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Shaw Brothers Saturdays: ‘The Twelve Gold Medallions’ has intense battles, incredible dialogue and a great hero

Shaw Brothers Saturdays: ‘The Twelve Gold Medallions’ has intense battles, incredible dialogue and a great hero

The Twelve Gold Medallions

Directed by Ching Gong

Written by Ching Gong

Hong Kong, 1970

It would be a bit of a stretch to argue that the Shaw Brothers studio was an excellent venue for actors for flex their thespian muscles to the fullest extent. Naturally, the emphasis in these movies is put on action, style and caricatures more than three-dimensional characterizations. It does not mean there are no fully fledged characters to play nor that an actor is never awarded the opportunity to give a performance worth of special note, but ‘acting’ definitely means playing within the parameters set up by the sorts of stories told. Some, however, break through the mould, be it because the script provides them with more meat to chew on or simply because they have more charisma, their presence holds more gravitas than most. Yueh Hua was one such actor, much like David Chiang and Lo Lieh.

The Twelve Gold Medallions is one of those Shaw films for which the plot seems to matter very little. By that it is meant that the script inserts plenty of little details which ultimately add nothing to the weight of the dramatization, and even confuse in some cases. It is apparently inspired by an actual historical conflict in ancient China, during the reign of Emperor Shiao Hsing. In the southern region of the nation there is fear that the Tartars are preparing an invasion (a backdrop which is strikingly similar to that of the film reviewed just last week, Lady of Steel). The immediate concern which has local officials worried is the presence of a treacherous general who is providing the outsiders with information via messengers. A group of powerful swordsmen and swordswomen is sent our to eradicate said messengers, such as Miao Lung (Yue Hua) and Jin Suo (Chin Ping), two lovers experiencing a trying time in their relationship, above all else because Suo is led to believe that Lung has acquired himself another fanciful lady. This of course is not true, but Suo, albeit a courageous and powerful woman, is stubborn in this matter and insists that she is now her former boyfriend’s mortal enemy. Another complication happens to be that her own father, the intimidating Jin Yan Tang (Cheng Miu) is a member of the treacherous hoard. Thus a battle on multiple fronts begins…

It has already been alluded to that the plot to Gold Medallions lacks some polish. This much is very true in that, after a while, it becomes a bit difficult to remember just who exactly is fighting on whose side, especially among the smaller bit players. At one point it is revealed that Jin Yan Tang, now known to the audience as a traitor and operating for the Tartars, is a close contact of the region’s Prime Minister. Is this to mean that the Prime Minister himself is aligned with the invading army as well? The movie never clarifies that element, nor does it succeed in making any sense out of the titular medallions. First and foremost, the objects of everyone’s desire more closely resemble plaques than they do medallions, but more confusing still is their purpose. Are the messages written on the medallions? Are they merely signs of one’s allegiance to the Tartars.? Truth be told, it was a bit confusing to make heads or tails regarding this seemingly important elements. Then again, it may be argued that the coveted plaques constitute nothing more than a maguffin that propels the characters and their own stories forward, which seems like the fairest point to make. Yet another fault of the script, this one not a small detail but rather a major storyline, is Jin Suo’s steadfastness in refusing any help Miao Lung offers her in times of need. Granted, she is under the impression that Lung has left her for someone else, yet her rebuttals in the face of his attempts to make amends (amends for a mistake he never actually committed) grow somewhat tiresome after too long. Come on, woman, clearly this chap cares for you deeply!

The star of the show is unequivocally Yue Hua. He gives his character of Miao Lung tremendous cool, who otherwise could have been a bland protagonist simply hoping to do well for his country in addition to winning the heart of his love. Instead, the viewer has the pleasure to watch a hero who is cool to the point of being aloof at times, which is a very difficult effect if not played perfectly well. His smiles, his tiny gestures, his witty replies, they indicate a protagonist who is indeed very confident of his abilities, both with regards to martial arts and of persuasion, but never obnoxiously so. He is a man of experience and, because he has seen and been through a lot, can go about his mission with a sense of fun. He really is a great protagonist to tag along with, and most of the credit should be awarded to actor Yue Hua, who continues to impress the more films featuring him are reviewed for this column. He plays his parts with an effortlessness that is rarely seen in these older martial arts pictures, in which so many actors, for lack of a better term, ‘ham it up.’ He does not take that route because he does not need to. He can genuinely act.

It must be said that apart from certain half baked script elements which concern the story, what director-writer Ching Gong gets write is the dialogue, which is incredibly funny, bold, cheesy, and plain and simply makes a whole lot of people in this movie look like real bad asses. Consider:

Miao Lung faces off against yet another scumbag who possesses a gold medallion (read: a traitor to the country). He demands the foe relinquish the object and submit himself to the law. The thug, a real mean looking rat equipped with a powerful whip, replies:

-‘I want to give you the medallion…(evil grin appears) but my whip says no!’

That is amazing stuff that gives the scene a boost of energy, a scene which already had a decent amount of tension to begin with. Another fine example occurs in the clear cut best scene in the film. Miao has sniffed out another one of the traitors (Yueng Chi-Hing), this time in a saloon. He has the owner hurriedly whisk away the other customers. Once the room is empty, with only Miao and the traitor left, who, by the way, is called Smiling Fox (!), Miao returns to their table very calmly. Smiling Fox, playing innocent, asks:

-‘Why send the guests away?’

-‘I’m worried they might get hurt in a fight’

-‘What fight?’

-(Miao offers a piercing glare across the table) ‘Our fight.’

There is a practically incalculable amount of wonderful replies and insults characters toss at each other. Two older martial arts masters face off near the end of the film, the evil one of course being the aforementioned Jin Yan Tang. The one fighting for justice, Green Bamboo Cane Meng Dabei (Goo Man-Chung), who has witnessed the death of several pupils during these deadly missions to intercept the traitors, cryptically says:

-‘In a dream the ghosts of my 7 dead students said to wait for you here.’

To which the vile Jin Yan Tang responds:

-‘Take it to your dead students in hell!’

If fun, at times very unsubtle dialogue is right up the reader’s alley, Gold Medallions is a winner.

This is still, above all else, a movie in which a bunch of people engage in combat. Watching the fights unfold, most of which involve a lot of weaponry, such as swords, knives, bows and arrows and whips, what unmistakably stood out was the intensity of said battles. Every single blow feels and sounds as though it is delivered with the greatest might possible. The exchanges occur with incredible rapidity too. Generally speaking, Gold Medallions features some stunningly visceral fights, so much so that curiosity encouraged me after the film to look up who was responsible for the choreography. Lo and behold, it was the venerable, the inimitable, one and only Sammo Hung! A true master of the arts and an individual who, time and time again throughout the decades has made kung fu and all kinds of martial arts look amazing on screen.

If one can overlook some the script’s deficiencies, there is certainly a lot to admire about the film.

-Edgar Chaput