THE ANGRY RIVER Early Angela Mao, for die-hard fans only
THE ANGRY RIVER (1970) is Angela Mao's first film and also the very first production from Hong Kong's Golden Harvest Films, a studio set up by Raymond Chow, former aide to Run Run Shaw, to compete with the Shaw Bros. studio, especially in the production of martial arts films. It comes off as a blatant imitation of the female swordplay adventures starring Cheng Pei Pei then being produced by Shaw. It's a lot cruder-looking than a Shaw production, although Golden Harvest would rapidly improve its production values in subsequent films. Young Angela isn't quite yet the kick-ass kung fu diva she'd be in two short years in such films as LADY WHIRLWIND and HAPKIDO, among others, but she does have two major fight scenes early on, mostly involving sword-fighting, and one big finale at the very end.
The plot has to do with a reign of terror conducted by a mysterious killer dubbed "Poison Dart," who is hitting all kinds of prominent people with poison darts. (A character will rise up and declare his intention to track down this Poison Dart guy and then get immediately hit and disabled by a poison dart.) When Angela's father is hit, she is told that he can be cured of the poison only with "black herb" retrieved from Soul Valley on the other side of the Angry River (which plays such little role in the action that its use as the film's title is puzzling). Angela sets out on a mission to get the herb, overcoming many obstacles on the way there and confronted by various attempts to steal the herb from her before she can get back home. (She fights a man-sized lizard monster in a cave at one point and it looks as silly as it sounds.)
The price she has to pay for getting the herb is the loss of her "powers," taken from her by the mysterious white-haired guy who supplies the herb. She is given a way to restore her powers and double her strength any time she chooses but she inexplicably fails to make use of it until the very end. So, for nearly an hour of running time, we get a seriously weakened and vulnerable Angela and not one who can defend herself as all kinds of scurrilous characters jockey with her and with each other to try and get the herb. She has one defender, a benevolent swordsman named Master Leng (Kao Yuen). It's quite a frustrating experience to watch an Angela Mao film and have to wait so long to see her get back into action.
The film was shot in Taiwan against some dramatic and picturesque backdrops. The music cues are mostly ripped off from John Barry's score for the sixth James Bond film, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969). There are several familiar faces in the cast, most notably Sammo Hung, future Jackie Chan co-star and a kung fu director in his own right, who was in many an Angela movie. He teams up with Han Ying Chieh to play Black Demon and White Demon, a pair of killers similar to the pair they'd play in Angela's masterpiece, BROKEN OATH (1977). Also on hand is Pai Ying, a frequent co-star/villain in non-Shaw kung fu movies. Feng Yi, who normally played corrupt officials or evil monks in Shaw Bros. films, plays a sympathetic fighting monk who helps Angela at one point.
I suppose, under the circumstances, given that it was the first production of a fledgling studio and the first film for its budding 19-year-old star, that I should really be more lenient with it, but, overall, I'd have to recommend ANGRY RIVER only to Angela Mao completists and those interested in the early history of Golden Harvest. It's now out on VCD, with English subtitles, as part of the Fortune Star/Legendary Collection line.
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