Director: Ho Meng-Hua
Cast: Cheng Pei-pei, Tang Ching, Wong Ching Wan, Ku Feng, Yeung Chi Hing, Fan Mei Sheng
Running Time: 91 min.
By Will McGuire
In the midst of the current avalanche of Shaw Brothers titles getting top-shelf physical releases in America, it’s only natural that fans will look for hidden gems in the enormous Shaw catalog. As publishers get deeper into the backlog, and more obscure films begin to compete for your hard-earned dollar, fans want to know where the real classics are, and which titles are more fantastic than formulaic.
The Jade Raksha is what you’re looking for.
This 1968 wuxia film was totally unknown to me just a few months ago, but the beautiful photography, strong central performances from Cheng Pei-pei (Come Drink With Me), Tang Ching (Bat Without Wings) and Ku Feng (The Avenging Eagle), along with a healthy dose of swordplay and surreal violence mark this along with The One-Armed Swordsman as one of the gems of early Shaw wuxia.
The story begins conventionally before introducing a number of interesting complications to the typical formula: Cheng plays the Jade Raksha, a beautiful swordswoman traveling as a man and seeking vengeance for her dead family. Overcome with rage, she’s beheading any man with the surname Yan because she doesn’t know which member of the family betrayed her clan. Tang Ching plays a fellow swordsman out for vengeance named Xu Ying Hao who befriends the Rashka, though has some reservations about her methods. When his own quest for vengeance ends in catastrophe, he returns home to his ailing mother and as a favor to her works as a bodyguard for local landowner Yan Tian-Long (Yang Chi-Ching, best known as Long-Armed Devil in One Armed Swordsman). Yan pretends to be a great philanthropist as a cover for his ruthless crimes, and cared for Xu’s sick mother specifically in order to get the great swordsman as insurance against the Jade Raksha.
I won’t give any details about the third act but there’s a depth of conflict in this picture that’s unusual for Shaw of this period outside of the work of Cheng Cheh. The Raksha and Xu are torn between their mutual respect as well as their life experiences even before Yan affects his deception and the film artfully balances the tragic aspect of their friendship with elegant swordsmanship and even a small flavoring of Gothic horror in how the Raksha stalks and strikes fear into her quarry.
The artful and workmanlike quality of the film is no surprise when you consider the director: Ho Meng-Hua. That name will be most familiar to Shaw fans for both his horror work in Black Magic and the giddy energy of his King Kong homage, Mighty Peking Man. Here both qualities are on full display with early shots that could have been lifted from a Hammer horror film, married to a devil-may-care audacity in the later sequences that breathes life to them.
I was particularly taken aback in the third act by two shots: a top-down angle from the ceiling on Cheng Pei-pei as she takes refuge from a circle of killers, and a wide angle vista of a wooden bridge across a ravine with the heroes and villains on either side. Ho was a Shaw director who defied genre working in almost every type of picture the studio made, but the unifying feature of his work is the beauty of his eye for composition and interesting photography and they elevate already strong material here.
This picture is a great showcase for Cheng Pei-pei, who is playing a darker and more conflicted character than is usual for her and her presence is allowed to hang over the film, even in scenes where she’s not present. I particularly enjoy an early Inn sequence that plays like a sly nod to her previous success with King Hu’s immortal Come Drink With Me: she’s once again traveling in disguise and subtly showing off her immense skill in ways that only the trained swordsman can pick up on.
That said, the real surprise from an acting standpoint is Tang Ching who invests so much humanity into Xu that he becomes one of the very best heroes I can recall from a Shaw film of the late 60’s. He’s skilled and resourceful but by no means perfect, and the way his early failure colors his character for the rest of the film gives immense depth to the proceedings.
As we in the West get to sample a larger and larger palette of Shaw action, there is the temptation to think that all these films run together. What draws me back again and again to Shaw Brothers films is not only the care and craftsmanship in their best work, but the sense that, like in Warner Brothers films from the Golden Age, that at any moment the film can become more than the sum of good parts and really take you by surprise. I’ve seen about a hundred Shaw Brothers films and I’m still at times taken aback by a film that’s new to me and that reignites my passion for this genre. That was the feeling I got from The Jade Raksha. The feeling that there are, even now, new classics to uncover.
The Jade Raksha is currently available on Blu-Ray from ShoutFactory as part of their “Shaw Brothers Classics Vol. 1” boxset.
Will McGuire’s Rating: 8/10