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Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok,
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Director Chang Cheh reunites the Five Venoms in his second biggest cult hit in the West. It's Lo Meng's most memorable performances whose showdown with fellow Venom Kuo Chue is artistically violent while being graphically artsy.
LEGEND OF THE FOX Plot-heavy adaptation of Louis Cha swordplay saga
LEGEND OF THE FOX (1980) is one of seven films director Chang Cheh made in collaboration with screenwriter Ni Kuang that were based on novels by Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha). The two men displayed quite a knack for condensing Jin Yong's sprawling epic stories of the martial world of Ancient China into exciting, emotionally engaging two-hour movies, as evidenced, in particular, by the Brave Archer series, four films (all reviewed on this site) based on "Legend of the Condor Heroes" and "Return of the Condor Heroes." Others in this group were THE SWORD STAINED WITH ROYAL BLOOD (1981) and ODE TO GALLANTRY (1982). LEGEND OF THE FOX is not quite as successful an adaptation as those films. It's got a highly convoluted plot with an abundance of characters and a partial flashback structure that takes a long time to indicate where the narrative is going. It all comes together at the end, in a deeply satisfying way, but one has to stick with it through some sequences that seem, initially, to be going off on distracting plot tangents.
Without attempting a wordy synopsis, suffice it to say that the film is about Hu Fei, the son of a swordsman hero and his wife, both of whom died right after his birth, and his quest to learn who caused his parents' deaths and avenge them properly. There are two renowned swordsmen around who had something to do with it and the young man has to confront both of them. The journey takes Hu to the domain of a poison clan and involves him with a beautiful young woman who has mastered various poisons and antidotes while coping with a treacherous uncle in the clan and his disciples.
The chief problem for me was the lack of a central character who could truly engage the audience emotionally. Young Chin Siu-ho, who was all of 17 when he made this film, has a good physical presence and handles the fight scenes superbly, but he's not able to invest his character, Hu Fei, with the necessary layering to anchor the character in some kind of emotional reality. The more experienced Fu Sheng was able to do this expertly with a similar character in the Brave Archer films and he had great chemistry with the actresses he was cast with in those films. Here, the plot tends to get in the way of developing character, since the screenplay seems to have placed a greater priority on cramming a constant stream of incidents into the two-hour running time. Chin Siu-ho would go on to become quite a renowned martial arts actor, acclaimed for his portrayals in such films as MR. VAMPIRE, TAI CHI MASTER and FIST OF LEGEND.
Three of Chang Cheh's famed "Five Venoms" actors co-star in the film--Kuo Chui, Chiang Sheng, and Lu Feng. These three also staged the swordfighting scenes and there are quite a few of them (although not really enough for a 122-minute film) and they're all very exciting to watch. Several of them involve the Hu family sword techniques and the Miao family techniques and the mastery of one or both. Lu Feng, who plays Hu Fei's father, Hu Yidao, in a lengthy flashback, has the smallest role, although it's quite an important one. He has an extended duel (which takes place over the course of several days) with Miao Renfeng (Kuo Chui), hence the Hu vs. Miao swordplay contests. The two men take great pains to compliment each other's skills and character during the course of the duel, which ends badly after treachery by a third party. Chiang Sheng plays Tian Guinong, Miao's sometime ally and sometime rival. Aside from these three, there were few familiar actors on hand.
Wong Man-Yee plays Cheng Lingsu, the young woman disciple of the King of Poison who becomes an ally of Hu Fei during the resolution of the various conflicts set in play. There's a remarkable scene in the final stretch where she immobilizes Hu Fei in order to share key information with him all while curing him of a poison attack by her uncle, a cure that comes with a very high price. It's the one scene in the film that offers a touch of pure emotion. I'm not familiar with this wonderful actress; she apparently made only a handful of films. Other interesting actresses in the film include Pan Ping-Chang as Hu Fei's mother, seen only in the lengthy flashback, and Linda Chu as a woman of dubious loyalty who leaves Miao for Tian, abandoning their small daughter to Miao to care for alone.
The film was beautifully produced on Shaw Bros.' massive soundstages with ornate sets and décor and expert studio photography. Because of its complicated plot and intertwining backstories, it's a trickier film to recommend than so many other Shaw Bros. martial arts adventures, but it has its rewards and certainly should be seen by fans of Chang Cheh's work and those interested in the cinematic adaptations of Louis Cha's novels.
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