Mad, Mad, Mad Sword

By the time of this film in 1969 Cathay was in a precarious financial situation. Since their founder and visionary, Loke Wan Tho, had died in an airplane crash in 1964 the film company had slowly lost its moorings and its position as the most prominent filmmaker in Hong Kong to the Shaw Brothers. They had built their reputation on their legendary female stars, but by the end of the decade these actresses had all either retired or moved elsewhere and they had been unable to replace them. The new wave of top actresses were now working at Shaw’s who had created a far reaching recruiting and training division. Another problem facing them was that female driven films were no longer in vogue – the tremendous popularity of martial arts films had finished that and a new type of male actor was on the rise – no longer effete and polished but instead audiences wanted them rough and masculine like Jimmy Wang Yu and soon Ti Lung.
Cathay had actually approached the Shaws with an offer to merge the two companies, but felt that the Shaws wanted too much control and so distanced themselves from this offer eventually. The company had no choice therefore but to enter the martial arts derby themselves but they had no ingrown talent to do so – no experienced directors of this genre, no action choreographers and perhaps most importantly no stars who had been trained in the art of movie fighting. Some of them went on a very fast crash course! Their first attempt was the 1967 film “The First Sword” which starred Zhao Lei and Melinda Chen Manling. They followed this with a few other titles usually starring one or both of these two actors – “Travel with a Sword”, “The Desperate Seven (co-starring Betty Loh Ti) and “The Smiling Swordsman” (choreographed by Han Yingjie of “Dragon Inn” fame). After “Mad, Mad, Mad Sword” Cathay was to make two other wuxia films – both large budgeted ones in which they pretty much bet their future on – “Escort Over Tiger Hills” (1969) with their old star Roy Chiao and “From the Highway” (1970). “From the Highway” is credited as being the first film to introduce kung fu as opposed to wuxia – with Shaw soon following in their footsteps. These weren’t enough though to keep the company running and in 1971 they closed down.
Unfortunately, at the time of this writing the only one of these films available on video is this one – though “Escort over Tiger Hills” has been shown in a few festivals – and it doesn’t really get your hopes up about the others. Directed by Wang Tianlin who had done every possible genre over his long career, this is sadly a tepid comedy about martial arts that never thrills and only rarely hits a comic nerve. With its series of parodies of Zatoichi, the One-Armed Swordsman and a cute one of “Dragon Inn” (rapidly circling the Eunuch), this may have seemed clever and fresh at the time – I can’t think of any other martial arts comedy around this period – but it hasn’t aged well and simply drags interminably. The fact that the film was shot in “Cathay Scope” but presented in full-screen mode probably doesn’t help the viewing experience, as it looks quite shoddy.
One issue is the leading man – Tien Ching had been a stable part of their line-up since the late 1950’s and had shown up in a multitude of light contemporary comedies and romances – to name just a few – “Our Sister Hedy”, “Cinderella and her Little Angels”, “Spring Song”, “It’s Always Spring” and “Ladies First”. Martial arts was a stretch – even a comedic one though he no doubt gave it his best. He also wasn’t a leading man – almost always playing second fiddle to another male character and always in the shadow of the female stars. Born in 1935 in Shanghai, he moved to Hong Kong in 1949 and was in the film business by 1956. After Cathay he was to become one of the more ubiquitous character actors in Hong Kong – in numerous Shaw films and then later into the 1980’s (“Peking Opera Blues”) and onto his early death at 58 in 1993.
Chen (Tien Ching) is a bit of a coward and when three masters challenge his martial arts school, he manages to avoid fighting and dying like most of the other master’s pupil’s. On his deathbed, the sifu names Chen as his successor and also to marry his daughter. She refuses to do so though until he reestablishes the honor of the school by performing some heroic actions – so out on the road he goes with his servant to become a hero. And he manages to do so – though not through his martial arts skills but mainly through luck, cunning and when necessary cheating. He defeats the One-Armed Swordsman by pretending also to have lost an arm, the White Crane by delaying the match until his opponent is in agonizing pain for not having gone the bathroom, the powerful leg kicker by plying the ground with a slick oil and the one who practices Virgin Kung Fu by getting his friendly neighborhood prostitute to wear him out sexually the night before. It is not as much fun as it may sound. One of the few highlights is spotting Sammo  - he plays one of the major minions of the town bully and gets a fare amount of background time.

My rating for this film: 5.0

Note – the historical information comes from the book – The Cathay Story and in particular from an article by Stephen Teo.