|HONG KONG RELEASE DATE
Melinda Chen Manling
Made in Mandarin for the Cathay studio after Chu Yuan's long run of work in the Cantonese cinema, COLD BLADE was the director's first stab at the swordplay film. It chronicles the romantic entanglements of two Song Dynasty warriors and a Mongolian princess, all of whom are also locked in a struggle over a precious treasure map. Chu infuses his trademark elegance into the elaborately stylized mayhem. Less grisly than Zhang Che and more baroque than King Hu, Chu's distinctive approach, dense with literary detail, prefigures the aesthetic he would later apply to his Gu Long adaptations. The Archive will present the only English-subtitled print and one of only two prints of the film known to exist anywhere. The soundtrack is regrettably missing in about 9 minutes of the aforementioned print.
Now with the campaign of the Shaw Brothers revival, the world has been made familiar with director Chu Yuan’s works as an untapped well once overlooked to those abroad. While Westwood was jumping outside even on a Sunday night as usual last November the 20th, there was a faint aura of anticipation among a small crowd of attendees while waiting for the first reel of director Chu’s freshman martial arts effort ‘Cold Blade’ to cast its images on the screen inside UCLA’s James Bridges theatre. For a large industry town like LA where everything seems to be fleeting and blasé like last week’s teenager fads, it’s nice to know that small venues like this for a 34 year old film have a place. The armchair film enthusiast cannot help but to hunt for clues, parallels from this viewing to apply significance with what we would see in Chu’s later works and with ‘Cold Blade’ as subtle as the clues may be, aficionados can confidently leave the screening with trivial morsels to chew on. This perhaps was the best part of experiencing this rare film.
Two halves of a treasury map provide the catalyst for which the film’s quest is carried leading to a secret message hidden behind a Buddhist swastika emblem inside a statue that would help fund a military campaign to crush the impending Mongolian expansion and annexation into the heart of China during Sung rule. Two knights in white - one senior played by Kao Yuen (Jade Faced Assassin, Blade Spares None) and one junior played by a teenaged Chang Pin (Call To Arms, Water Margin) are introduced during the excellent credit sequence display where the two combine for a tag-team sword maneuver that when joined in formation unleashes a mystical power unmatched when confronting foes. Set in the historical Sung dynasty, their master played by Shaw vet Li Ying (Magnificent Trio, Knight of Knights) summon the pair for a mission to trek down from their mountain hermitage into civic life to serve their country against foreign infiltration by the Mongols. Finding the halves of the coveted map would lead to a treasure that can be used to fund the military Sung resistance. As the advancing Mongolian spy network would have it, they seek to intercept our heroes’ quest for their side along with the greedy intent of acquiring the hidden treasure for themselves.
The first scene the heroes are introduced with adversity occurs where else but at a country inn where they intended to establish contact with an uncle who is an allied operative but is quickly intercepted by the enemy Inn proprietor who arranges an ambush by a band of tartar highlanders shown in full ethnic and colorful costumed regalia to suggest their foreign-ness. Chu’s attention to detail here with this exotic band of tribal outlaws would garner highlight for every fight scene they’re in. At that point in their studio’s choreography department, Cathay’s resident fighting instructor Chen Sha Peng stages some action sequences inventive as they are at near par with Shaws 60s wuxia action, as they enlisted and credited the help of a junior tournament champion named Chen Kuan Tai to share the choreography duties. So it would not be surprising when we get to see Chen Kuan Tai and an un-credited Jason Pai Piao in pale white-face make-up, all dressed up as members of the exotic tartar villains.
The ease in which our heroes are duped in the first stop of their journey plays into Chu Yuan’s theme of the heroes’ idealistic naiveté, as they would be tested throughout the film. While out into the world, Chu has his two heroes well fleshed out, one a stalwartly conservative while the other impetuously ambitious and naively idealistic. Contrary to stereotypical casting one would think Chang Pin would be cast as the impetuous youth however director Chu has given this characteristic to the more senior of the two Kao Yuan to play the pompous and misled one that endangers their mission with his ambitious ideas of vanity and self-gain. Yes, Kao is influenced by a naïve attraction to a Mongolian princess disguised as male Han scholar (Melinda Chen), whose odd androgyny, revolutionary spirit and erudite grasp of Confucian prose captivates Kao. Of course, the princess proceeds with the intent to divide and conquer. When the heroes finally establish contact with a band of Sung patriots through a run-in with a lady knight Ingrid Hu (From the Highway, Sinful Confession), she escorts the two to her headquarters to introduce them to her charismatic leader played by the youthful Chu Kong (This Man is Dangerous, CYF’s buddy Sydney in the Killer) to hand over their half of the map and recruit Kao and Chang for the cause.
After being infatuated and influenced by the false loyalties of Melinda Chen, Kao with his half of the map in hand, rejects Chu’s invitation to join questioning his stake in a life of selfless and un-rewarded martyrdom. After a scuffle with the patriots, Kao pompously leaves and strive for his loftier prize of individual fortune and fame at the highest bidder not knowing that achieving his own ambition would be tantamount to treason. Under prudent but unsuccessful urging, Chang Pin rejects Kao’s decision and stays on with the patriots knowing it’s the right thing to do even with Kao seeking to justify his own direction as the right thing. As expected, Kao’s misled vanity ultimately invites disaster and death as the Mongolian princess Melinda has Kao arrested and tortured. Melinda in a move to earn trust with Kao and the rest of the patriots to advance her own cause, arranges for Kao's rescue from her own Mongol prision. The damage has been done as Kao unwittingly exposes the Sung revolutionaries’ whereabouts and the princess dispatches her spies and hit squads to massacre them. With Kao remorseful for his blind ambition, his trusty partner Chang Pin and Kao reunite and converge to a gravesite burial ground location where ‘X marks the spot’ as directed by the treasure map. There Kao and Chang once again combine for their sacred blade combination maneuver to vanquish the evil Mongolian princess and her minions.
Before the UCLA screening, the bespectacled lady MC had to qualify some errata written into the program statement of this exhibition courtesy of the HKFA, where it stated that they were holding one of two remaining prints that exists on this earth for this film. The MC clarified that she was exhibiting the ONLY remaining print of ‘Cold Blade’ that exists - no master print, no inter-negative, nunca. The other reported print that allegedly existed with a collector in France was just that, alleged and only a rumor. So my rare opportunity of viewing ‘Cold Blade’ has elevated itself due to this fact alone as a rare title that's a heartbeat away from being Cathay’s ‘Tiger Boy’. A minor quibble, reel #3 (or #4) had its entire soundtrack stripped of its soundtrack so a good 10-15 minutes of ‘Cold Blade’ was viewed as a silent film but we got by with the help of English/Chinese subtitles to help our gracious audience through the experience, like 90% of all Mandarin Chinese films shown abroad at the time. So I can only say that given the tenuous circumstances for my opportunity in viewing this flick, ‘Cold Blade’ holds a fragile status of being that traveling ‘Shroud of Turin’ for HK martial arts film aficionados like us elevating this film as a treat worth savoring even under these latent conditions. Still not really a masterpiece in any era, ‘Cold Blade is still a tad under-developed after being used to the visual refinement of a Shaw feature and in any other day this would otherwise sink into the large cauldron of martial arts titles shared by all other Indies of that prolific era but with the names and historical footnotes attached to this Chu Yuan rarity, the unearthing of ‘Cold Blade’ does distinguish itself as a landmark above the rest. Like I rated elsewhere and just in my opinion, still only a **.5/5 for content alone, all things considered. Please bear these comments and factoids in mind as Heroic Grace II ‘roadshows’ your vicinity in the near future.
I think the last sentence in the first paragraph does qualify the tone of the post. Notice I called it a synopsis and not really a review. I don’t think anyone caught me praising or criticizing this film strictly on the quality of the action, performances, execution and craftsmanship. The praises are geared towards the sizzle (of the event) rather than the steak (movie itself). If anything, I’m rather neutral about ‘Cold Blade’.
I didn’t mention audience reaction but there weren’t too many people clapping ‘Cold Blade’ when the lights turned back on. I’d surmise that it’s a bit too antiquated and artsy for any visceral thrills that they might of expected from watching newer Heroic Grace fare like ‘Police Story’, ‘8 Diagram Pole Fighter’ or even ‘Fists of Fury’. BTW, kudos to HKFA for ‘Cold Blade’s lush color print was nearly flawless for its age. The same crowd clapped harder for the companion feature ‘Magic Blade’ and that print supplied by Celestial was extremely scratched and faded. About a month later, I flew down again to watch ‘Clans of Intrigue’ on the big screen and the applause was greater than for ‘Magic Blade’ AND for its companion feature ‘The Valiant Ones’, so where does that leave ‘Cold Blade’ to the uninformed non-enthusiast viewer? The point is just remind yourselves if you plan that 400 mile pilgrimage to see it, the 2.5 stars helps you to weigh in the effort.
To be honest, strip away the antique factor, the film content’s not that big of a deal if you line it up with classics like ‘One Armed Swordsman’, ‘Dragon Inn’ or even ‘Deaf Mute Heroine’. The film's attraction is its relative obscurity. In all, I’m still glad I flew 400 miles to watch it but that’s because I am me, with a few bucks in my pocket and an outlook of a glass half full. If I’d watched it as a 20 year old bootleg without all this hoopla, I know I wouldn’t appreciate even 2.5 stars and this handicap is reflected with my thoughts that is quite objective but what if you’re told this title’s the only print on earth and it will never be released in video? Still that doesn't mean a thing back in 1970 so that's how I'm rating it, without all that baggage.
--kenichiku (January 2006)