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Shaws Brothers Saturdays: ‘Vengeance is a Golden Blade’ puts good storytelling at the forefront

Shaws Brothers Saturdays: ‘Vengeance is a Golden Blade’  puts good storytelling at the forefront

Vengeance is a Golden Blade

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Written by Ho Meng-Hua and Yun Chich Tu

Hong Kong, 1969

Ah, the McGuffin, the prized object that each and every character in a film is influenced by, seeks out but which in the end bears no relation to the heart of a story. The story is typically about something else entirely, yet the film will cheekily try to remind the audience that it is the ever elusive (or not) object of everyone’s desire that matters most. This is one of the oldest storytelling tricks in movie history, and one of the most recognized. The idea of the McGuffin is pretty interesting because it can assist a film in so many essential ways, such as actually helping a film in question focus more on character relations. The hunt for the object everyone desires will, if we follow the screenwriting logic, inadvertently cause rich character development.

Ho Meng-Hua’s Vengeance is a Golden Blade dives head first into this notion of McGuffins and character development, which some interesting results to show for it. Our story begins with two rival security company men, Li Zhishan (Tang Ching) and Long Zhentian, both vying for the same woman, Yuexiang (Kao Pao Shu). The tricky reality of the situation is that Li Zhishan and Yuexiang are husband and wife, but the latter fools around with the scoundrel Long Zhentian whenever Zhishan is away on business. The movie opens with Zhishan discovering one night the hurtful truth about his wife and his business rival. Equipped with his legendary Golden Dragon Blade, Zhishan chases away Zhentian and his hoodlums, but his wife, herself wicked and devious, lures Zhishan into a false sense of security before temporarily blinding him and have him chased from the home along with their daughter, Xiaoyang (Ping Chin), but minus the Golden Dragon Blade, which Zhishan unwillingly leaves behind. The father and daughter eventually come across an elderly herbalist (Ku Weng Chung) and his young grandson (Yue Hua) in the hills, where they make their home for several years as Xiaoyan grows into a young woman. All the while, Long Zhentian and his Long Vicious Brothers, now aided by the indestructible Golden Dragon Blade, terrorize the surrounding villages.

A McGuffin should function as the excuse to set a plot in motion, but in actuality serve as a catalyst for character development. Watching Vengeance is a Golden Blade unfold, it became abundantly clear that even though the famous Golden Blade is mentioned and even seen from time to time throughout the story between the opening sequence and the climax, it is not, for all intents and purposes, the true core of the story. Li Zhishan, while raising his daughter Xiaoyan in the hills with their new friends, refers to his lost blade and even spends time and energy in crafting a newer, more powerful blade to counter his previous weapon, now used in the wrong hands. The truth of the matter is that Ho Meng Hua’s film is much more concerned with the trying relationship between Zhishan and Xiaoyan than it is with swords and what the gangsters are up to. By the film’s end, one comes to realizes that not even that much high-octane action has erupted, but rather than the lack of fights acting as a detriment, it permitted the film to focus on the drama, and, whether due to some solid performances or director Ho Men Hua’s sure handed command and will to focus and what was actually interesting, it really works for the most part.

The main thrust of the drama reveals itself when Xiaoyan and her adoptive relatives visit a nearby town one day and the young lady makes the acquaintance of her biological mother Yuexiang, who now operates a lavish brothel. At first, Yuexiang does not recognize Xiaoyan as her daughter, nor does the latter realize the former is her mother. The discovery of the truth ends up being one-sided however, for it is only Yuexiang, via various clues and clever deduction, who comes to realize her relation with this young beauty, which of course means that she learns of Zhishan whereabouts, thus enabling her to play the daughter against her father. The back and forth tumultuous episodes may at times have a ring of predictability about them, but the effort put into making a slightly different sort of action movie should not go unappreciated. First and foremost, it is nice to see not one, but two significant female leads in a film. It could have been a much safer bet to make the center of everyone’s attention, the daughter Xiaoyan, a male instead. There is even a young male character, the herbalists grandson, who acts as her pseudo-boyfriend in the film, but the focus continuously remains on her, which is even neater since after years of practice she has grown into a rather bad ass fighting machine, à la Golden Swallow from Drink With Me.

The other important female character is the villainess of the piece, Yuexiang. This is a really great character, and not just for Kao Pao Shu’s performance, which is instantly memorable. Seeing such a Machiavellian creature sink her teeth into the fabric of a loving father-daughter relationship makes it very easy for the audience to cheer against her. She is someone who does not know how to take ‘no’ for an answer and has multiple resources at her disposal to ensure that whatever she desires becomes hers in the end. Her words can be poisonous, especially for someone like Zhishan, he loves his daughter than anything else in the world, but clearly does not possess the luxurious means to attract Xiaoyan’s fancy. The promise of luxury as well as Yuexiang’s mask of a kind demeanour are very alluring for Xiaoyan, who is desperately curious to learn the nature of Yeuxiang’s fascination with her since her father refuses to divulge that information. Kao Pao Shu is excels at modelling a character who is conniving and relentless.

Ho Meng Hua tries to make the most out of this story and a lot of what unfolds works well, making for a different type of Shaw Brothers film. There are some bumps throughout the journey, more so near the climax than in the early goings. It felt as though, after setting everything up so well and thickening the plot just right, the filmmakers were unsure how exactly to end it satisfyingly. The last 30 minutes maybe see things unravel in too predictable a manner, in addition to there being a plot twist that I really did not think was dealt with in a way that realized its full potential. Nonetheless, there is a lot more to like than not in Golden Blade.

The last impression I want is to leave the reader with is  that the film is a prime example of incredible drama of the highest order. No, there are plenty of other movies within the Shaw Brothers cannon, that one can seek out in order to get that. But it is the movie’s willingness to stick to the drama and put less emphasis than usual on the action that makes it an unorthodox member of the Shaw Brothers collection. Not to mention that Kao Pao Shu, as Yeuxiang, gives a great performance as the frustratingly determined villainess. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if one is in the mood for traditional martial arts fair, but as a curiosity it can be a solid recommendation.

-Edgar Chaput