Director: Chien Lung
Cast: Polly Shang-Kuan, Tien Peng, Yi Yuan, Wan Chung Shan, Hsueh Han, Chen Bao-Liang
Running Time: 90 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Many fans of kung-fu cinema regard the 70’s as the genres golden decade, and rightfully so, with the countless classics cranked out from the likes of the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest leaving a lasting legacy. In 1970 itself the genre was in an interesting place. Bruce Lee’s breakthrough The Big Boss wouldn’t hit until the following year, and similarly for the influential Shaw Brothers classic King Boxer, which was released a couple of years later. While Chang Cheh had already established the macho kung-fu flick through his collaborations with Jimmy Wang Yu on the likes of One Armed Swordsman and Golden Swallow, over in Taiwan things were still very much steeped in tradition. Female led swordplay flicks remained a popular staple, as they had been for decades, and would continue to do so for throughout the early 70’s.
While Hong Kong had Cheng Pei-Pei, in Taiwan it was Polly Shang-Kuan. Both leading ladies share similar career paths, debuting at just 18, with Cheng Pei-Pei developing into Shaw Brothers’ resident swordswoman during the early 70’s, and Shang-Kuan doing the same over at Union Film. Both would also get their first memorable leading role at 20, with Pei-Pei headlining King Hu’s Come Drink With Me in 1966, and Shang-Kuan headlining The Bravest Revenge in 1970. As a somewhat ironic sidenote, Shang-Kuan would also make her debut in a King Hu directed production with 1967’s iconic Dragon Inn, the first movie he made after returning to Taiwan from Hong Kong due to artistic differences with Run Run Shaw on Come Drink With Me.
Despite only being 20, Shang-Kuan makes for commanding screen presence in The Bravest Revenge, brandishing a pair of double daggers that she seems born to strike a pose with, which she thankfully does plenty of times. As only her 3rd appearance onscreen following Dragon Inn and The Swordsman of All Swordsmen, The Bravest Revenge is the first example of a recurring theme that cropped up in many of Shang-Kuan’s movies, which is that of her needing to seek revenge for her murdered father. This time her father is a retired constable who’s visited by a government official to ask for assistance in catching a ruthless villain. Being a kung-fu movie, it doesn’t take long for the villain in question to make an appearance. Played by Yi Yuan (The Whirl-Wind Knight, The Fast Sword), Shang-Kuan’s father stands little chance since Yuan has acquired the Chui-hueng sword, and soon falls to its blade.
Shang-Kuan, along with her 3 brothers, swear to train and take revenge on Yuan, and under the principle of ‘keep it simple’, there’s really not much more to the plot than that. The brothers are played by Wan Chung Shan (Iron Petticoat, The Ghost Hill), Hsueh Han (Black Invitation, The Ill Wind), and Chen Bao-Liang (Paid with Blood, The Decisive Battle). They each head off to train under a different master for the next 5 years, and once finished, reconvene in a nearby town to discuss their plan to take down Yi Yuan. Unfortunately their 5 years of training doesn’t seem to have made much difference to their chances, as once Yuan makes an appearance they’re all easily defeated, only saved by a mysterious stranger who’s remained calmly seated in the teahouse the ruckus takes place in.
Played by Taiwanese swordplay stalwart Tien Peng, The Bravest Revenge was the sophomore pairing of the charismatic swordsman and Shang-Kuan after 1968’s The Swordsman of All Swordsmen, and they’d go onto headline The Ghost Hill, Rider of Revenge, and A Girl Fighter together throughout 1971 and 1972. Unfortunately once Shang-Kuan hopped across to Hong Kong to star in Back Alley Princess (which I can’t watch simply because of her hair) in 1973 for Golden Harvest, when she came back to Taiwan her subsequent pairings with Peng under Joseph Kuo never quite captured the magic of their Union Film collaborations. Here Peng plays the King of Swords, a righteous swordsman who also has a gripe with Yu Yien’s power hungry villain, which leads him to joining Shang-Kuan and her brothers in their mission to take him down.
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that The Bravest Revenge is pretty much non-stop action, with the constant sword clanging marking the debut of action director Pan Chuan-Ling, who’d go onto choreograph the likes of The Escaper and Furious Dragon. On co-choreography duties is Wang Chun-Lai, who apart from working on The Bravest Revenge, spent his brief time in the film industry in a couple of minor acting roles in Filial Son and Extreme Enemy (which he also lent his choreography talents to). Being 1970 the choreography is a far cry from the level of speed and intricacy that was on display in the latter part of the decade, but there’s a kinetic energy to the fights, which frequently involve multiple attackers, as our 5 heroes hack and slash their way hordes of villainous lackeys. Basic wirework and trampolines are also used liberally, with characters constantly choosing bombastic leaps over walking a few steps.
The Bravest Revenge’s biggest asset though is its director in the form of Chien Lung. By 1970 he was already a veteran of over 50 movies dating back to 1958, spanning a range of genres from Chinese opera (1962’s Red Lady and Little Red), to fantasy (1963’s New Arabian Nights), to spy thrillers (1964’s Agent Number 3). Having helmed the likes of 1968’s Dragon Tiger Sword and 1969’s Knight of the Sword, it’s fair to say he was no stranger to making martial arts movies by the time the 70’s rolled around. What really sets The Bravest Revenge apart from its Hong Kong equivalents (and admittedly this could be said for a lot of Taiwanese cinema of the era) is the way its shot and edited. There’s a level of care and skill on display in so much of the cinematography, that it really elevates a straightforward revenge tale into a genuine piece of cinema.
One of my favorite shot compositions has Yi Yuan fly from the shoreline and perch himself on top of a solitary tree in the middle of the water, and the framing of the shot behind the heroes out across the water to where Yuan stands perched against the sky is done in such a way to feel suitably epic. Both the action choreography and the cinematography really come together for the finale, which out of a punchy 90-minute run time, takes up close to all of the final 30 minutes and has barely a single line spoken. As our heroes descend upon Yuan and his base located on the rocky shoreline, they proceed to fight through literally a whole army of attackers, racking up what must surely be one of the highest body counts committed to film. Eschewing the static pulled out lensing of the Shaw Brothers productions, here the camera employs a frantic handheld approach, taking us right into the middle of the hacking and slashing.
The chaotic handheld work is complimented by the longer shots, with slow motion sparingly used to beautiful effect, such as when Shang-Kuan and Tien Peng give chase to Yuan, and we watch each of them fall through the trees in pursuit, offsetting the kinetic sword clanging with moments of serene calm. While today some may find the special qualities of the swords everyone is after somewhat amusing, essentially all the revered Chui-hueng sword (and later the Sun Sword which is introduced) does is to reflect sunlight if held at the right angle, there’s an undeniably charming innocence to it all. The same could be said for the way our heroes break out into big smiles whenever they kill a villain by stabbing them multiple times, a reminder that a movie is a movie, and that it’s ok to cheer when the bad guy gets their comeuppance.
The Bravest Revenge is a rollicking swordplay flick full of charismatic characters, economical storytelling, and more action than you can shake a stick at. In short, everything that a kung-fu fan clocks into these kinds of movie for. A little bit of Jedi magic at the end is just the icing on the cake. For a dose of truly old-school wuxia done Taiwan style, check it out.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10