Saturday, 4 February 2012
Story of the Thirty-Six Killers (1971)
Background: This is an extremely rare film sourced from a German collector. I acquired it as part of a consortium. It has been cited on the 'wanted' lists of many collectors for years. All images are snapped through vlc.
Story: I'm not going to go into too much detail here as it's a reasonably good story with a few twists and turns. A full synopsis would spoil it. The film starts with two brothers pelting through the countryside on horseback. One, Meng Liang (Pai Ying), returns back home to Ma as the other, Hsiao Shun, takes off into town. It's a typically ramshackle rural setting. As Hsiao arrives he finds bodies everywhere, with a group of bandits forcing themselves on the womenfolk. He intervenes, killing all but one bandit and saving a young woman.
Unfortunately, he has killed one of the sons of Lord Lo, a local shitbag. Hsiao is recognised as the brother of Meng Liang. A surviving bad guy returns the son's body to Lord Lo. When the Lord asks who has killed his son, the scumbag says that "It was .... Meng" before dying (presumably before he could finish the sentence). Naturally, this means that Lord Lo now thinks that Meng Liang is the culprit, rather than his brother. Coincidentally, back at home Ma is furious with the boys. Meng decides to protect his brother and take responsibility for the event, compounding his guilt in the eyes of friend and foe.
After fleeing, Meng splits up from the group and encounters a mysterious assassin in a wooded swamp, named Li Hao (Fatal Hand). Li recognises Meng as the son of renowned swordsman Meng Tung San (the Soul Sword). He explains that Lord Lo will pay 100 taels of gold for Meng's head. After a brief stalemate, Meng asks Li for three days to sort out his affairs, promising to return to face him. Li takes Meng's word of honour, and leaves.
In town, the group hide away at their uncle Lin's house, but their cousin, Erh Niu, informs them that he's been captured and imprisoned on money-related charges. The two brothers and cousin decide to try to rescue him, and overhear Lord Lo and his entourage of henchman planning to overthrow the ruler and claim power for themselves. This positions Lo's vendetta against Meng in the wider context of a rebellion plot.
That's about the first 25 to 30 minutes, and I'll go no further. There's some extraordinary behaviour from Li Hao throughout the rest of the film, and the tone of the story is unrelenting. It's dark and serious, and pulls few punches with characters. I don't know enough about early 70s films to know how common this angle, pace and tone was, but it certainly held my attention throughout. The ending was pretty damn fine, I thought, and one character seemed to demonstrate some real growth.
Fights: I've heard it said by a few people that rumour suggested that the action in 36 Killers is quite high level for the time. I have no idea about that. However, I can say that I found the swordplay to be a lot faster than late 60s indie efforts I've seen. There's a great scene where the two brothers are trapped on a closed walkway, and henchmen throw dozens of darts at them, which are fended off expertly by Meng wielding some kind of handle-based spinning deflector. The picture was so unclear (I'll come onto that in a minute) that I can't be sure what it was, but as a spectacle it was highly effective. The other battles are busy (without being too stylish or gruesome) and match the pace of the film well - reasonably intense but not edge-of-your-seat. The end engagements are rather good - including some inventive choreography involving a large wooden trunk with swords embedded in it.
Production/ Print Quality: The settings are typically indie - run down villages, a well-guarded stronghold, dusty countryside - but two design choices stand out. The first one seems to be in a near-desert-like locale, and adds to the drama of the scene. The other is a personal favourite. Meng meets Lo in the pouring rain. He stands motionless, looking bad-ass, before turning to face his nemesis. As rain scenes go, it's not up with Sword of Justice or What Price Honesty, but it's genuinely atmospheric and well-filmed.
One major problem with this film isn't a problem with the film - it's a problem with the copy. As noted, this movie is rarer than hen's teeth, so beggars can't be choosers. I'll confirm that it's totally watchable - I understood most of the subtitles easily enough and could work out what was going on 99.9% of the time. However, there are problems. For starters, the colouration of the print is often poor - whole scenes are in blossoming greens, pinks and oranges:
Through part of one reel, the subtitles are cut in half horizontally, though thankfully this only happens for a short time, and they're still readable. Another problem that only occurs on a solitary occasion (that I can recall) is a break-up of the image into an odd blue patchwork of distortion:
Above is Pai Ying preparing for a fight. Trust me. Finally, we have common shifts in focus throughout the film. In one scene, the image can blur and re-focus dozens of times. It's not as off-putting as it sounds, but it can lead to some subtitles being difficult to read:
In spite of this whinging, let me reiterate that this isn't as big a deal as it sounds. If I went through a checklist of 'musts' for a film as rare as this, I'd say:
Could I understand it? Yes. The subtitles are shown fully - no cuts offs.
Could I see what was going on? Yes - issues did not last long. The discolouration is charming, in a way.
Did I enjoy it? Absolutely.
And that's the bottom line. I don't give a toss about the print issues for 36 Killers. Sure, I'd like to have a glass print, who wouldn't? But that's not going to happen. Instead, I'm deeply gratified to have had the opportunity to watch this film; one I'd read about but thought the chances of seeing were slim.