The First Sword

Director: Tu Kuang-Chi
Year:  1967
Rating: 4.5

By the mid 1960's Cathay Studio was beginning to fall behind its main Mandarin competitor, the Shaw Bothers. This was for a number of reasons - the death of its founder in an airplane crash in 1964, a number of its actresses getting married and retiring and not keeping up with changing public taste. The mainstay of Cathay for a decade had been a group of very popular actresses that appeared in comedies, musicals and dramas that appealed to a growing middle class. Grace Chang, Betty Loh Ti, Jeanette Lin, Linda Lin Dai, Lucilla You Min and Julie Yeh were enormous stars and are still remembered today with great affection. On the male side of the ledger though, they never quite acquired the same level of talent - generally likable, genial polite actors who were fine in the sort of films that Cathay were making but never overshadowing the female stars.

Suddenly though a newly reinvigorated genre pushed the Shaw Brothers far ahead - martial arts films - and Cathay didn't enter that market until 1967 with this film. But Cathay simply didn't have the talent on hand either on the screen or behind it - in particular having a male masculine hero - to compete with Shaw. In this one they use Chao Lei who had been around for years and had jumped over from the Shaw Brothers where he had starred in a number of films (The Enchanting Shadows, Beyond the Great Wall) usually as a scholar or effete gentleman in period films. But Cathay needed someone and they tried to train Chao up as quickly as possible - but he is sort of middle aged by now, getting a bit heavy and he is terrible in this. He is everything that Chang Cheh revolted against when he began his "masculine" martial arts films. And it is not so much his lack of physical skills that is the issue - that is hardly his fault - but just the way he plays his character with such lackluster energy, constantly sighing and moping. That might have worked in his roles as a tender scholar but as head of a Martial Arts school, it is dispiriting.

That isn't the only problem though - it is perplexingly confusing - not in the way many of these films are with multiple plot threads, a myriad of characters all belonging to various martial arts schools where you feel you need a scorecard - this is just confusing because of incompetent storytelling. It begins with a duel between Xie Wuyang (Chao) and some fellow who we later find out is the King of Poison. Why are they fighting? Who knows. But it appears as the film drags on that the Poison King has it in for the Golden Dragon School and wants their martial arts playbook. He has a traitor inside - Yan Zongqi played by a stalwart of Cathay films in character roles - Tin Ching - who wears this dark make-up under his eyes that make him look like he hasn't slept in a year - or is the villain - or the traitor - but no one figures that out though he leaves a million clues behind. It is a mess generally with bad editing, poor action choreography and a leading man so passive that you want to just smack him in the head.
On the positive side is that the technical aspects are fine - it looks as good as any Shaw film at the time and has a fine soundtrack - it also has Melinda Chen who had recently signed up with Cathay and became fairly popular over the next few years. She became their go to girl in the martial art films that followed. Because Cathay stuck with it and produced a bunch of these films - two even directed by Chor Yuen before he moved on to Shaw and became famous for his wuxia films. Unfortunately, very few of these Cathay martial arts films made it on to digital when Cathay began that process some 15 years ago - and then stopped because they were not selling. Over their lifetime - they went out of business in the early 1970's - Cathay produced about 250 films of which I would guess perhaps 45 were transferred. A true shame because they made some wonderful films.