The Valiant Ones
Most Chinese film scholars generally consider
this 1975 production to be King Hu’s last masterpiece. It was made as part
of a two-film deal for Golden Harvest – the other one being The Fate of
Lee Khan – and though both films share much of the same cast and ideals
they are very different films. Lee Khan is on a much smaller and more intimate
scale – deftly dealing with intrigues and conspiracies within the confines
of an inn for nearly the entire picture, while The Valiant Ones is more
epic in nature, full of action and most of the film takes place in the
open spaces of the Chinese countryside. In both films though, Hu focuses
on the themes of individual heroism and their sacrifice for a greater cause.
As in all of Hu’s films, the composition and
cinematography is stunning – close to picture perfect at times. His wonderful
use of close ups, wide angle view and tracking shots always allows the
viewer to get a total sense of what is happening. His editing during the
action scenes is fast, innovative (for the time) and exciting and it pulls
you right into the vortex of the action. He has a great eye for detail
and authenticity and the sets and costumes look terrific.
Once the background story is initially set up,
The Valiant Ones becomes nearly a non-stop series of action set pieces
that Hu uses to explore his fascination for military strategy and tactics
and how by using them correctly a small force can overcome a much larger
one (something that holds great interest for him in A Touch of Zen as well).
Hu utilizes many different variations and scenarios within this action
feast that keeps the film from becoming monotonous. The first action set
piece is within the closed in space of an inn – but afterwards Hu moves
the camera outside and gives us everything from one on one fights to two
against many to a small group utilizing tactics and the landscape brilliantly
to defeat a large group of the enemy.
Initially Hu seems to be less than interested
in developing the characters and he spends next to no time giving any information
on any of them and has very little interaction between them except during
the action scenes. But during the course of the film, the action itself
and the manner in which they comport themselves in action begins to give
hints as to their personalities and by the end they are – if far from fully
realized individuals – characters that you care about.
The film takes place in the 16th century during
the Ming Dynasty and the Imperial Court is unable to defeat the many Japanese
and Chinese pirates that are plaguing the coastline. There is much evidence
that men of influence are assisting the pirates and so the court finally
turns to the one man whose integrity is irreproachable. This is Yu Dayou
(a real life character played by Roy Chiao) and he assembles around him
a small group of fighters that he trusts. Lau Kong and Lee Man-tai play
his two main subordinates – but he also has the services of a legendary
swordsman called The Whirlwind (Pai Ying) and his silent but extremely
deadly wife (Hsu Feng).
They are an awesome group of fighters and they
slowly whittle away at the much larger pirate force by setting ambushes,
drawing them out bit by bit and cutting them to pieces. These action pieces
play out very well – lots of sword fighting and kung fu – but it is the
intelligence that Hu brings to them that makes them particularly enjoyable.
In one of the earlier fights – Chiao literally uses a Go board to track
the enemy movements and uses it to configure a response to outmaneuver
In one of the most enjoyable segments of the
film, Pai Ying and Hsu Feng pretend to desert to the enemy and are taken
to their hideaway. Before the pirates accept them, Han Ying Chieh – one
of the head pirates - has them tested for their fighting abilities. First
up is a very young Yuen Biao, then Yuen Wah and three others, then Simon
Yuen in an archery contest and it ends with a challenge from Mars. It is
a nice showcase for the skills of all the actors involved – and acts almost
as a quiet respite before the final battle.
The final clash between all the remaining pirates
and Chiao’s men (and some well-placed dynamite) is bloody and ferocious
– and a number of the good guys are killed off. Hu saves the best for last
though – as Pai Ying and the head pirate Hakatatsu (Sammo Hung in fearsome
white face paint) go one on one in an incredibly tense duel of thrusting
swords, spinning somersaults and deadly Ninja stars. Hu ends the film in
a classical and powerful freeze frame as the camera slowly pulls back to
show what has been wrought.
This film doesn’t have the powerful and charismatic
central character of many of Hu’s earlier films – Golden Swallow in Come
Drink with Me or Miss Yang in A Touch of Zen - it is more of an ensemble
piece - and this lack of a main hero hurts the film to some degree. Still,
I found this to be highly engrossing – filmmaking at it’s finest in many
ways - and that it has a cumulative effect on you. The action, which is
choreographed by Sammo, shows a marked improvement over that in The Fate
of Lee Khan, which he did as well. As the film works its way through all
the different action pieces, I became much more involved with the story
and the characters. This clearly wasn’t the effect it had on all my companions
though! One had fallen asleep, another complained that it was not very
involving and a third thought it was beautifully filmed but not very good.
Thankfully, another fellow has been wise enough to call it "glorious" on
the Mobius Board so at least I know I wasn't watching a mirage of my own
making. So there you have it – five opinions for the price of one!
I was fortunate enough to see this in a theater
– but it is out on tape from Tai Seng. Regrettably, the tape is not letterboxed
and the subtitles are often cut off on both sides making it difficult to
follow. This is a film that truly needs to be seen in letterbox format
because Hu uses the entirety of the screen and so much detail and movement
is lost in the video format.
My rating for this film: 8.0