Finger of Doom (Tai yin zhi, 1971) provided the directorial debut of Pao Hsueh-li, who thanks to this film could be likened a pioneer for "kung fu zombie flicks." Apart from that odd distinction, it's a surprisingly good film, which might not be expected of such a whimsical premise.
Pao Hsueh-li had often worked as co-director with leading wuxia specialist Chang Cheh, so had considerable expertise before he tackled his own first film. Eventually, together with his wife Jin Shu-mai, they founded their own film studio.
She scripted & he directed their own production of The Battle Wizard (Tian long ba bu, 1977) which had an even more exaggerated fantasy content -- from dragon to magical weapons -- & a role-reversal scenario of a young scholar disinterested in martial arts whose sister is devoted to the sword.
A tendency toward heroic fantasy means his films were precursors to the camp kung-fu of the 1980s, such as the Chinese Ghost Story cycle. Many heroic fantasy elements that came to dominate in the 1980s had already been lit upon by Pao Hsueh-li.
In Finger of Doom, Madame Kung Suen Mao Neon's toxic pin-dispensing metal finger-extensions turn kung fu experts into her personal army of pallid-faced obedient zombies.
She's played by Korea-born Po Chin-hsien, who obviously relished the role & turned in a disarmingly attractive & sweet-smiling portrait of evil. I did not recognize her as an actress, & it's rather surprising that she's in so few films, as from this performance she had obvious talent, & could be awfully convincing in fight choreography to boot.
Our evil sorceress sleeps in a coffin by day & is regarded as a vampire though we don't see her sucking blood. Besides her zombie guards, she's served by an Igor-like devoted hunchback (Tun Li).
Most of her martial skills do not require sorcery, as she's simply a great fighter, but if the odds are against her, they're never really against her because she can pull magic out of her repertoir. She appears to be truly an undefeatable enemy of "the Martial World," which she wants to dominate if not destroy.
This demonic or vampiric sorceress is a renegade from the Tai Ying Cult dominated by the living dead, who are a retiring cult dwelling in a cavern headquarters, adhering to the martial philosophy they had in life, & adding certain powers obtained in the dark afterlife, such as the power of reanimation & preserving their appearance of youthful vigour.
The sifu or master is a nearly bodhisattva-like woman who deeply regrets a member of their sisterhood has been using powers learned within the secret society to cause harm in the living world. She selects her foremost disciple, played by Ivy Ling Po, & tells her to go forth & instruct the renegade to commit sucide. And should the evil sorceress refuse this command, as seems inevitable, sifu's number one disciple has permission to kill her.
Killing a sister is not something our heroine looks forward to. She does not want to believe her sister is all bad, but sifu insists, "When she trained here, I tried to mend her bad ways & rid her of a violent temper. Maybe a leopard can't change its spots."
She's not all that convinced she can win if or when it comes to that, as the evil sorceress has been studying new methods & paths since leaving the order. Nor is the outside world apt to understand the cult very well, as even a "good" member of the Tai Yings sleeps in a coffin by day, & has zombie attendants, albeit zombies made from men who were already dead rather than killed for the purpose of enslaving an undead army.
In a typical action scene we're introduced to highway robber & killer Wang Yi Feng, a very powerful martial artist who has just waylaid some travelers, leaving none alive. The evil sorceress appears & out-fights him quite easily, then darts his neck to have him forever as her slave.
If only all her zombies had been such villains as Wang Yi Feng, she might not be perceived as totally evil. But whether they're good guys or bad guys, she enslaves them if their martial skills are worthy of her army of the living dead.
Our nameless heroine's path will soon cross that of Brother Lu (Chin Han), the eldest of three brothers who've become involved in the spooky situation.
Formerly well-famed in the martial world, the three brothers gave up their swords to live peaceful lives, & Brother Lu in particular was perfectly satisfied to live a humble life manufacturing umbrellas. His middle brother, Tang Juen Shang, was not quite so satisfied, & while attempting to strong-arm a certain murderer under the evil sorceress's control, the sorceress captures & zombifies him.
Now Brother Lu & his youngest Brother (Chen Feng Chen) have to return to the sword & set out in the effort to save middle-brother or, failing that, destroy the sorceress.
Brother Lu tracks the kinder of the two sorceresses to a dilapidated temple where she reposes by day in her coffin. At first Brother Lu mistakes the heroic sorceress for the evil one, not yet having realized there are two of them, & superficially they're very alike.
Brother Lu is a good measure of character & soon comes to trust & assist the good sorceress, with strong intimations of the possibility of romance, presuming, as she herself suggests, he doesn't mind being involved with a dead woman.
Youngest brother, however, mistrusts both women equally, for they are both mistresses of some unwholesome magicks. Later, when the good sorceress is staying at the wonderfully named Hung Fuk Inn, the two brothers join her & her silent guards. Eldest brother is fully trusting, but youngest brother has doubts. When he sneaks into the sorceress's room he does not know that the evil sister has gotten access, & he ends up zombified as well.
It'll boil down to a big kung fu & swordplay knock-down drag-out between the evil sorceress & all her zombies, & the good sorceress assisted by Brother Lu, rather well done.
I frankly expected this film to have little going for it beyond the presence of Ivy Ling Po as the nameless sorceress. I didn't expect the equally great performance of Po Chih-hsien as the renegade from the sisterhood.
The fantasy element plays into the story well without needing to be exaggerated. For fans who love the campiest aspects of wuxia, this may be disappointing, but I prefer a serious tone. It takes no great talent to make some of the more outre elements of the genre seem comical & absurd; but to make fantasy situations suspenseful with conviction takes talent from writer, director, actors, everyone involved. I was captivated by Finger of Doom.
Nor had I expected such good fight choreography from a film that had sorcery as an excuse to do something kitschy instead. The fight action is well done & marginally realistic, with minimal wire-fu antics. The campiness is minimalized & it's just about as serious a tale as sword & sorcery kung fu ever is.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl