Written by Sung Hiu-Wong
Directed by Yan Jun
Hong Kong, 1970
In some special cases, films win a viewer over for a reason that cannot be singularly attributed to just the direction, the acting, the screenwriting, the look, or the sounds. For these movies, it is the attitude they exude that carries them over the hump. In film, mood can be a fickle characteristic. Not everyone will recognize or respond to a picture’s mood in the same way. Be that as it may, like in love, when the mood feels right, a movie can fly to soaring heights. Director Yan Jun’s The Iron Buddha is a movie that lives or dies by its terrifically visceral, hard-edged attitude. With the slightest tinkering in one direction or another, it would be a completely different film.
Xio Tianzum (Wong Chung-Shun) is a wretched scum whose reputation will soon precede him. In the film’s opening sequence, he adeptly slithers into the home of an elder kung fu master and his two attractive daughters. Just before he can have his way with one of the young women, the father arrives to the rescue, scarring Xio on his chest with his mighty sword. Flash forward 3 years later and Xio exacts his terrible vengeance on the same three people, killing the teacher in gruesome fashion and raping the daughters. While the master’s other pupils prove to be no match for Xio, one prideful student, Luo Han (Ling Yun), whose name also means ‘Iron Buddha,’ is a far more accomplished, powerful combatant than either Xio or the other villains who try to halt his quest of redemption envision, including Geng Xian (Chen Hung-Lieh), a corrupt official from an escort company who aligns himself with Xio.
Rather than wax poetic for several lines in an attempt to describe The Iron Buddha’s tone, it can be summarized succinctly as badass, a film with a nasty bite that never shies away from thrusting the viewer into some surprisingly violent, even mildly misogynistic territory. The filmmakers pull no punches in showing how miserable the antagonists are or in highlighting the protagonist’s resolute mindset and merciless combat skills, with and without armaments. The opening 15 minutes or so consist of a continuously escalating series of encounters between the main villain, Xio Tianzum, and a number of his hapless victims. Wong Chung-Shun plays the character to the hilt, so to speak, relishing the opportunity to chew scenery as a man whose sole purpose is to satisfy his violently lustful desires and maim or kill any who dare oppose him; from one attempted rape to another that unfortunately succeeds, to the murder of the women’s father, to the annihilation of the latter’s entire class of students, all of whom fail epically in avenging their fallen teacher. There is even a collective suicide by the few remaining men who, coming to grips with the hopelessness of escape, would prefer dying by their own hands than suffer at Xio’s expense. Even by Shaw Brothers standards, the start to Iron Buddha is very thematically dark.
From that point onwards, the focus shifts from Xio’s despicable acts to Luo Han’s quests to right the former’s wrongs. It is fair to assess that the mood is not as oppressively bleak when once Luo Han takes over the narrative, yet the underlying grittiness of the story prevails. Han is no slouch of an apprentice, a young, inexperienced buck pushed around at the whim of devils like Xio or Geng Xian. Nay, he’s a shockingly powerful, gifted swordsman, fully capable and willing to dispatch an entire platoon of thugs in the event that they are foolhardy enough to challenge him. His skill is matched by his courage and single-mindedness in tracking down Xio, whom he does not recognize by physical appearance (which proves problematic by the second half of the picture). Ling Yun is genuinely impressive in the role, balancing a dash of heroism, a smidgen of virtue, with a whole lot of seething grit. There are barely enough hints communicated through the performance to establish that the viewer can get on board with Luo, but such moments are the exception as opposed to the rule. It is only when making the acquaintance of the lovely Peony (Fang Ying) after saving her mother from certain doom that Luo expresses a softer side.
The film utilizes the character of Luo in more intelligent manner than one might expect. Yes, he is brash, even abrasive at times and seeing him eviscerate hapless thugs is quite amusing, yet his frequently boorish attitude lands him in some trouble. A more levelheaded hero would avoid accumulating the staggering number of enemies Luo bestows upon himself through his over-eagerness to confront anyone person or clan who may serve a link to finally locating the hated Xio Tianzun. There come times when someone as proficient as Luo requires the assistance of newfound allies. Conversely, his attributes as valiant protector of the innocent also earn him the admiration of those in need, not to mention some lucrative, prestigious employment opportunities. In short, he gets what he deserves in more ways than one for being so aggressive, a nice touch courtesy of screenwriter Sung Hiu-Wong, who could have easily written the part in a more straightforward fashion.
Lastly, any review for a film with Chen Hung-Lieh would be remiss for not spending some brief lines highlighting his work. The inimitable Chen truly was one of the most dependable actors to play the part of untrustworthy, scheming villains who conned unsuspecting victims through his affable mannerisms. His best role remains Jade Faced Tiger in Come Drink With Me, although his work in The Iron Buddha is strong, even in a supporting role. He simply has the face and the grin of someone who no one in their right mind should trust. Even so, he finds ways to play up a certain charm in his performances that help make his characters all the more potent.
The Iron Buddha is as close to a no-holds-barred type of 1970s kung fu film as possible. Yan Jun pulls no punches in situations where, as evidenced in plenty of other Shaw pictures, many other directors would have shied away from embracing the mean-spiritedness exposed here. This often vicious attitude could very well end up working against the film for those who require some more virtue form their martial arts flicks. It is not as though Yan Jun’s film has none, only that the film is perfectly comfortable running on the energy derived from some good old-fashioned anger. Bitter, violent, unforgiving, The Iron Buddha is a hidden gem from the Shaw Brothers.