14 Jun THICKER THAN WATER, BRIGHTER THAN GOLD: Wuxia Families and Vengeance Is a Golden Blade
Posted at 23:48h in News
There was always a line that Shaw Brothers productions liked to ride. A line between the gimmicks of their entertaining aspects and the dramatic tales they wanted to tell of heroes, loyalty, and bloodshed. When it comes to their martial arts films, it’s a fine line indeed and, in particular, the wuxia epics they grounded their catalog on in the 60s set up a lot of the tones and style points that the studio would use for most of its existence. Now that Celestial Pictures is celebrating their Shaw Brothers catalog with a Summer of the Sword campaign, it was high time perhaps to go back and revisit some of the classic films that I had not been able to see in some time. The first one on my extensive list? Vengeance Is a Golden Blade, a film that, depending on your reading of its themes and execution, ably balances the line riding between gimmicks, tropes, and dramatic weight with a firm and often heartfelt hand.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Vengeance Is a Golden Blade tends to be one of the more overlooked films from the 60s wuxia heavy era of the Shaw Brothers is that the basis of the film is about as trope focused as it gets. Betrayals, martial world upheaval, legendary weapons of unstoppable power, and they even throw down a few brothels and escort companies as settings and reasons for the melodramatic set ups. It’s not wrong to see the film as just another wuxia in this sense, focusing down on true and honest people fighting against the corrupt and greedy villains as it goes about its plotting while throwing a few twists and turns into the mix, and those who scoff at Vengeance Is a Golden Blade wouldn’t be wrong to call it out for being a bit too formulaic. Even by 1969 the Shaw Brother formula for entertaining, crowd pleasing tales of swordsmen and championing the righteous was certainly in place. Vengeance Is a Golden Blade nestles itself comfortably in its genre and plays things decently safe. In my recent watch of the film, I found the first half to be a tad predictable as it maneuvers through those tropes.
As Vengeance Is a Golden Blade unfolds its tale though it showcases the strong execution of its story with a vigor and dramatic flair that lifts it well above just being ‘another wuxia.’ Shaw Brothers directing regular Ho Meng-Hua handles the entire thing with a rather ambitious finesse at balancing the gimmicks of its story with the characters and themes that it uses to portray the emotions of what is being told to viewers. He may outdo himself in the genre a couple of years after this with the iconic The Lady Hermit, but with Vengeance Is a Golden Blade he still brings a sense of purpose and fluidity to the narrative to make sure it resonates much stronger than it might have without his touch. Instead of focusing on the gimmick of the Golden Dragon Sword and how the betrayed master of the opening, played with a bit of nice nuance by Tang Ching, must create a new sword to destroy it, it instead grinds down on his relationship with his daughter. As the film progresses and the daughter grows into a young, strong woman played by Chin Ping to become the main protagonist, the familial themes start to really boil to the surface and connect a lot of the thematic tissue of the film. This isn’t a film about a golden blade or vengeance as the title would indicate, this is a film about family and devotion to their well-being. That kind of focus on character and dynamic easily makes up for any of its formulaic processes. Even better is that as the film goes, it continually doubles down on its familial focuses. All of the plot twists, no matter how silly they may seem, feed into this as do character choices. I’m not about to give away some of the better dramatic beats or character developments of the film, but when it starts off by playing into the ‘sins of the father’ motif and ‘blood versus chosen family’ elements it heightens the stakes of the film and makes it a stronger film.
Of course, thematic buoyancy and plotting are only part of the Shaw Brothers style and for the most part Vengeance Is a Golden Blade delivers on the thrills and kills of the wuxia genre. As mentioned above, the performances help build some nice momentum for the film even when it’s a tad melodramatic or formulaic in its structure, but the action and visual flair presented in the film make it fun and massively entertaining. It has plenty of the key wuxia stylistic choices in this manner, massive gravity defying leaps and gory sword slashing and while the action can be a bit sparse for some fans it’s all effective for the characters and Ho Meng-Hua keeps things diverse in executing those. In particular, a scene with a wicked large wild fire might seem dated in its execution of special effects, but it’s ambitious and fun to see. There isn’t anything truly groundbreaking or fresh for those familiar with the genre, but it’s well executed enough to parallel the excitement and emotional power of the narrative.
In the end, Vengeance Is a Golden Blade may not be the most thrilling or unique of the Shaw Brothers wuxia films from this era, but it’s a film that deserves another glance. It uses the gimmicks and the dramatic pieces in a perfect balance that rides the Shaw Brothers line perfectly. What better time to revisit this classic than during the Shaw Brothers Universe’s Summer of the Sword? It’s a dynamic and fun film that uses its familial themes and execution to deserve that second chance (or first for those who haven’t had a chance to check it out) to be appreciated.
With that being said, I’m excited to revisit some of these overlooked wuxia films and hope that everyone else jumps on board this trend. Vengeance Is a Golden Blade is just the start.
Written by Matt L. Reifschneider the Founder/Writer/Lead Editor of Blood Brothers Film Reviews. Unapologetically cult. Follow him on Twitter.