Shaw Bros. Sat. ‘Killers Five’ is not perfect, but does the small things right
Directed by Ching Gong
Written by Sung Hoi-Leng
Hong Kong, 1969
The easiest thing to highlight when reviewing these Shaw Brothers films is the action. Then might come the recognizable names of the actors who typically play their parts with the requisite gusto. Costumes, weapons and set design arrive in third and then story. Story is the one element of these pictures which is not always the easiest to remember. The rules and logic of the world the characters inhabit are often played fast and loose, with the emphasis being on how to get characters from point a to Z in the zaniest and most amusing way possible. Sometimes one really has to have watched a solid amount of Shaw Brothers in order to decipher the films for which the screenwriters just might have dabbled with some fresh, interesting twists on the plots and characterizations. One potential candidate would have to Ching Gong’s Killers Five, from 1969, where the rewards and penalties associated with deception and honesty make up the film’s central theme
As is so often the case, viewers are launched into the thick of the action in the very first few scenes. A renowned gangster of sorts named Jin Tianlong (Tang Ti) concocts a plot to kidnap the daughter (Cao Cul O) of the regional duke (Yeung Chi-Hing) and hold her for ransom. The duke, visibly distraught at this act of cowardice from Tianlong, calls upon one of the most trusted and cunning warriors of the land, Yue Zhenbei (Tan Ching), son of an old friend, to locate and retrieve his beloved daughter who is to be wed in the near future. Yue is remarkably honourable, disinterested in in large sums of gold thrust onto, preferring to spread the wealth to the people who need it most. After saying goodbye to his father and sickly mother, Yue heads over to the home of one of his staunchest allies, an archer, but only finds the man’s sister, Jin Ling (Li Ching) in his place. She convinces Yue to bring her along seeing as how she has diligently practised her archery skills for years and would make for a capable ally. Along the way they conjure up ways for two more strongmen to help them out: Water Rat (Ku Feng) and the axe-wielding Niu (Cheng Mu). Together they make their way towards Jin Tianlong’s stronghold, but a mysterious skilled warrior (Wang Kuang-Yu) keeps making unexpected appearances when the group least expects it. New ally or spy for the enemy?
Before getting to some of its more pertinent qualities, it should be noted that Killers Five is not a film without its flaws. ‘Flaws’ might not even be the most accurate term to employ seeing as how the movie is competently made overall. However, there are at least a few departments in which Ching Gong’s film does not reach the heights it could have. The idea of a grand adventure which has a team of heroes traverse treacherous terrains in search of a kidnapped member of a royal family is enticing to say the least. The characters which make up the commissioned party are, sadly, not the most original band of protagonists. River Rat is the wily, humorous fellow who is all smiles all the time and gives the impression of being a ne’re do well until he actually does something of note. Niu is the larger, curmudgeonly chap whose temper is short and enjoys drinking wine. Jin Ling is the rambunctious, ambitious female whom nobody takes seriously at first of course. Finally, Yue is the sort of bland, noble figure who functions as the audience surrogate in a sense. Compounding the issues, the early action scenes are not the most impressive, with the choreography somewhat slow and lacking in creative scenarios. Thankfully, director Ching Gong and his team up the ante during the final few fights, not shying away from some Shaw Brothers worthy gore, such as darts in eyes, swords piercing into heads, and even one fellow who uses the sword already lodged into his abdomen to strike down someone attacking from behind and then spitting out the blood into another opponent’s face!
So what does Killers Five do so well to earn some credibility? While we have just established that, on face value at least, there is creativity lacking in how the characters are shaped, the script does perform some unique pirouettes as to the details of how they associate with another, how they behave whilst on their mission, and what rewards or punishments they reap depending on said behaviour. Almost everybody in the film, save Yue, depends on a level of deception to get by. Those who deceive, make deals or, in some instances gamble, see their fates improve to a degree. Those whose hearts tell them to follow the honourable path are hurt. Consider, for instance, how the party of five is formed. Lin Jing has to pretend to be her brother in hoax in order to prove her worth to Yue. Once they form an alliance, they in turn lure Water Rat into their gang by being him at his own game: gambling. It is Water Rat’s trickery that helps convince Niu to join them in their quest to save the duke’s daughter (by obliterating his house no less). Finally, the mysterious warrior, Liang Shengfei, well is only able to assist the aforementioned travelling warriors precisely by not revealing his true intentions until very late into the story. It does end there however. Nay, even the duke himself gets in on the act by eventually revealing himself to have but used the team as fodder in the entire ploy in order to advance his political career. When threatening to murder Yue’s mother if the party does not surrender, Yue go against the pleas of his mother, who implores him to kill the duke and save the people. Yue does not, unable to to witness the death of his mother at the hands of such a monster. His mother then takes matters into her own by committing suicide, thus propelling Yue and his allies into action for one climactic battle against the greatest traitor of all, the duke. It is only at the very end, once several characters who behaved honourably have already perished, that good finally triumphs over evil.
On a related topic, one that has not been addressed in any depth before in the column, there is something quite amusing about some of these Shaw Brothers films in how they repeatedly start with either one of two things. The first possibility is that they grab the audience with a flamboyant action scene. The second may not entail the depiction of a grand fighting sequence, but nevertheless gets the plot moving as simply and succinctly as possible. In either case, there is no question that these movies get the ball rolling in the earliest moments. Sometimes the decision can back fire insofar as some scenes are a bit too choppy, as is the case here. The sequence of events is easy enough to comprehend, only that the changing of scenery in such rapid succession is a little disorienting. There is a moment when Jin Tianlong’s gang, having at this point extracted the duke’s daughter from her home, chooses to send it aflame. Cut immediately to a house on fire. Sometimes it will feel as though a frame or two are missing. This sort of rapid fire storytelling has its charm. After all, it is no secret that at the Shaw studio made these films at the speed of light, so who knows what the editing process was like for anything scenes which did not involve elaborate fight acrobatics. Those would obviously receive royal treatment on the part of the editors!
Killers Five limps its way to the finish line, but there is is always some worth in a film that at least gets there. The characters are not particularly memorable, but the cast itself is lively and the writers handle the perception of honour and deceit in some interesting ways. The action starts off slowly, but eventually erupts into some of the flamboyancy many have come to expect from a Shaw film. A decent effort, but one the more serious fans might appreciate more than any casual watchers.