‘The Bells of Death’ chimes a violent, memorable and visceral tune
Written by Yau-Daai On-Ping
Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng
Hong Kong, 1968
In action film cinema, sometimes the chances of a movie’s success rest on what the filmmakers want to do in order to visualize the mayhem suggested in the script. It is one thing to have the camera rest in a particular location and let the choreographer and stunt men handle the rest. It is en entirely different matter to expand the means of expressing the intensity, relentlessness, stress and emotionally complexity that should exist in a well made action movie. Lighting, camera angles, edits, music suddenly play a humungous role in the matter, complimenting the diligent work of the aforementioned folks traditionally associated with making a solid action scene. Director Griffin Yueh Feng and his crew pulled out all the stops in 1968 when making the amusingly titled The Bells of Death. Make no mistake however, this is no comedy.
A band of hoodlums led by Zuo Jinglong (Lam Kau) roam the countryside by horse, searching for the home of a family they have been tasked with massacring. Their orders may not have explicitly been to massacre the family, but suffice to say that upon arriving at their destination, they relish each and every gory death inflicted on the father, mother and small boy. Rather than kill the older daughter (Chiu Sam-Yin), they opt to take her as away as a slave. That error proves miniscule compared to the fact they have somehow have forgotten to kill off the eldest son, Chang Wei Fu (Chang Yi). Distraught by the discovery that his family has been mercilessly slaughtered, Wei Fu embarks on a personal mission to avenge their deaths and rescue his sister. With a little help from a mysterious martial arts master and Xiang Xiang (Chin Ping), a depraved prostitute in need of assistance, Wei Fu’s fury will be felt by the assassins and any who foolishly stand in his way.
Obviously, in terms of story, The Bells of Death is not even close to being an original Shaw Brothers film. What is consistently striking with these plot lines is how important and justified the notion of vengeance appears to be. Whereas in films made within other cultures the idea of bloodthirsty vengeance often has grave consequences on the psyche of the protagonists, in these Shaw pictures revenge is frequently (not always, mind you) portrayed as something perfectly normal and a fitting strategy to right terrible wrongs. Even by the end, and revealing that Wei Fu accomplishes his goal should probably not be seen as a spoiler, everything is fine and dandy. The inclusion of Xiang Xiang in the plot serves the purpose of humanizing the Wei Fu character somewhat, although he shuns her so much in the early going that their eventual (and some would argue inevitable) love is a bit perplexing. Another notable point to make regarding the story is the expediency with which the director has Wei Fu go from meek orphan to complete death machine. Shortly after commencing his long trek he stumbles on an old kung fu master wasting away some low levels clansmen. Wei Fu pleads that the elder killer take him under his tutelage for the sole purpose of revenge. Poof, cut to a scene taking place 5 years later and Wei Fu is the deadliest lone swordsman since Sanjuro. Done. Even though the transition is never felt, there is little denying Chang Yi’s striking presence in the film, who really looks and feels like a one man terminator. The role does not ask for much nuance or variety, but for what it is worth Chang Yi is absolutely convincing as a man driven by ferocious intensity.
The real pleasure to be had with Bells of Death is how director Griffin Yueh Feng has the cinematography, editing, lighting, music and of course action come together to make a very engaging film, if a particularly moody one. There are the action films for which one can tell less thought was put into how scenes were prepared and shot, at least with respect to the potential for creativity. This does no entail that the combat scenes are not good, but they might lack some intensity, imagination and flourish. Bells of Death is an example of the complete opposite, looking and sounding like few other Shaw films. There is an obviously high level craftsmanship at work which bleeds into nearly every moment. For one, the film looks spectacular, embellishing each and every visual trick to strike a particular mood. The result is something totally unexpected: an unforgivably dour tone for the most part which sucks the viewer in with its brilliant aesthetic. Film noir type contrasts in between shadow and light, Dutch angles, a spectacularly engaging hand held camera that thrusts viewers into the thick of the battles, the filmmakers pull out all the stops. In true noir fashion, the hero does not always come across as a heroic, virtuous figure. In Bells of Death, there are several scenes which take things further still by figuratively depicting Wei Fu as the monster, an unstoppable force his hunt for prey accompanied by unsettling musical cues and expressionistic lighting.
The fights themselves, in addition to being shot in such a way as to create an unmistakably visceral experience, what with the hand held camera and the rapid fire choreography, some of it even a bit on the messy side and thus more realistic, feature some striking deaths. Without giving away too many of the surprises as to how enemies are vanquished, the filmmakers try something that, for all the accolades Shaw films have earned, few others seem willing to: depicting gruesome deaths in the thick of the action without cutting away. This column has often highlighted the many, many amusing deaths suffered characters in theses films, yet it the fact remains that in many cases said deaths are either after an edit, or within the shot but usually less spectacular in the latter case. Here, the director gives some shockingly bloody kills but within the same shot in which the sword strike occurs. It is small detail, but one very noticeable for a seasoned Shaw Brothers fan.
The less said or written about Griffin Yueh Feng’s The Bells of Death, the better, for the best way to fully comprehend it is by actually experiencing it. While its script lacks originality, the film is a visual and aural delight, using all cinematographic techniques possible to make the viewer feel the very visceral, intense mood driving the story. With a more creative plot, the movie might have been a true gem, but at it stands it is nevertheless a very effective sensual experience that could only have come from true artists of filmmaking.