simply looking at the two. What is the name of this movie again? Oh right, GOLDEN SWALLOW. Silver Roc’s plotline is not handled terribly well either, as the film has him hopping from one criminal hideout to the next, viciously murdering said crews, but always making sure to leave at the scene a golden dart, Swallow’s vintage stealth weapon, with the intention that bad word of mouth about Swallow will force her to come to him. What the hell!?!. This is what this chap does to find the woman he has feelings for: frame her for killings that look like they are straight out of a Freddy Krueger nightmare? How romantic... Jimmy Wang, whom we sort of gave a passing grade to in our discussion of One Armed Swordsman, lets us down in this film in many scenes. He knows how to deliver some cocky lines and looks amazing in a fight (good), but he spends too much time with either a boring angry, dare we say, pouty face (bad).

Lest the author be mistaken, no director shall hide the fact that sequels are always more difficult to produce than their predecessors, in particular when taking on the work established by another filmmaker. Far be it from this review to argue that it is all bad in Golden Swallow. Chan Cheh tries some interesting visual techniques and seeing Chang Pei Pei and Lo Lieh act together is more than welcomed. Nonetheless, a series of missteps plague the overall motion picture, dragging down far lower in quality than one would have liked. Worth a watch for those who are curious, but best to stick with Come Drink with Me for fans of the Golden Swallow character.


Unknown said...

i think your review is spot on. i saw "Golden Swallow" for the first time last night, and would have preferred if the Golden Swallow character had not simply been a supporting actor in her own movie. If the female role in this film had been dissociated from the Golden Swallow character, the movie would have played better. The Golden Swallow of "Come Drink With Me" was a constable and a warrior, and very self-assured; the character in "Golden Swallow" is just an emotionally-confused young woman, who happens to have some fighting skills, which we don't get to see very much of in this movie.

Unknown said...

I agree with your review. Like other Shaw Brother "sequels", Golden Swallow begins with a confusing semi telling of the previous film, in this case Come Drink With Me. In Come Drink With Me, Golden Swallow is poisoned and taken to the woods and helped to recover by Drunken Cat. In Golden Swallow, we are given the confusing plot of Golden Swallow being poisoned and helped in the woods by Golden Whip. With martial arts films already having multiple titles and occasional dialogue lost in translation, its things like these that even further make these movies confusing and hard to follow. As for the rest of the movie, it is great sets and action with a poor plot. I like to remember the Swallow of Come Drink With Me. I would still recommend this film to fans of Kung fu and Shaw Brothers films but I don't think it is anywhere near the classic that some people claim it is.