“Killers are like shooting stars. They appear in brilliance and vanish quickly.” Wise words there from prolific author Gu Long. Beginning with Killer Clans, visionary Shaw Brothers director Chu Yuan adapted a series of wu xia (“swordplay”) novels written by Long. In contrast to the “Oi! You killed my teacher”-style plots of his contemporaries, Yuan’s films feature dense, labyrinthine stories wherein double and even triple crosses are the order of the day, and a scorecard is required to keep track of who is in cahoots with who and why.
Set in a semi-mythical past ruled by esoteric clans and martial arts superheroes, Killer Clans concerns the Lung Men Society. Lordly patriarch Uncle Sun Yu (Ku Feng) keeps the feuding families in line, relying on three trusted warriors: eldest son Sun Chien (Wong Chung) and foster sons Lu Hsiang Chuan (Yueh Hua) - who “has 72 secret weapons” concealed about his person, with more gadgets than James Bond - and legendary Han Tang (Lo Lieh), a forest dwelling hermit able to kill any man with a single blow.
Their talents prove handy when Uncle Sun shelters a fallen prince (Danny Lee, future co-star of John Woo’s The Killer (1989)) and defends local peasants from bandits “the Tigers of Kuan Shi.” His philanthropy inadvertently ignites a feud with rival clan the Black Roc Society, who stage sneak attacks wherein a mysterious assassin murders Sun Chien and Han Tang.
Elsewhere, seductive femme fatale Sister Ko (Cheng Ping) recruits righteous swordsman Meng Sheng Wen (Chung Wa) to infiltrate Lung Men castle. She throws in some hot sex to sweeten the deal. Chu Yuan often emphasises the erotic elements in wu xia literature and here intercuts softcore writhings and nudity with explicit illustrations from the Karma Sutra. On his travels Meng is captivated by a beautiful, poetry spouting, mystery maiden called Hsiao Tieh (Ching Li), who lives in the mystical Butterfly Forest and it transpires had a tragic relationship with his close friend, the drunken and despondent swordsman Yeh Hsiang (Ling Yun). Seizing his chance to get close to Uncle Sun, Meng finds himself swept along in a tidal wave of shock revelations, betrayals and murders.
Although based on a Gu Long novel, Killer Clans shares some remarkable parallels with The Godfather (1972). Like that celebrated mafia saga, this introduces its characters amidst a lavish banquet where Uncle Sun grants favours to his subjects, which include avenging the rape of a peasant’s daughter (Mai Laan - a starlet whom Shaw Brothers contracted solely for naked cameos in countless movies. The same applies for co-star Cheng Ping). The story revolves partially around three sons, alternately impetuous, weak or calculating, whose exploits mirror scenes in earlier film, while Lo Lieh essentially plays Luca Brazzi. No horse heads in the bed sadly. Then again, Marlon Brando never used “internal energy” to expel poison darts from his body or leapt through a trap door into a vast subterranean kingdom.
While streamlined for the purpose of providing a synopsis, different characters provide the focal point throughout the twisty narrative, switching from good guys to bad and sometimes back again. It can be a bewildering experience first time around, beset by puzzlers like why characters played by Ching Li and Danny Lee share the same name. However, the plot sucks you in as it speeds along with the momentum of a runaway freight train. A dizzying array of characters fight, scheme, and stage deaths both faked and real, all the while underlying Yuan’s theme that the allure of power unmasks the corrupt and deceitful, no matter who they are.
Whereas his heart-warming comedy hit, House of 72 Tenants (1973) involved disparate strangers bonding as a family, Killer Clans finds a family unit destroyed from within and concludes with the survivors rejecting blood ties and the way of the sword to start a better life elsewhere. Veteran character actor Ku Feng seizes a rare chance in the spotlight with a commanding performance, while Yuan again casts Ching Li as his feminine ideal. Daughter of actor Ching Miao, Ching Li was nicknamed “leader of the Happy Troop” on account of her cheerful personality. A precocious talent she rose quickly to stardom in melodramas My Dream Boat (1967) and When the Clouds Roll By (1968), and became the favourite actress of Chang Cheh and Chu Yuan, who cast her in over twenty of his films.
Borrowing as much from James Bond movies, spaghetti westerns and softcore porn as from Chinese classical literature, Chu Yuan makes artful use of the Shawscope frame. His lyrical lighting and imaginative art direction recalls such maestros of excess as Joseph Von Sternberg and emphasises the sense of his characters being trapped by destiny. The martial arts choreography is outstanding, with fighters leaping from trees or springing out of trapdoors and reaches a highlight when Yueh Hua is hoisted aloft on a web of ropes. Choreography was by Yuen Cheung Yan, brother of Yuen Woo Ping, who later worked on Hollywood movies like Charlie’s Angels (2000), and the ingenious Tang Chia, a specialist in designing wacky weaponry. Lookout for his Q-branch creations: a bullet-proof vest worn by Uncle Sun, the super-cool “Seven Star Needle” and the detachable multipurpose weapon wielded by the black-cloaked mystery killer.
Gu Long’s original novel later provided the basis for the excellent Butterfly and Sword (1992).