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.
Pai Ying, Hsu Feng, Lee Man-tai
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).

Roy Chiao and his men, the pirates - Han Ying Chieh, Simon Yuen, Sammo
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 them.

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