Monday, 30 January 2012
Massacre Survivor (1979)
Chung Wai Motion Picture Co. Ltd
Background: In early 2010, a consortium on a well-known genre forum contributed a considerable sum to acquire copies of this rare film from a private collector.
Briefly, the story: A rebel General (Wong Ching) tries to enlist the support of a local master, to participate in an uprising against the Emperor. He is refused, so he returns later to remove this security risk. His military forces kill everybody except the daughter Kao (Shih Szu), who flees as, quite literally, the massacre survivor. She pleads with a temple of monks to teach her the skills vital to gaining her revenge. She is taught crane-style by one monk (Shih Ting-Ken) and a specialised variety of weapons training by another (Yuen Cheung-Yan) Meanwhile, the Prince (Chung Wa) and his aide (Wong Chung) encounter assassination attempts on the road. They cross paths a few times with Kao until they release they have something in common.
The only other films I've seen that compare to the tone of Massacre Survivor are Rebellious Reign and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. Both of those films are relentlessly serious, and punch a heavy dramatic weight. The pain, frustration and anger that the lead actress displays here is clear and affecting. The scene where she howls on the steps of the temple, with the rain hammering her and the surroundings, is superb. It is very atmospheric and drags the audience into her plight. The pacing of the film is spot on - there was a solid focus on every part of the story. The fights are a good length, the conversations concise and interesting, the emotional sequences are well handled, and the training bits are exciting.
The sets and locales are also splendid. The opening march through the rain is particularly impressive. I noticed the sets are used to good effect to juxtapose the characters and their situation: The evil rebels sit in luxurious surroundings, surrounded by blossom trees, compared to the stripped-down pain and fury Shih Szu forces herself to go through in the temple training sequences.
The shapes work is good, with plenty of flourishes and stylish movements. Similarly, the weapons work is super - I loved the half-moon blade things. And the spiky hoops - wow! Standout fights include the scene featuring the Bamboo Mountain Four, and rumble in the restaurant. Both are highly kinetic and mix styles nicely. There doesn't seem to be too much wire-work in this film, and some effects seem to have been accomplished by reversing the footage. Director Dung Gam-Woo, and choreographers Corey Yuen Kwai and Yuen Cheung-Yan have done a terrific job keeping the action fast and fresh.
After all the hype I was preparing myself to feel let down by Massacre Survivor. But that didn't happen. It met my expectations in some respects, and surprised me in others. I never expected such a serious tone, but I'm so pleased it's turned out that way, because the other two films I mentioned before are among my favourites. The acting and casting are uniformly good, the pace of the story is superb, the choreography very good (from the perspective of my limited understanding, anyway) and the production values quality.
The technical quality of the print is passable. There's moments where it's very reasonable, with fuller colours; but at other times it's pinky/brown-er than normal. There's also a lot of wear on the film, but that just adds to the charm for me. It really does feel like what it is - a lost classic! The subtitles are fine - most are written in reasonable English and are usually readable. The only issue is when the text is positioned in front of a white background.
Adapted from an old review posted on kung fu cinema forums.