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SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT - Worthy Shaw Bros. effort
SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984) was one of the last kung fu/swordplay films to be made at Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio. Set in the Ming Dynasty, it makes excellent use of the studio's vast array of sprawling sets and colorful costumes to give a real period flavor. It has a good cast, lots of large-scale fight action and an exciting storyline about a conflict between an honorable officer and a corrupt Eunuch.
Longtime kung fu stalwart Leung Kar Yan (LEGEND OF A FIGHTER) plays Zhao Bufa, a sergeant of the Imperial Guards who runs afoul of Eunuch Wang (Liu Yung) when he objects to the Eunuch's attempt to have a group of honest officers executed on false charges of treason. Eunuch Wang has become all-powerful since taking over the affairs of state by keeping the young, decadent Emperor supplied with a steady stream of nubile, eager-to-please young women (glimpsed in a rather surprising nude scene at the palace). Bufa's stance puts his father, Zhao Wuji (Ku Feng), the Captain of the Brocade Guards, in an extremely difficult position, forcing him to order his son's capture and execution, even though he knows the Eunuch is wrong, or else his entire clan will be wiped out. Zhao Bufa escapes with his wife and young son to join the rest of the Zhao Clan at their sprawling country estate. When the clan learns the full extent of the situation, Zhao Bufa must go on the run again as he is forced to fight family and foe alike.
Zhao Bufa is a bit different from most kung fu heroes in that he's quite the family man and dotes on his adorable young son, "Dingdong," and his beautiful wife (Nancy Hu Guan Zhen). Late in the film, there is even a "Lone Wolf and Cub" element (borrowing from the Japanese manga/film series of that title) to the father-son relationship. This is evidently a strategy on the part of the script to increase our sympathy for the hero after we see him, early in the film, training the guards in an extremely brutal fashion and ordering them to kill prisoners viciously and without hesitation as part of a program to make the guards utterly merciless.
Everything seems a bit more pumped up than usual for a Shaw Bros. kung fu film. The editing is tight, scenes are cut short and unnecessary action is eliminated, enabling the story to move forward at a rapid pace. The fight scenes are under-cranked a little to speed the combat up as characters plunge furiously into swordfights, slashing and banging swords ferociously. As a result, it all ends in a tidy 86 minutes and leaves us feeling just a little hungry for more, especially since the grand finale between Zhao Bufa and Eunuch Wang seems a bit rushed. There's far more wire work in this scene than in the rest of the film as Bufa and Wang fly around the set completely unrestrained. It's possible that the film's fight choreography was perhaps influenced by the nonstop, sped-up action in Tsui Hark's new wave "wire-fu" spectacle of the year before, ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN.
Overall, it's a fun movie that has good-looking production values and benefits from a fine cast including the aforementioned Leung Kar Yan and Ku Feng, as well as such kung fu greats as Lo Lieh as Zhao Bufa's uncle, Jason Pai Piao as one of the righteous officers, and Philip Ko Fei as the Eunuch's chief enforcer. In addition, two of the Shaw studio's famous Five Venoms, Lo Meng and Sun Chien, are on hand in smaller parts.
This title is among the many Shaw Bros. films newly released in 2003 on DVD by Celestial Pictures in remastered, restored, letter-boxed, subtitled editions.
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