Monday, June 23, 2014

The Ghost Hill (Taiwan, 1971)

If I made a Wuxia film, this would be the plot: A much coveted weapon of great supernatural power -- a magic sword, let’s say -- is stolen from a righteous sifu by an evil king and his grotesque minions. The old master is killed in the course of the theft and, in order to retrieve the sword and deal out vengeance, the surviving members of his clan, skilled martial artists all, must brave the evil king’s labyrinthine, booby trap filled fortress. One of them is a cute girl.

What’s that? Yes… yes, you’re right. This also describes the plot of roughly 80% of all existing wuxia films. Now let me tell you why: If, like director/writer Ting Shan-Hsi’s The Ghost Hill, you have an abundance of style, a charismatic cast, and nonstop violent action, that’s all the plot you need.

In the case of The Ghost Hill, the coveted super weapon is something called the Purple Light Sword and, until certain sticky fingers see otherwise, it is in the custody of a blind kung fu master named Yen (Chan Bo Leung). The culprits are a band of murderous weirdies (bearing awkwardly translated handles like “Cow Head”) commanded by one King Gold (Sit Hon), whose royal badness extends to him taking baths in boiling oil and eliminating unmotivated underlings with a spear launching metal prosthetic.

King Gold spirits the Sword away to his digs on the faraway Gold Mountain, requiring that Master Yen’s surviving family members make a long trek across much picturesque-yet-inhospitable terrain in order to retrieve it. Along the way, they pick up allies, such as blade-for-hire Shadow Tsai (A Touch of Zen’s Tien Peng), and a mangy bunch called the Beggars Gang. All the while, they fend off attacks from the King’s forces, including his also evil daughter, Princess Gia (Hon Seung Kam).

This motley lot eventually succeeds in capturing Yen’s adult son and daughter and imprisoning them in the King’s lair. Thus does our heroes’ mission of vengeance become also one of rescue, requiring them to withstand the many Dante’s Inferno-like travails of the King’s “Hell Castle”. This, as one might expect, does not prove easy, involving lots of acrobatic sword fighting, vigorous one-against-all hand to hand combat, and every manner of exotic weapon the Martial World has to offer. Fortunately, just as all seems lost, Yen’s daughter, Swallow, a formidable swordswoman, is freed to play a decisive role in the final confrontation.

Swallow is played by 4DK favorite Polly Shang Kwan. Kwan, still a contract player with Union Pictures, had become a literal overnight sensation with her debut in King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn just a few years earlier, and still had the star power to carry an obvious prestige production like The Ghost Hill on her diminutive, but no doubt powerful, shoulders. Mind you, in keeping with the persona she established with that earlier film, this is a much steelier version of Polly than the one we would see emerge a couple years later, clowning around in goofball oddities like Little Hero and Zodiac Fighters. As likeable as she is in those roles, there’s something to be said for seeing her in a part that relies more on her considerable skill, athleticism and grace as a fighter. In keeping with that, Polly is never pitted against just one opponent when she can instead face off against several, or even a dozen. The result is that her fight scenes here make up most of the high points in a film that in no way lacks for well-staged and breathtakingly paced brawls.

The Ghost Hill offsets its gritty physical action with a woozy dose of dreamy, haunted atmosphere. This and its employment of fog enshrouded, hyper-real sets give it a striking resemblance to the many adaptation of Ku Long’s Wuxia novels that director Chor Yuen would film for Shaw Brothers over the course of the 70s. It also shares with Chor a pronounced debt to Sergio Leone, especially in the restless, sweeping camera work of cinematographer Chiu Yao Hu. However, Chiu also marks a departure from Chor in that, where Chor would increasingly rely on indoor sets for his exterior shots, Chiu uses the widescreen frame to capture yawning natural vistas, often dwarfing the film’s protagonists as they proceed toward their destiny across the wastelands.

Complimenting this epic air are those fanciful touches and tricks of art that we’ve come to depend upon from old Taiwanese fantasy wuxia movies. The first level of King Gold’s devilish lair is a psychedelic netherworld of brightly colored giant fauna that has all the gaudy artificiality of a roadside dinosaur park, within which the King sits upon his equally verdant throne like a malevolent bloom. Beyond that, there is the Palace of Ice, with its frozen sentries and prison cells carved from snow. And then there is the spiked chamber to end all spiked chambers, in which one imagines even the men’s room offers no relief from stabby appurtenances.

I know very little about director Ting Shan-Hsi, other than that he was one of those hard working and prolific directors of popular Taiwanese movies whose filmography by necessity includes silly sounding and amusingly translated titles like The Talenty Girl. An obituary for him over at Kung Fu Cinema -- he died in 1999 at the age of 74 – states that he is best known for the patriotic war films The Everlasting Glory and The Battle for the Republic of China, and that he directed at least 69 features over the course of almost 30 years. All I know is that, with The Ghost Hill, he demonstrates how a well-made martial arts programmer can be endowed with a kind of lurid pop poetry, thrilling in both its lyricism and trashy vitality. Sometimes, sifting through the dross of Asian action cinema as I do, I lose sight of that. Needless to say, I’m always grateful for the reminder.


sunil said...

whose royal badness extends to him taking baths in boiling oil
Consider me sold! I love the fact that Kung Fu movies have ALWAYS, right from the beginning, taken it as a given that girls will kick your ass! So much so that only a girl would have the necessary grace to play the young Wong Fei-hung in the wonderful Iron Monkey. The scene where she makes a flying/crashing entrance into a fight is a thing of absolute beauty.

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