14 December 2008 | BrianDanaCamp
TRILOGY OF SWORDSMANSHIP 3 separate stories, co-directed by Chang Cheh
TRILOGY OF SWORDSMANSHIP (1972) is an odd Shaw Bros. swordplay film employing an omnibus structure, something the studio rarely attempted. It's basically three short unrelated tales assembled to create one 108-minute movie. Part 1 plays like the beginning of a longer film. Part 3 plays like either the middle or final half-hour of a much longer film. Only Part 2 is a true self-contained story, but it, too, would have improved by expansion to feature-length. The stories range in length from 30-45 minutes each.
Part 1: "The Iron Bow" A mother-and-daughter kung fu team (played by Kao Pao Shu and Shih Szu) runs a teahouse. A local magistrate's wastrel son (Tien Ching) wants to marry the daughter, but the mother's late husband left a stipulation that only a man who could lift his heirloom, the Iron Bow, and shoot an arrow from it could marry the daughter. The magistrate's son tries but can't do it. A passing hero (Yueh Hua) can. This angers the magistrate's son and he sends in the troops for a couple of major brawls. The mother and daughter and their youthful helper, "Doggie," defend themselves.
Part 2: "The Tigress" A high-priced courtesan, Shih Chung Yu (Lily Ho), gets General Wang in trouble when his refusal to leave her side makes him defy an order from Minister Li. He's very nearly executed but Lily gets the minister to relent on the condition that she succeed in capturing marauding bandit Pang Xun (Lo Lieh), whose obsession with the courtesan himself is jeopardizing his own campaign to plunder and pillage the region. So Shih Chung Yu sets a contrived plan in motion, enlisting General Wang and her sister prostitutes to use trickery to subdue Pang Xun and his men without a major fight. Then we find out something that puts a poignant spin on things...
Part 3: "White Water Strand" This one's a sequel of sorts to THE WATER MARGIN (1972), based on the classic Chinese literary work, and focuses on the sonsand one daughter (Li Ching)of the famed bandits of Liang Shan Mountain. It opens with the group freeing one of their number (Ti Lung) from government custodyone of those box wagon contraptions they use to carry a prisoner on the road in these films. A passing hero (David Chiang) intervenes to help the guards and then decides he'd rather help the Liang Shan crew. This gets him into trouble with a government man (Ku Feng) who then imprisons him and sets an execution date. The Liang Shan heroes prepare to effect a rescue... The cast of this segment also includes Chen Sing, Wang Chung, Billy Tang, Cheng Lei, and Yang Tze (aka Bolo Yeung).
None of the stories is that compelling. The first one is fun because we get to see Shih Szu (THE LADY HERMIT) in super-cute spear-fighting mode and Kao Pao Shu (who directed kung fu movies herself) in a fighting part. The third one looks and sounds too much like other film versions of "The Water Margin," including Chang Cheh's own adaptation that same year, THE WATER MARGIN, which contains a scene that's much too similar to the climax of this short and features several of the same actors.
The most distinct segment here is "The Tigress," chiefly because of Lily Ho's performance. This one has the most fable-like quality and may even be based on an actual folk tale. Lily is quite beautiful and we can understand why men get obsessed with her, particularly in a couple of beautifully staged moments where she plays the Pipa, a stringed instrument. But she flits about, overly confident, expecting everyone to give in to her, and never seems to be aware that she's in any real danger herself, even when the minister angrily demands her execution. She always seems to be above it all, so she never comes off as quite real. The other prostitutes also never react normally to the dangers that loom. Which is too bad, because with some genuine feeling and real emotion, this story might have worked. An element is introduced at the end involving the character of the bandit that could have given it some substance had this been a feature-length film, especially since it's Lo Lieh, one of the finest actors at Shaw, who plays the bandit, but unfortunately, it ends right there.
Interestingly, all three stories have strong women characters, not something we often see in Chang Cheh-involved works. The first two focus on those characters, while in the third, Li Ching plays one heroic female fighter among several male fighters. Cheng Kang (father of Hong Kong director Ching Siu-Tung) gets co-directing credit on the first two stories, while Chang Cheh gets sole credit on the third. Swords are involved in some way, peripheral or not, in each story, but not enough, really, to justify the film's title, except in the most generic sense.