I've declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I've been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here's an index.
This Chang Cheh thriller provided star-making performances for Ti Lung and David Chiang, actors who had played small supporting roles in some prior Chang films (you can spot them clearly in 1969’s Return of the One-Armed Swordsman) but who Chang gave a big push to in 1970, where Chiang starred in four of his movies and won a Best Actor award at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival for his performance here. The two actors would star together in a number of films for Chang throughout the early 70s.
Ti Lung plays a Chinese Opera star whose wife is lusted after by all the big shots in town, including a kung fu master (who looks down on Ti's show people martial arts) and some officials and gangsters (between which there's no distinction). Defending his wife's honor, Ti picks a fight with the kung fu master, winning easily, but is then ambushed in a teahouse (where he's brought his pet bird, shades of Hard-Boiled here, though more probably taking your bird to tea is just a popular Hong Kong pastime, then as now). Chang intercuts Ti taking on a legion of attackers with a slow-motion flashback to the stage performance that opened the film, the movements of the play matching the reality as Ti's character is surrounded and agonizingly killed. What we are about to see is as much a performance as the opera: honor and justice demanding a ritualistic revenge, artificial yet inexorable.
David Chiang’s character, Ti's brother (literally, this is not always the case among Chang heroes, but appears to be in this one) and another stage performer arrives in town (he’s been performing ‘in the South”. The setting is "A City in China" in 1925, and Chiang is sleekly attired in a black suit throughout the film, the neatness of his appearance contrasting with the sloppy, untamed appetites of the greedy and lustful killers. He tracks down and kills everyone who had to do with his brother's death, while reconnecting with an old girlfriend, the sister of Ti's wife. Chiang methodically goes about his bloody revenge, cool and deadly with no hint of humor or sympathy or weariness. He is determination, the physical embodiment of the revenge impulse, his slightly long hair swooping stylishly as he spins, flips and kills.
Near the end, one of the bosses convinces him that he wants to help by organizing an ambush of the big boss. He wants Chiang to disguise himself as one of his guards (a gray and blue uniform) but Chiang refuses. For this final battle, he must dress all in white, the color of death. Of course this turns out to be a betrayal as well. Chiang gets his revenge, but is consumed in the process. Like many a Chang hero, he dies standing up, his body refusing to go down even though its life is over (see also Johnnie To's A Hero Never Dies). Unlike most of Chang's heroes however, Chiang gets a brief resurrection in which he get to kill the final villain before dying again. This kind of ‘he’s not really dead’ thing becomes common in Hollywood movies in the 80s, inherited I think from slasher films. I don’t recall seeing it that often in Hong Kong, where the dead usually stay dead.
There's always a nihilistic strain in Chang Cheh's films, but never more explicitly than here. The code of honor that binds Chiang to seek revenge, even though it will ultimately cost him his own life (as he must know) is as phony as it is imperative. This contradiction lies at the heart of the 'heroic bloodshed' genre Chang spawned, influencing directors like John Woo (A Better Tomorrow, The Killer) and Ringo Lam (City on Fire), whose films often end in a knowingly sacrificial act of violence. The most obvious influence is on Johnnie To's similarly titled 2009 film Vengeance, in which the going-through-the-motions nature of the revenge imperative is literalized with the fantastical To/Wai twist being that the hero suffers from memory loss: he doesn't know why he has to get his revenge, he just knows he must. Not only is vengeance a performance, it's utterly mindless.