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Late in the 70's Kung Fu cycle, director King Hu shows how to direct classic Wu Xia. This swordplay film focuses mainly on action. The setup is minimal, characters are barely introduced, if at all. No story, little exposition, no romance. Just a series of scenes where the heroes, always outnumbered, cleverly draw the pirates into traps, and then fight them. Hu is mostly interested in the tactics and cunning. His direction of the action scenes is exemplary and a joy to watch: dynamic movement, jump cuts, fast camera movements, quick strokes, rhythmic dancelike movements. The fight choreography is presented more like the films of the 60's, emphasizing rhythm and movement over clarity. This is not the movie to watch if you want to study different fighting styles. The most exemplary scene is the last one, which features a duel between Ying Bai and Sammo Hung. It does not matter that Sammo is a much better martial artist, the scene is so dynamic, cut with quick strokes at the fast rhythm of clanging swords, that the viewer cannot observe for even a short moment what each fighter is doing, but gets taken instead by the sheer momentum and mayhem. Only in the 80's did Tsui Hark and Honk Kong Cinema pick up where King Hu had pioneered.
The performers are charismatic, in particular Ying Bai as the cool hero (very 60's in style), and the lovely Feng Hsu as the cool, silent but deadly wife. She is such a striking presence in this film, that it is not surprising that King Hu featured her in practically all his movies during this period. Sammo Hung is appropriately menacing as the head Japanese pirate and was responsible for the fight choreography. The landscapes (possibly Taiwan) are impressively and beautifully filmed, creating great settings for the action scenes and adding to the pure enjoyment of watching this well orchestrated and graceful film.
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