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Kristin Scott Thomas,
THE FAST SWORD Action-packed swordplay adventure from Golden Harvest
THE FAST SWORD (1971), from the then-newly created Golden Harvest Films, is a somewhat cruder, lower-budgeted version of the slicker swordplay films being done at the rival Shaw Bros. studio, but it compensates with an abundance of action and a raw, rough energy made possible by extensive location shooting in Taiwan. It's got ten major fight sequences evenly distributed among its 84 minutes of running time--eleven if you count the last one as two because of the short break in the middle of it when the heroes have to search the woods for their opponent.
The simple plot has to do with a hero, Nan Kung Cheng (Shih Jun), who confronts and kills the returning warlord who had slain his father, blinded his mother, and stole the family's manor 12 years earlier. An agent of the magistrate is sent to arrest Cheng and bring him in for trial. Since the agent, Chief Yen (Chang Yi), is a righteous man, Cheng agrees to go back with him, leaving his mother (Wang Lai) in the care of his sister, Lin Erh (Han Hsiang Chin), an aggressive fighter in her own right who wields a mean whip. The warlord's brother, Tu Lung (Miao Tien), sends a steady stream of bad guys to pursue and try to capture the two heroes. At one point a group descends on the Nan Kung family's farmhouse, capturing the mother and issuing an ultimatum to Cheng through his sister. The blind mother brandishes a heavy walking staff and has a couple of fight scenes of her own, inflicting numerous casualties. It all boils down to a big confrontation at the end between the three heroes (Cheng, Yen, and Lin) and the formidable Tu Lung.
The fight direction is credited to three names, one of whom is Han Ying Chieh, a regular at Golden Harvest in its early years, and another of whom is Sammo Hung, who went on to become a major kung fu star and film director in his own right. (Hung appeared at this year's New York Asian Film Festival on June 25, where I got to see him receive a Lifetime Achievement Award presented by surprise guest Angela Mao.) Hung also appears as one of the warlord's henchmen. The fights are pretty far-fetched, with a lot of slashing, flipping and leaping up and down impossible heights. Heroine Lin uses her whip to snatch hapless thugs and toss them around like rag dolls. But there are a lot of good sword maneuvers, as well as some hand-to-hand combat. Chief Yen has two swords in scabbards that he grips by the handles with the blades down and manages to deftly pull them out and thrust them backwards to dispatch opponents coming from behind. It's all fun to watch and the pace never flags. Most of the fights are filmed outdoors in natural settings.
Chang Yi, who plays Chief Yen, had been a leading man in Shaw Bros. films (THE SILENT SWORDSMAN) before heading over to Golden Harvest for a few years and eventually becoming one of the genre's foremost villains in the later 1970s (EAGLE'S CLAW, CHALLENGE OF DEATH). Shih Jun (Cheng) had been the star of King Hu's A TOUCH OF ZEN, as well as other Hu films, but made few other films in the genre. The female lead here, Han Hsiang Chin, is quite a vigorous action heroine and I'm surprised that I haven't discovered her before. In looking up her films on the Hong Kong Movie Database, I find that I've never seen her before, nor have I ever even heard of her other films, most of which don't sound like kung fu entries. (She resembles Chia Ling, another female star of kung fu films in the 1970s.) Veteran actress Wang Lai plays the blind, stick-fighting mother and of the many films I've seen her in, I believe this is the first in which she participates in full-fledged fight scenes. (Of course, there are dozens of films of hers I haven't yet seen.) The director, Huang Feng, was a mainstay of Golden Harvest and directed nine of Angela Mao's films in the 1970s, including WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES.
One disconcerting note, though, is the soundtrack's over-reliance on Dominic Frontiere's theme music for the Clint Eastwood western, HANG 'EM HIGH (1968). It's been ripped off by countless other kung fu films and it's played here over and over and over again.
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