“The full moon, smooth scimitar faces many challengers… tears drop as the wind laments… love will soon be forgotten.” Thus goes the lilting Canto-pop ballad that plays over the opening credits where dashing Ding Peng (Derek Yee) fights his way through an array of swordsman to become the top-ranked hero of the Martial World. When Ding Peng rescues a scantily-clad beauty named Ke Xiao (Meg Lam) from pursuing bandits, she lures him back to her boudoir for a night of passion. He awakens the next morning to discover his precious kung fu manual has been stolen. Turns out Ke Xiao is the wife of his arch-rival Liu Ruo Song (Wang Jung) who not only bests Ding Peng in battle but proves his late father stole the manual from the Wu Tang Clan, forcing him to withdraw from the Martial World in disgrace.
A failed suicide bid lands Ding Peng inside a mystical netherworld - a truly breathtaking set - where Qing Qing (Lisa Wang), a beautiful ghost maiden in flowing white, guards the legendary super-weapon “the Full Moon Scimitar.” She becomes his teacher, protector and lover and after Ding Peng wins over her ghost brethren, the pair return to the Martial World where Qing Qing exacts revenge by haunting the villains. However, the defeated Ruo Song surprises everybody when he begs Ding Peng to take him as his student. Aided by the scimitar and Ruo Song’s counsel, Ding Peng rises to the top once more but such power-crazed ambition takes its toll on his relationship with Qing Qing.
By this point Chu Yuan had wu xia (“swordplay”) movies down to a fine art. Full Moon Scimitar features the usual array of high-flying heroes, allusions to classical poetry, jaunts across fantasy worlds bathed in candy-coloured lighting and scintillating doses of eroticism and horror. It ranks among the most opulent movies Yuan made at Shaw Brothers, but this time the veteran filmmaker weaves his trademark mystical ambience over a story that is noticeably less hectic, more contemplative and romantic. Prolific novelist/screenwriter Ku Lung crafts a deeply moral fable wherein Ding Peng is gradually corrupted by his reckless pursuit of fortune and glory. His initial triumphs are against glowering villains but then he unwisely picks a fight with sagely good guy 3rd Master Xie Xiao Feng (genre veteran Yueh Hua) and marries wealthy heiress Nan Gong (Helen Poon Bing-Seung) whilst scheming to keep Qing Qing as his bit on the side.
Derek Yee excels in an atypically flawed role, but Yuan’s films always revolve around strong female characters. Lisa Wang delivers an equally powerful performance, ensuring the scenes where she haunts Ruo Song and his wife are unexpectedly intense. Wang was a multitalented singer, dancer and actress who became a household name on Hong Kong television and in Cantonese opera, going on to found two opera troupes. She later went into politics, serving as the Hong Kong/Macau representative at the National People’s Congress between 1988-98 and became the first woman elected chairman of the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong.
Her talented co-star, the lovely Meg Lam also registers strongly as the almost Lady Macbeth-like figure of Ke Xiao, in spite of a regrettably early exit. Lam went from beauty contest winner to TV star in 1974 (though she had studied at the first acting class run by Hong Kong’s Television Broadcast Limited), then found big screen notoriety in Bald Headed Betty (1975) where she played a murderous hooker who disguises her bald pate with an array of kinky wigs. She went on to found San Sheng Films with her directorial debut Torrid Wave (1981) (where she performed an infamous steamy lesbian scene), then shed her racy image in the Eighties and Nineties as the host of the top-rated news show Hong Kong Today.
While Full Moon Scimitar retains a consistent theme, the plot keeps having to spring new villains (including perennial bad guy Wang Lung-Wei as Invincible Eagle) for Ding Peng to tackle, before 3rd Master arrives to teach everyone the error of their ways. Towards the end Chu Yuan loses control as things lapse into a series of repetitive brawls and standoffs, but the film still ranks among his strongest efforts.