Written by Jeng Cheong-Woh
Directed by Jeng Cheong-Woh
Hong Kong, 1971
Writer-director Jeng Cheong-Woh was the instigator for one of the most important films to have ever been produced by the Shaw Brothers studio, Five Fingers of Death (also known as King Boxer). Not only is said film widely considered to be among the very best kung fu pictures ever made, it played a pivotal role for the unparalleled popularity of martial arts films in the United States since the 1970s. True enough, Bruce Lee’s filmography also aided in the rise of the kung fu flick in North American, but Five Fingers of Death’s influence is not to be overlooked. That movie was originally released in China in 1972. Just one year prior, the Korean genre filmmaker directed another Shaw Studio production, The Swift Knight, a project that does not reach the soaring heights Fingers but shows signs of the man’s keen visual sense.
The plot to Swift Knight is very much of the convoluted variety, wherein a series of reveals are made and new characters are constantly introduced, even in the final third. In essence, the film tells the tale of how one undercover government agent posing as a dirty beggar (Chin Han) and a gifted vigilante codenamed Swift Knight (Lo Lieh) come to together in order to rescue two young siblings, among them Xian Qin (Margaret Hsing Hui) princess to the throne but also illegitimate daughter of the emperor, long ago chased away from the palace and now working as a common maid in a brothel. Standing in their way is a hired assassin (Lee Pang-fei) and the malignant prince (Tung Lam). Even before finding ways to foil the villains’ plot, Swift Knight the secret agent need to find common ground between each other!
Finally watching The Swift Knight for the very first time after having revisited the seminal Fingers on multiple occasions already is a revealing experience. It a lesser film than the aforementioned classic for a variety of reasons, namely its mundane script. There really is not a lot in the story for the viewer to chew on, with a flimsy romantic angle failing to anchor much emotional depth, an unengaging leading lady who operates more as a plot device than a three dimensional personality (this is much more a fault of the script than it is of actress’ Margaret Hsing-Hui’s doing) and an unimpressive party of villains. Why the evil prince, who is pulling all of the strings, is only properly introduced with barely 15 remaining in the picture is anyone’s guess. Lee Pan-fei’s assassin character fairs better, mostly just because he is awarded more screen time, yet he never amounts to much more than a run of the mill highly trained heavy with a beard. The film swiftly bounces along from location to location and from one plot point to another, rarely allowing its many elements to jell. It is true that this type of frantic pace is characteristic of many Shaw martial arts films, but when supported by a solid script, the quick pacing enhances the experience. With a pedestrian story, the rapid pace amounts to frills and little else. The titular masked avenger never becomes a character the viewer can fully appreciate or understand for that matter. In one scene he talks and approaches a challenge like a villain would, whereas five minutes later he acquiesces to a mission because of his self described sense of justice, because he is a hero. The character of the Swift Knight is a hodgepodge of ideas for whom for the sum is definitely not greater than its parts.
All that being said, director Jeng Cheong-Woh does show off some of the praise worthy skills that would help make his next film an instant classic. Seen as such, it seems reasonable to suggest that Swift Knight was a form training camp for a director who clearly possessed a lot of talent but needed to work out some of his storytelling and action set piece muscles before everything fell into place. Certainly his direction in Fingers is of the highest order, but Swift Knight has lot of Jeng’s sensibilities upon which he’ll improve the very next year. There was no other director working within the studio who thought up scenes and visual representations quite as he did. When flashbacks are utilized to relay additional story content, said scene is awash in blue or red depending on its mood. A character wields a small yet potent weapon, a small tube from which can be launched tiny arrow bullets (a pistol, in other words) and whenever a shot is fired the camera angle cuts for a split second in front of the oncoming bullet, as if about to hit the viewer. Director Jeng also favours high contrast between shadows and light, lending a very impressionistic palette to scenes transpiring either at night or in locations where light is sparse such as caves. He was a unique director for how he consistently conjured up inventive, very artistically inclined ways to depict places, people and things, showing off an understanding of the medium of film and its potential that was better than most.
The Swift Knight tempers one’s impression of Jeng Cheong-Woh as a director. Few would question his ability to visually communicate essential moments of scenes or to set a specific tone. With respect to his writing and direction of action, it is obvious that the best was still yet to come.