Swordsman Yun Keng (Dang Wai Ho) and swordswoman Leng Qing Shuang (Lam Sau-Kwan) are star-crossed lovers from rival martial arts clans locked in an age-old feud. No sooner has Qing Shuang told her sister, Leng Qing Ping (Lily Li), she is pregnant than the lovers are caught by their feuding fathers. Keng’s despicable dad orders his nephew, righteous sword hero Tien Zhong Tang (Ti Lung) to execute his son as a traitor. Being a stand-up guy, Zhong Tang fakes Keng’s death and goes in search of Qing Shuang hoping to get both lovers to safety at a sacred temple. The plan is complicated by Keng’s dopey but muscular brother Yun Zheng (Lo Meng) who immediately sets out to avenge his “dead” sibling by attacking Qing Shuang and her family. While the persecuted pregnant woman escapes into anonymity, her scheming clansman Situ Xiao (Ngaai Fei) seizes his chance to take advantage of this chaos. He sends his girlfriend, mysterious woman in red Wen Dai Dai (Chan Si-Gaai) to lure Zheng back to “Dream Land”, her personal pleasure dome for some steamy sex-play, hoping he can lead them to a hidden treasure sought by both clans.
Taiwanese filmmaker Chang Pang-Yee sadly lives in the shadow of his illustrious contemporary Chu Yuan. Both men built their careers on adapting the wu xia swordplay novels of Gu Long, but while Chu’s reputation grew thanks to the wide availability of his works on DVD, Chang remains known only to dedicated Chinese cinefiles. To add insult to injury, he is often referred to as the “Taiwanese Chu Yuan.” A former wrestler-turned-stuntman, Chang Pang-Yee ended up assistant director to Joseph Kuo on 18 Bronzemen (1976) and on the strength of that cult favourite graduated to director. While Chu Yuan had the mighty Shaw Brothers safeguarding prints of his movies, Chang’s Taiwanese epics were released by less caring hands and thus often derided as schlock despite being distinguished by their artistry and romantic tone plus the regular presence of the era’s greatest swordplay star: Adam Cheng. Among his more widely available (and fan-feted) wu xia fantasies are Demon Fighter (1982) which pairs Cheng with Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia and General Invincible (1983) and Three Famous Constables (1983) a couple of wacky efforts starring the lovably zany Pearl Chang Ling.
Recognising Chang’s talent, in 1982 Shaw Brothers invited him to Hong Kong to helm the lavish Clan Feuds, which now stands as his most widely distributed movie having reached DVD as part of the ongoing restoration of their vast back catalogue. Ironically, the film has all the hallmarks of a Chu Yuan production: a cast of two dozen major characters, sumptuous sets bathed in lush candy colours, gorgeous costumes, death-dealing gadgets and elaborate traps, and plot twists that grow increasingly fantastical as things progress. What it lacks is its own distinctive identity, save perhaps an endearingly humane attitude showing even the most venal and calculating characters harbour a streak of decency. In one scene a hitherto scheming vixen sacrifices herself to safe the life of an infant. By contrast, the self-righteous clan elders prove the real villains which, given the importance Chinese culture places on venerating one’s elders, is a significant statement. Gu Long novels regularly smuggle anti-authoritarian ideals into fantasy narratives, which might be the main reason they were often banned in mainland China.
What begins as a kung fu twist on Romeo and Juliet is mere window dressing to what actually boils down to that well-worn wu xia plot Macguffin: the search for the secret kung fu manual. Ably embodied by Shaw superstar Ti Lung, unflappable hero Tien Zhong Tang joins the search and discovers a mystical cave where perky, leopardskin-clad, kung fu waif Shui Ling Guang (an appealing Lui Lai-Ling) and her once-beautiful now hideously disfigured mother, the Day Empress (Helen Poon Bing-Seung) entrust him with the “Light of the Sun”, a much sought after gem that could end the clan feud. Zhong Tang’s cute relationship with the feisty Ling Guang is among the film’s most engaging aspects, as is their poignant friendship with blind assassin Ai Tian Fu (Phillip Ko Fei) and his mute female sidekick (lovely Yeung Jing-Jing, now among the few notable female action choreographers) who share a genuinely touching final scene. There is an amusing sequence where Tien Zhong Tang paralyzes Shui Ling Guang’s vital points and shoves her in the cupboard before entertaining sultry Madam Wen.
In spite of Ling Guang’s flirty ways, Zhong Tang holds her at arm’s length. Which is just as well given he eventually learns from the ice palace-dwelling Night Emperor (formerly suave spy movie star Tang Ching in one of his many 1980s crazy-haired hermit roles) that both she and the Little Prince (Sun Chien), whom he discovers living in an enchanted palace with his ghostly mother (Teresa Ha Ping), are actually his long lost half-siblings! Later on, Zhong Tang races to prevent both committing unwitting incest!
As one might guess, Chang Pang-Yee has a shaky hold of the mind-boggling plot, but the film is continually inventive with bewitching visuals and intricate fight choreography, including a memorable scene where Zhong Tang entangles a quintet of martial maidens in their own flowing silk scarfs. Rather less endearing is the film’s rampant bird slaughter, none of it faked. Animal lovers will be understandably revulsed at the sight of a poor dove set on fire.