Superstar Shaw Brothers’ director Chu Yuan brings you this colourful, costume adventure. A delirious kung fu/fantasy/horror/mystery that might seem one of a kind if its maker hadn’t spent a lifetime honing his personal sub-genre down to a fine art. Unlike the revenge-driven plots and historical settings used by his contemporaries, Yuan spins yarns of head-spinning complexity amidst the fairy grottoes and celestial pavilions of the mythical, “Martial World”. This fantasyland of flying swordsmen, mystical heroines and strange beings is ruled by esoteric clans with supernatural powers. Here, ever oily Lo Lieh plays Snake Chief of the Venoms Clan, an evil sect out to rule the roost. Everyone is after a secret super-weapon, the Five Venoms Spider, before he unearths it to wield against the other clans when they gather at Mount Wudang. Complicating matters is Fei (Yueh Hua), prized pupil of the Wudang Clan, when he meets and falls for Susu (understandable, since it’s Ching Li at her loveliest). Susu doesn’t tell him she’s the Venom Chief’s darling daughter, but decides to secretly help Fei find the spider.
Misunderstandings and tragedy ensue as our star-crossed lovers struggle to save their families but are caught in a legacy of bitter feuds, jealousy and betrayal. Things move at a furious pace as the plot springs twists and surprises. It culminates in a fantastic finale at Mount Wudang where clans cower from a death-ray spewing, killer tarantula that glows green and roars like Godzilla! The theatrical special effects pack period charm and the super-stylised sets are beautiful to behold, ranging from the misty mountains of Wudang, the extraordinarily lovely lakeside pavilion where our lovers meet by moonlight, to the spectacular Venom Clan headquarters with its spidery motif, lava pools and bilious, green smoke. Chu Yuan films his spooky, fog-filled, cobwebbed sets in over-saturated colours reminiscent of Mario Bava.
Typically for a Chu Yuan wu xia movie the narrative overflows with major characters, yet his skilful script and editing mean audiences needn’t struggle to keep track of who is double (and sometimes triple) crossing whom and why. A superb cast of Shaw Bros. regulars breathe life into these eccentric oddballs, star players including Lily Li, Ku Feng and Norman Chu. Multitalented leading man Yueh Hua is subdued here, generously allowing Ching Li her chance to shine. A beautiful, versatile performer known for comedic and romantic roles, Li became Yuan’s favourite actress. As tragic heroine Susu, she is lovingly photographed, handles action with aplomb, dons an array of disguises and endures more emotional turmoil than any character in the film. Wu xia novels were considered serious literature and often banned in mainland China for their subversive aspects. Susu is turned away by every establishment figure she meets. Everyone is too busy spouting sub-Confucian malapropisms to exhibit any tolerance or compassion. In a society that venerates age and social status Yuan dares to portray the all-wise martial arts masters as petty, narrow minded and self-serving. Hankies at the ready for a real tear-jerker of an ending.