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BRAVE ARCHER – Shaw Bros. adaptation of "Condor Heroes"
BRAVE ARCHER (1977, aka KUNG FU WARLORDS) is a sprawling two-hour costume drama with a sprinkling of kung fu action staged on lavish sets at the Shaw Bros. studio, directed by Chang Cheh, and boasting an all-star cast. Adapted from celebrated novelist Louis Cha's "Legend of the Condor Heroes," it's packed with characters and incidents, many zipping across the screen with barely enough time to register before the next wave comes in.
The central plot is hard to summarize, but has to do, initially, with two 18-year-old kung fu trainees, each of whom was raised apart from the other by different teachers, whose intent is to have the boys fight to determine which teachers were better. (The boys' fathers had been sworn brothers, but an attack by Chin troops, when the boys were infants, had left one father dead and the other in hiding.) This plot thread is dropped when one of the boys, Kuo Ching (Fu Sheng) meets a young girl, Yong (Tien Niu), whose father is a celebrated teacher whose disciple had been killed earlier in the film by Kuo in defense of his own teacher. Things get really complicated and involve families reuniting, priests, rival teachers, a two-part kung fu manual and a madman who knows the manual. It all comes down to a contest for the hand of Yong between Kuo and a rival suitor.
Fu Sheng is cast in an appealing role and his romance with Yong (Tien Niu) is cute and endearing. That it lasts through the whole film, with a happy ending in store, is unusual for a kung fu film, most of which avoid romance entirely. There are lots of other interesting women characters, including one of Fu Sheng's teachers and a blind woman in a cave who teaches the other boy 'evil kung fu,' foreshadowing the character of Jade Fox in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000).
The real joy for fans of these films is the star-spotting. In addition to Fu Sheng, there's Wang Lung Wei, who fights Fu on a tree limb near the end; Kuo Chui (one of the Five Venoms) as the madman in a gray fright wig who controls the key manuals and teaches what he knows to Fu Sheng; Ku Feng as Beggar Hong, another teacher; Lee Yi Min (THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING) as Fu Sheng's counterpart (who leaves the film too soon); Kara Hui Ying Hung as the kung fu-fighting adopted daughter of the surviving sworn brother; Tsai Hung as a blind teacher; and Danny Lee (THE KILLER) as Fu Sheng's rival for the girl. Also on hand are three of the other Venoms (Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, Lo Meng). Tien Niu, as Yong, is quite a remarkable young actress and a worthy match for the great Fu Sheng.
It's all shot on magnificent studio sets and moves at a breathless pace. There are so many plot threads and so many characters that there's little time for any extended fights. Die-hard kung fu fans, for whom the film may be too plot- and character-driven, are better off with other films directed by Chang Cheh at the time, including THE CHINATOWN KID, made the same year and with many of the same stars, and the subsequent group of films starring the Five Venoms. For those who appreciate Shaw Bros. costume epics, however, this is a must-see, although good-quality copies are extremely rare at this time in the U.S.
ADDENDUM (1/25/08): Since I first did this review back in 2001, BRAVE ARCHER has come out in a beautifully restored, remastered R3 DVD edition from Celestial Pictures/IVL, Hong Kong, as have all three of the BRAVE ARCHER sequels, all of which I've reviewed on this site as well. The length of the film on the DVD is 117 min., virtually identical to the running time of the taped-off TV broadcast version I watched for the initial review. The IMDb lists 127 min. as the running time, so I don't know if there's some elusive longer version out there somewhere or not, or if the 117-minute cut is the definitive one. It should be noted that not all of the Celestial DVD releases of Shaw Bros. titles are complete prints. ADDITIONAL ADDENDUM (11/3/10): Since the last addendum, Media Blasters released an R1 DVD edition of THE BRAVE ARCHER, with audio commentary by...yours truly.
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