The Thundering Sword

If Douglas Sirk had directed a Hong Kong sword fighting film in the mid-60’s it may have been a lot like this one. Surrounding the intermittent action sequences are large dollops of fatalistic melodrama and cascading orchestral arrangements that practically turn this into a new sub-genre – the weepy swordplay. Made in 1967 at a time in which the days of melodrama and movie queens ruling the screen with such fare as “The Blue and Black” and “Till the End of Time” were coming to an end and martial arts films were on the ascendancy for the next decade, this film straddles both worlds very effectively with an oft told tale of star crossed lovers.
After coming out of a three-month meditation in a cabinet, the Master of Baiyon Temple (Tien Feng) declares to his three main disciples (Lo Lieh, Ching Yi and Shu Pei Pei) that the Thundering Sword must be found and destroyed because if its powers fell into the wrong hands it could destroy the world. He sends out the two good friends Chiang (Lo Lieh) and Yu (Ching Yi) on a mission to find the sword while Chiang’s sister Gia Hsia (Shu Pei Pei) remains behind to look after things and to pine for Yu. It soon turns out that a rival clan – The Centipede Clan (though translated into Caterpillar in the subs!) are also searching for the sword – but not for the altruistic reasons that Baiyon Temple has – but instead so that they can dominate the martial arts world.
Yu soon comes upon So Jiao Jiao (Cheng Pei Pei) astride a horse and being attacked by a group of robbers looking for the Thundering Sword, but with whip in hand she quickly makes mincemeat of them and looks quite pleased with herself for having done so. Seeing Yu on foot she assumes he is also one of the gang and attacks him as well but he easily fends it off with a few words of non-violence – “Don’t kill people so easily” to which she replies, “If I kill people, it’s not your concern”. Tough words but in fact Jiao is immediately love struck at finding a man of her physical equal and as she rides away smiling she breaks into song that displays her coy feminine side! It turns out that she is the daughter of the head of the Centipede Clan and has many of that clan’s personality quirks – arrogance, prone to needless violence and a tendency to slap around the help when the mood strikes. Not necessarily the kind of girl, Yu would want to bring back for his Master’s consent, but he finds himself falling in love with her nonetheless. That Pei Pei is stunning in this film goes a long ways towards explaining this.
A series of tragic errors by the hotheaded lass creates a tangled web of complications that clouds this romance almost immediately.  She comes across Chiang who has found the Thundering Sword and not knowing who he is she poisons him with three darts to the chest and then realizes she doesn’t have the antidote. Later disguised as Yu (the standard female dressed as a male ploy that no one ever sees through), she decides that thirty-two men badly need a killing and proceeds to do so – but this leads to Yu being charged with the crime and finally she betrays her own clan with her love for Yu. She has a lot of explaining to do!
Director Hsu Cheng-hung (Temple of the Red Lotus) heats up this plot into a boiling emotional overflow that suddenly scalds you with its force and intensity. Cheng Pei Pei who spent nearly her entire career in martial arts films shows a true flair for the dramatic here and one can only have wished that her acting career had been a little more varied and given her more opportunities such as this to show her acting range. By the end of this you feel run over by her sadness. This film may not have the requisite amount of action for many martial arts fans (though the trailer would make you think otherwise), but it’s a terrifically involving story with excellent production values, solid acting and characters with a modicum of depth. Another intriguing aspect of the film is that it doesn’t paint the villains entirely in black, but gives them an aspect of redemption as this theme along with that of forgiveness run through the film. Along for the ride are also Wu Ma as the chief of security for the Centipede Clan, Ku Feng as the man looking for justice for the thirty two dead men and Chen Hung-lieh (The Jade Faced Tiger in Come Drink with Me) as Jiao’s brother.

My rating for this film: 7.5