The Valiant Ones (Chung lieh t'u, 1975) is a straightforward action-packed wuxia martial arts epic filmed in Taiwan.
King Hu at his best made sweeping historical epics with enough action to qualify as wuxia but often very much more than just that. His ultimate achievement was Touch of Zen (Hsia nu, 1969), one of the great films of world cinema.
The Valiant Ones however is much more limited. Apart from a tone of severity it's pretty much all action all the time.
I was lucky to first see this as a sharp new print on a big, wide screen, at the Seattle International Film Festival way back when its home was the vintage Egyptian Theater downtown. What a fine venue!
In viewing it again decades later, full frame & television-sized with the sides cropped off, it did not have at all the same impact, alas. So I stopped watching it & obtained a Hong Kong copy that could only play on a region-free dvd player, & it's a visual delight in its proper widescreen dimensions.
It's a wild injustice to this great director that we're all still waiting for first-rate letterbox clean subtitled transfers North American release of several of his best films.
The Valiant Ones is not quite entirely stripped to just the action, as we're introduced to many individual characters spiced with short fight encounters for at least the first hour. It's in the first two-thirds of the films that a few of King Hu's finest flourishes are to be detected.
Yet by the final reel it is all boiled down to the action & little else. This might be very satisfying for wuxia fans who care only about the action, but anyone used to King Hu's ability to provide action characters with emotional impact & individuality, there will seem to be something lacking.
It's even so a fine example of the Shaolin fight film, despite that it is not King Hu's personal high water mark. In terms of influence, however, the non-stop-action of Tsui Hark's films of the 1980s borrow foremost from King Hu's idea of heroic action.
Set along the coast during the Ming Dynasty, a number of heroes, led by General Yu Dayou (Roy Chiao), pit themselves against villainous pirates in scene after scene of beautiful choreography highlighting numerous types of fighting skills & styles.
The famed & greatly beloved Sammo Hung plays the lead Japanese pirate Hakatatsu, but there's no serious attempt to make them seem legitimately Japanese.
King Hu is fond of the historical swordswoman & though such a character doesn't dominate this time around, there is the lean, tall, stoic-faced, unnamed & unspeaking woman warrior played by Xu Feng who most impresses.
In one whimsical scene where the heroes are matching skills with evil Japanese pirates, she is pitted against an expert bowman, whose supreme skills she can duplicate without the bow.
The fakeness of the presumed Japanese pirates comes off a bit camp perhaps, but Sammo's character at least fights realistically for the most part, & a moment's excess is certainly barable.
It's odd King Hu, who was not always a parochial visionary like most wuxia directors, went for the Chinese comic book version of Japanese people, rather than something historically convincing.
As an aside, it may be worth noting that the historical Shaolin nun Yim Ving-tsun devised a fighting system on which Bruce Lee drew heavily when defining the perimeters of jeet kune do. So, once again, we can believe King Hu's Chinese history to a larger than average degree.
The fighting nun's lover (Bai Ying) is called Whirlwind, named for his rapid sword. The climactic battle between Hakatatsu & Whirlwind is one of the greatest swordfights ever filmed.
The context of monastic training implies the possibility of a mystical ingredient to the martial abilities of specific characters, so some of the "unrealistic" exaggerations have a context of religious supernaturalism.
For me, such mystic allusion makes the less realistic fighting techniques credible as fantasy, unlike so many films that provide no reason for me to believe kung fu training permits people to leap over tall buildings in a single bound.
Even at that, however, King Hu is more realistic than most such films, & it's easier to believe in these battles than in the juvenile approach of wire-fu showing heroes & villains persistently fighting in mid-flight.
Distinctions are drawn between styles & also between the emotional states of the participants, especially the heroic cast.
Though superficial viewing may make it seem like mindless swordplay & empty-hand action, one doesn't have to be an afficionado to detect the layers of visual commentary on the nature of valor, which in King Hu's mind requires a high dose of tragedy.
There are bits of comedy here & there throughout The Valiant Ones though in the main it's a dead-serious tale. The last ten seconds of the film, however, may seem like one final jest to some. But to me, the underlying concept was this: The truly valorous cannot be laid low by evil, & they are most at risk from others who are heroic.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl