Background: Acquired from a German collector, who added custom subtitles to a fullscreen print. Stars Chang Chi Yu, Wong Yung, Got Heung Ting and Ngai So. Taiwanese production.
Last week I read the comments of translator Rebecca Tai in her introduction to Gu Long's The Eleventh Son. She stated that in Long's classic wuxia novels, there is often very little fighting. The martial artists are of such expertise that they rarely have to resort to actual combat. Instead, cunning and respect play a powerful role within the martial world.
To an extent, this is what happens in this 1968 film. Whilst it is not from the pen of Long (I presume!), it focuses on the ideas of chivalry and honour. There's not much combat - a few scenes at most, and the elite pairing at the centre of the film do not actually draw their swords until the final engagement.
Older Brother slices through a waterfall.
The story is set in Xi Nan Province. Two brothers - Ti (Younger) and Han (Older) - are told by their master that the time has come for them to leave their insular existence and help to protect the innocent from the lawlessness polluting the land. Bandits are everywhere and the common folk are suffering. However, the brothers must avoid the three evils of temptation. Firstly, they cannot allow themselves to get involved in pointless and unnecessary fights. Secondly, they must resist money and riches. Thirdly, they cannot succumb to the charms of women.
The brothers are asked to meet up with their uncle and assist in the common struggle. Their patience to adhere to the 'no fighting' rule is stretched early on, when they witness the ruthlessness of a group of bandits on the road to a local town.
These bandits take over an inn, and cruelly beat a man as they attempt to rape his daughter. A compromise is reached as the brothers rescue them without actual engagement, using cunning instead. Meanwhile, a well-off woman is asked by her father to leave town. He is wary of the threat posed to them by the bandits, and wants to flee to their hometown in Xi Zhou. Infuriatingly, the subtitles don't give the name of the woman (that I recall), so she'll just have to be called The Woman. Not The Woman, Holmes fans, just The Woman.
The next day the pair leave town, aided by an escort company. They are ambushed by the bandits further down the track, causing the two brothers to intervene. The gang try to buy them off with loot, but this temptation is resisted with ease. Once again, their skill is legendary - through a series of parries, blocks and punches they defeat the gang without having to draw their weapons. But not before the father is killed, leaving The Woman isolated and defenceless. They resolve to take her to her uncle's house in Hsing An Yi town.
The main strand of the story then slowly kicks in. The remainder of the film is centred on the Brothers' fight to resist the temptation presented by The Woman. She is a complicated character, and I'm not sure exactly what to think of her. Her actions throughout the film drive the story towards it's finale, when the two brothers draw their swords on one another. Younger brother, besotted, intends to make off with her; while older brother, who has resisted her advances throughout, loses control as the sanctity of his brotherhood crumbles.
In some respects, she is portrayed as a bad guy. She is undoubtedly a selfish, self-absorbed character, whining as her father pleads with her to leave the village at the start and fussing over her hair before they set off. She flirts with the brothers from the moment she is rescued. Obviously there's nothing wrong with that in itself, but the way she plays them off one another in the final third presents her as cunning and opportunistic - threatening to kill herself if they leave her in one breath, and trying to pay off Young Brother so she can run off with Older Brother in another. In one interesting scene, she also tries to kill Older Brother. During a troublesome ascent up a rocky mountainside, Younger Brother is trying to haul up his brother using some kind of vine or rope. When they get into some difficulties, she grabs a sword and cuts the vine. Younger Brother clings on with it wrapped around his boot.
Later, she throws herself at Older Brother, explaining what happened and asking for forgiveness for her selfish act. He accepts that it was a sensible action - as both may have died instead of sacrificing one - but within minutes she's trying to split the brothers up to satisfy her own needs.
For a time, it appears that the brothers may resist her, giving her a similar response:
Eventually, however, she woos Younger Brother, and the situation reaches a crunch as the experts turn on each other. At first glance, then, it appears that she is the villain - an agitator whose relentlessly selfish desires ruin the partnership of two honourable men. Both lose sight of Master's rules as Younger Brother falls in love and Older Brother tries to kill her (a civilian).
On the other hand, and after some thought, it's clear that not all is straightforward. The Woman's backstory is a rather tragic, and it seems that the story also comments on the inability of noble martial values to react to a complex situation. In an odd sequence, she sings to the two men, revealing her past. There was no translation of the words of this song in my copy, but the images seem to suggest that she used to be under the thumb of her Aunt, working as a singer. At other points in the film she alludes to the cruelty she suffered under her relative, and her panic at the thought of having to go back there is obvious. Furthermore, she's lost her father, almost raped, and kidnapped by bandits who threaten to kill her in the film itself. She comes across as a desperately insecure and lonely person.
One of the strengths of this film, then, is the story's ability to encourage some reflection. This is helped by the bizarre ending. Younger brother falls at the sword of his friend. As Older Brother holds him, Master appears in the distance, laughing his socks off. Older Brother carries the body towards him. What is that all about? Has it all been a huge test? Did Master expect the young guy to fail? I'd like to hear the opinion of others on this oddness.
The action in this film is rather tame if you're used to faster, more complex work. It's very much 'of its time' in construction. Movements are slow and deliberate. There's some decent work to do with weapon throwing and catching, and one or two inventive deaths. I actually enjoyed the action more on my second viewing as I was prepared for the style and pace of the film. It's very much a film about character and themes. These two brothers lead a naive and sheltered life, but after a short time in the real world they're struggling to hold onto their comradeship and beliefs. The Temptations offered by the title are simply too great - none more so than Chang Chi Yu's seductress. In one scene, she has an erotic dream, and the Younger Brother simply can't cope with her moans and groans. From that point on it's an uphill battle for the brothers to remain focused, and the temptations eventually manage to do what no bandit stood a chance of doing.
Bottom line - it was a strangely pleasant watch. Not at all like I was expecting. The themes and ideas interested me, and were quite well performed by the cast. While the action is lethargic and infrequent, the mood created by the lighting and sound add a pleasing dimension to the movie. There's some beautiful photography in this film, with lush scenery being commonplace, and used to frame several scenes very nicely indeed.
Chang Chi Yu sobs at her father's grave.
The Brothers escort her to a lodge.
The three wade through a fast river.
Younger Brother chats to The Woman about the attempted murder of Older Brother.
Just before it all kicks off.