My love affair with classic Shaw Bros martial arts movies continues, and it's a good thing that the Esplanade Library has a decent selection. In continuation of my recent hunt for stories based on Louis Cha's novels, I chanced upon Ode to Gallantry (Xia Ke Xing) on the shelves, and despite it being cast with a relative bunch of lesser known names (of today), there's one name on the credits that compelled me to watch this: Director Chang Cheh.
My memory of the story dates back to the early 80s, based on the TVB series starring Tony Leung as the lead twin characters Shi Po Tian and Shi Zhong Yu, in a classic tale of mistaken identities. The story begins with Shi Po Tian aka the Bastard, a beggar of sorts, stealing a bun which contains the Black Iron Token, created by skilled pugilist Xie Yanke, who grants the holder one wish, and includes not killing the wielder of the token. As they say, the Heavens smile on the Idiots, and having been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Shi Po Tian slowly learns formidable skills while under the tutelage of Xie Yanke.
Given that my memory is likely to be faulty, I can't really compare this movie to the original novel, but like all movies based on Louis Cha classics, it's usually a condensation of themes and characters, but unlike The Proud Youth, this movie doesn't overhaul the characters and allow them to undergo name changes. Strong in its theme of Gallantry, embodied by the dim-witted Shi Po Tian, the movie does move along quite fast with little time devoted for depth.
Acting chops are nothing spectacular, and as the usual martial arts movies of the time goes, romance takes a backseat, even though you have a female character Dingding Dangdang (Candy Wen Xue-Er) having the hots for our lead twin characters, played by Philip Kwok Chun-Fung.
But of course the main deal here is the martial arts. There are not many wire work here, and the fights are a combination of weapons and palms, as well as a great deal on evasive techniques, as Shi Po Tian is a reluctant fighter, who sees no rational behind fights and the taking of lives. Expect the usual blood fests from Chang Cheh, reputed for his generous dose of fake blood usage.
Like all movies of its genre, the ending is usually weak, as if after the big fight, there's nothing left to do, and no purpose in life, and it ends just there. As mentioned before, the novel is a rich source, but having to translate it for the big screen, can be daunting at times. The crux of it gets a treatment, but the rest got forgotten. Remember though, this was made in the early 80s, where outdoor shoots were zilch and sets and backdrops used extensively indoors, so story telling techniques have evolved loads since then.
This Code 3 DVD produced by IVL contains the usual extras you expect from their packaging of Shaw Bros classic movies. You have a few production and movie stills, one original poster which is quite small in size, a one page one paragraph worth of production notes, the theatrical trailer and other trailers of the same genre, which have undergone an update (I doubt they are the original trailers), and a very short cast and crew biography.
Perhaps the best bit of extras here is a documentary on director Chang Cheh himself, running at 17 mins and 20 secs. It contains interviews with stars of today and yesteryears, as they recount their memories and experiences with working together with the great man who have revived the martial arts genre, and other genres in the Hong Kong movie industry. Definitely not to be missed, though it could have been done with a little bit more detail. For those who have not watched most of Chang Cheh's works, be warned of the loads of spoilers (character deaths especially) featured in it.
Thankfully too the documentary also comes with English subtitles for those who cannot understand Mandarin/Cantonese, and Mandarin/English subtitles are also available on the feature film, restored decently in the DVD (you can see how picture quality had degraded in the documentary above).