Shaw Brothers Saturdays: ‘The Twin Swords’ lacks polish, but takes steps in the right direction
Directed by Hsu Tseng-Hung
Script by San Kong
Hong Kong, 1965
Few would debate that the single defining decade in the all too short history of the Shaw Brothers studio was the 1970s. The staggering amount influential films produced and released in that decade alone, films which made uncompromising impact upon release and gained sometimes feverish cult status since, is almost too much to count. King Boxer, Five Deadly Venoms and 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, all three from the 70s, arguably consist of the Shaw crown jewels. It therefore makes the discovery of films from the two decades which sandwich the 70s, the 1960s and 1980s, all the more exciting and revealing. Where did the quality of the of the all-time classics emerge from and which direction did it take afterwards? This week calls for a flashback to the previous decade, with the 1965 Hsu Tseng-Hung directed The Twin Swords, the middle part of the trilogy which placed actors Jimmy Wang and Lo Lieh firmly on the movie map.
The newly married couple of Gui Wu (Jimmy Wang) and Lianzhu (Chin Ping), intruders inside the Red Lotus Temple, are under heavy siege from the enemy clans endless number soldiers. With skills and a little bit of luck, the two escape with their lives from the clutches of the Red Lotus gang, but its vile leaders have a dastardly plan in store to lure Lianzhu and Gui Wu back to the temple (by having a group hired women act as innocent wives being kidnapped), as well as Lianzhu’s entire family, in an audacious attempt to wipe out the entirety of the Gan clan to whom the two lovers belong. Only the first portion of the plan succeeds however, as Lianzhu is unfortunately unable to escape all the cleverly hidden traps around the Red Lotus temple. Gui Wu however flees, storms back to Lianzhu’s family in an effort to convince them to save their daughter. It is revealed to the audience (at least those who have not seen the previous film) that young couple’s marriage was entirely against the wishes of Lianzhu’s family, in particular Du Zhuang (Lo Lieh), madly in love with her and, unsurprisingly, deeply hurt since she and her husband ran off. Will her family come to the rescue and vanquish the their hated rival, the Red Lotus gang, once and for all? And what of this mysterious lady dressed in red, Scarlett Maid (Ivy Ling Po), who makes the brief, fleeting appearances and whose true agenda remains a secret?
There are a number of very clear reasons why it is the films of the 70s which have left the most lasting impact on martial arts film fans the world over. The camera work in the action scenes, not to mention the actual choreography involved in giving the fight scenes a much needed edge, were top notch on an amazingly consistent basis. Many of the studio’s big name directors found their respective comfort zones as to the sort of stories they wished to tell and what sort of characters they enjoyed developing. Perhaps it should be expected that the earlier adventures, among them The Twin Swords, do in fact feel a little bit rough around the edges at times. There is, to put it in simple terms, less polish about it. The edits, the musical cues, the acting, the scripts, they all often feel less professional, less calculated than what most are accustomed to if they have limited themselves to watching movies from the decade that came after. The incredible thing of the entire experience is that these elements actually provide the picture with their own very unique charming qualities. The amateurish moments denote a sense of pure innocence which the later films sometimes lack, yet it is impossible to deny that the people behind them are talented and will, in time, make some truly special films. It is fascinating experiment to watch it itself functions as a kind of experiment.
Swords boasts a plentiful amount of weapon based fights between the Gan family members and the Red Lotus thugs. As interesting as the set pieces are on the whole, anyone with a sharp eye (or acclimatized to martial arts films), will recognize that few of the actors partaking in the action have impressive skills in the stunt department. Many of the movements are slow and lack a degree of sophistication. One can practically anticipate the next kill because the actors are meticulously and just slowly enough going through a series of easy to follow moves. Despite whatever weaknesses prevent the fights from reaching breathtaking heights, it is nevertheless great to see actors like Jimmy Wang, Chin Ping, Ivy Ling Po, Lo Lieh and a host of others genuinely invest everything they have into making the action as good as their abilities permit. It is a case where the grade of ‘A’ can easily be awarded for the effort, if not always the end product. The quality of the acting is not always as high as one would hope for (some of the supporting players are particularly wooden in their movements and line delivery), but everybody is bringing their a-game to the action.
The film’s greatest attraction is undoubtedly the Red Lotus temple itself, brilliantly devised by the set design crew and presented by director Hsu Tseng-Hung. There are so many hallways, rooms, caverns, balconies, outside gardens which have their own sense of place and character, yet feel like parts of one singular whole. Whether deliberate attempts were made to simulate some aspects of the James Bond films, the temple is equipped with a vast array of traps and secret doors, all operated by levers and cogs . The inventiveness on display, even if it does not always come across as very practical, it very neat and creates a great sense of fun when the battles commence, not to mention some tension because the audience is wishing that the heroes do not step on so or so tile, or walk down so or so corridor. Several of the traps result in pretty graphic deaths, an element that ended up being something of a hallmark for the studio, whose films rarely shied away from depicting bloody violence in its action movies. The filmmakers behind. Swords also evidently depended on various matte paintings to use as distant backgrounds, giving many scenes in the film a clear studio feel about them. Contrary to what some might believe when hearing that a picture’s visuals have a very studio look, the effect in Swords is positive. When Scarlett Maid is playing her lute atop the high, mystical mountains, the paintings in the back create a fantasy quality to the cinematography, as is the case when she literally hops down the mountain on her way to battle while a bold orange and blue sunset sky shines behind her. The look of the film quite be arresting at times thanks in part to its artificiality.
The most curious aspect of the picture is its tone, which is a bit all over the place as the saying goes. For one, director Hsu Tseng-Hung refuses to let all the characters off the hook just because they are heroes. Spoilers shall be avoided in this review, but suffice to say that at least a few important characters are offed in dramatic fashion when the viewer might least suspect it. In that sense, Swords can be rather brutal at times. On the other end of the spectrum is the film’s musical qualities. More than once, the diagetic sound will make way for non-diagetic songs, much like a choral, which describe that either describe a character’s backstory, that individual’s innermost thoughts and emotions, or hammer home the gravity of an event. Essentially, the movie plays out like a romantic musical at times. One is never entirely certain what is to come next in Swords.
Swords does not impress on all levels, although that should not serve exactly as a warning for people to overlook it. There are many rewards in discovering early movies from a studio who would go on to achieve great things. It comes down to matter of respecting its history and the process required in becoming better at the game of making these films.