VILLAGE OF TIGERS: Above-average Shaw Bros. costume tale
VILLAGE OF TIGERS (1974) is another swordplay adventure from Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio with great fight scenes and a formidable heroine. The lead actress is Shu Pei Pei, who is quite forceful as a no-nonsense fighter decked out in an array of colorful swordswoman fashions. I've seen her in nine other films, although I don't recall any which featured her in an action role before. This one is the very last film she did, according to her IMDb filmography. It came at the very end of the Shaw Bros. swordswoman cycle, which had been dominated by Cheng Pei Pei (THE SHADOW WHIP) and Shih Szu (THE YOUNG AVENGER) up to this time. Miss Shu is very good and I wish she'd played more roles like this. Her character is Miss Ba, whose brother is involved in some shady deals with the "rascals" from the title village. When he turns up dead, with a note implicating the film's hero, Luo Hong Xun (Yueh Hua), Ms Ba vows revenge and goes after Mr. Luo, even though she knew her brother was being used by the bad guys. Eventually, Miss Ba and Mr. Luo team up to seek out the real culprits, culminating in a stunning series of fight sequences in the "village of tigers."
The plot gets a little convoluted at times, with multiple factions involved in the action. There's a mysterious woman who lures Miss Ba's brother into a trap and we never quite learn much about her. There's a cousin of Miss Ba, Ying Hua (Karen Yeh), who's quite gorgeous also and is betrothed to Mr. Luo. She squares off against Miss Ba in one outdoor scene. One subplot involves a birthday for the aging "Granny Ba," the family matriarch, who has a very pleasant scene with all the women in the family and none of the men, where they just hang out and gossip. I like it when movies like this take time out for such moments. Granny later musters the family to go to Miss Ba's rescue at a key point. It all moves quickly with very little time to ponder any plot holes. The film is beautifully shot, mostly on outdoor sets and against picturesque landscapes (presumably in Taiwan). The costumes are nice to look at, especially those worn by the women characters.
The key draw of this film is a series of imaginative fight sequences, all choreographed by Simon Hsu (aka Hsu Erh Niu, aka Simon Chui), one of the Shaw studio's most important unsung talents. If you liked the fight scenes Mr. Hsu staged for HEADS FOR SALE, BROTHERS FIVE, VENGEANCE OF A SNOWGIRL, DUEL FOR GOLD, THE SHADOW WHIP, BLACK TAVERN, and THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, to name a few, then you're in for a treat here. Hsu likes to put multiple combatants in a large setting, set the camera up at a safe distance and let them slash away at each other in long takes designed to keep the action in the frame so that viewers can see it unfold in real time, which means the actors have to have some degree of skill to pull this off, especially when intricate moves involving leaps, kicks and tumbles are involved. The camera often moves to keep up with the actors. There is creative use of props and furniture, especially tables, which usually wind up smashed or turned over in the course of the action. There are always interesting and exotic weapons employed and clever use of whips and ropes. In the finale here, the bad guys come up with an elaborate rope maneuver that snares their opponents. We fear the fate of the hero and heroine but have to admire the precise coordination it takes to trap them like this. Actual hand-to-hand kung fu combat is part of the action as well. Mr. Hsu is more interested in achieving exciting effects in front of the camera than in teaching us about specific techniques or schools of martial arts. He simply wants to entertain us and he never fails at it. There are major action setpieces throughout the film, including three in the first 20 minutes, several in the middle, and a final section, lasting 15 minutes, that's just nonstop action.
Shu Pei Pei is also in such films as THE THUNDERING SWORD (with Cheng Pei Pei), THE SILENT SWORDSMAN, THE SECRET DIRK, A TASTE OF COLD STEEL, and THE 14 AMAZONS. She's quite memorable in a powerful dramatic role in THE MAGNIFICENT SWORDSMAN. Yueh Hua, who plays the hero here, is front and center in many of the fights and shows what a great star he was in these films (which include COME DRINK WITH ME, BROTHERS FIVE, THE LONG CHASE, and many others). Other stars at the time may have had greater kung fu skills, but Yueh Hua was a superb actor and romantic lead and he handles the swordfighting action with athletic flair and great aplomb. He and Shu Pei Pei make a great team.
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