Written by Tyrone Hsu Tien-Yung
Directed by Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong
Hong Kong, 1971
For as fast and furiously as Shaw Brothers studio churned out its action films and made stars of previously unknown actors, the number of names people recognize heavily favour the male performers. There were certainly women who became famous as a result of starring in Shaw pictures and receiving star billing, but much fewer in number and even fewer of them were the principle warriors of a picture. One such name that kept appearing in the late 1960s and into the 70s was Ivy Ling Po (Sword and the Lute, Twin Swords), who could deliver a really solid performance based on the script and hold her own with the boys when the rough stuff started. One of those starring roles was in the fantasy-laden The Mighty One, from 1971.
Master Lung (Liu Ping) is storming the land with his supporting warriors named the Five Dragons for a series of five coveted creeds. Each document instructs those privy enough to get their hands on them nearly indefensible legendary attacks. At the start of the picture, Lung arrives at a modest little martial arts school where the creeds may be located. Lung, convinced the documents are in the possession of its teacher, murders the former and his daughter, leaving behind two small children, a brother and sister. Jump ahead several years and it is revealed that master Lung and the Dragons have lost two of the five creeds, thus commencing another bloody hunt as he and his crew terrorize rival masters and schools. During each attempt however, Lung is foiled by mysterious warriors apparently working on their own yet always arriving shortly after one another: one man, Hsiang Kuei (Ling Yun), who keeps his face hidden from view with a straw hat, and a woman, Hsiao Chu (Ivy Ling Po), masquerading in mens clothing. A new rivalry is ignited, but just who are the new challengers to master Lung’s supremacy?
The Mighty One differentiates itself from the fray in some unique ways, some of which are attributed to the direction whereas others are the result of a script that deliberately ups the ante by tapping into some fantasy elements. The most striking aspect of said fantasy twists is the eerie familiarity of the superhuman powers various characters employ. For those who recall the Star Wars films and the otherworldly abilities of the jedi and sith, a few of the feats the heroes pull in this movie are identical, and this goes far beyond the ease with which they leap into the air, something which most Shaw characters are capable of already. The protagonists exercise some form of telekinesis, lifting heavy objects like tables and even boulders with but the wave of a hand. The come close to tossing opponents around like ragged dolls by barely touching them. It has long become common knowledge among cinefiles that Star Wars’ progenitor, George Lucas, was heavily influenced by other films and cultures when conceiving Star Wars although Shaw Brothers films are never mentioned as one such possible source of inspiration, thus creating a great surprise when the heroes essentially attack their assailants as the jedi would. Better still, the film reveals said powers not in the opening scene, but rather the third if not the fourth, making the revelation all the more surreal since it comes out of the blue.
The atypical quirks extend beyond what the protagonists can accomplish. The villains, like the Five Dragons, each of their own peculiarities which set them apart. While their respective personalities mostly blend in with one another (angry and short tempered), their attire and weapons have the complete opposite effect. Not only is their clothing fun to look at but each has painted markings on their faces. While red, blue, yellow singular stripes on foreheads is odd enough already, the best comes in the form of one of the Dragons who looks as though his facial hair, from his mustache to his pinch, is painted on. A very strange visual, indeed. The weapons of choice the Dragons also range from the popular to others which would make no logical sense in other film than the current one. The pseudo leader of the Dragons for example where a eye catching necklace made of what look to be either oversized pearls or perhaps pieces of silver which he can take off and straighten like to use like a baton. Another Dragon challenges opponents with two large rings which can hover in the air like flying saucers. Nearly everything in this movie is a little off kilter (not to mention that no one can tell Ivy Ling Po is a woman only because she wears a man’s garb), giving it its own special charm. The less written about the one character who has a sword lodged into his head the better. It is indeed worth seeing.
The film’s slightly unorthodox qualities also stem from its structure, more specifically the length and pacing of individual scenes. Director Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong lets each scene breath as much as possible before moving on to another plot point or location. Instead of moving along at a rapid fire pace, a tactic many movies of this ilk adopt to keep viewers interested, The Mighty One practically lingers on certain scenes when there is no action, and when the weapons are drawn, battles last several minutes. In fact, specific shots last far longer than is usually the case in martial arts movies. The director occasionally has his camera track the combatants as they exchange blows, run and jump back, forwards, left and right. What this leads to is a 83 minute long film that feels as though it only contains a handful of scenes. Compounding this notion is the portion of the running length required for all the main characters to be introduced and established. It takes a surprising amount of time for master Lung, his Dragons, Hsiang Kuei and finally Hsiao Chu to finally become familiar faces for the viewer, the adult Hsiao Chu not making her first appearance before the half hour mark, for example. This unusual pacing produces a double effect of each individual scene feeling like its own story with a beginning, middle and an end, which is welcomed, while also, as Hsiao and Hsiang make their way towards Lung’s territory for the climactic contest, giving the viewer the misleading impression that they have not actually seen much of the story yet, as though the climax begins sooner than it really should.
This second of the two effects is arguably what hurts the film the most. The first half of the movie functions like a very intriguing action adventure tale. The viewers are uncertain as to who the two superhuman loners are, nor where the two lost creeds are located, in addition to being introduced, in scenes which last anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, to new characters who may or may not return later in the story. Despite that at this point the viewer knows less about what is transpiring, it actually adds a sense of mystery. By the time the movie reveals who Hsiao and Hsiang are as well as what bond they share, half the story is already said and done, therefore leaving only so much time for their partnership to flourish as it should. One never gets the full satisfaction of seeing them become staunch allies or a full appreciation of what links them together. Thankfully, both leads are good, in particular Ivy Ling Po, who is obviously having tremendous fun as a heroine whose skills far surpass those of anyone else, allowing her to playfully tease the antagonists with a false sense of modesty. Ling Yun is solid as well, although the decision to have his face hidden from view for the most of the movie does not jell with his cocky tendencies. If a main character’s face is to be sheltered, then the personality should reflect that.
The Mighty One makes for a bizarre viewing experience, which is saying something considering how loony many Shaw Brothers films are. The overall pacing, the length of scenes, the jedi-like abilities of the protagonists, the magical weapons used by the antagonists…it all culminates in a film which is misses the mark in some key respects, like proper character development, but makes up for it in other,s such as its utter lack of shame in making the oddest choices possible.