THE BELLS OF DEATH (1968)
Greetings everyone and welcome back. Sir Run Run Shaw is back at us with a very interesting production and he has brought veteran director Yueh Feng with him. Along with his "shakey cam" Yueh Feng has visualized a wuxia film with a strong slasher/horror flavor to it, adding a tremendous amount of tension to the fight scenes. This unique blend of genres is given a subtle boost by rookie screen writer Chiu Kang-Chien first script that adds small details to some of the events in the movie that surprised at least me and gives the characters a lot more depth than the typical revenge movie. I just want to say right quick that a lot of movie hobbyist miss out on some interesting movies because they eliminate movies en mass because of what year they were released. That is a mistake. Right off the bat this movie has a lot going for it. Let's check out the plot.
Three ruffians on horseback are on their way to a town called Jiangbei but they lose their way and ask a young man atop a tree for directions. He is kind enough to give them directions but one of the three ruffians goes back to thank him by hurling three arrows at him. Fortunately the arrows are off their mark and he is unharmed. As the ruffians continue on they stop at a river and while they are enjoying the water they spot a young woman who seems to have just finished washing clothes. They frighten her away but they plot to track her down and have their way with her. Sure enough they reach her home and slaughter her mother, father and baby brother. As fate would have it the young man atop of the tree that gave the ruffians their directions to Jiangbei was the young woman's younger brother as well. When the young man reaches home and discovers the slaughter he is overcome with two emotions: grief and the desire for revenge.
Chang Wei-Fu packs a few belongings and then burns down all that remains of his life in Bei He Village. He takes his mother's bracelet, a wiry circle of silver bells, and strings it around his neck, a reminder of his mission of vengeance, his mother's bracelet become the bells of death. He begins his journey to Jiangbei to hunt down the three murderers of his family, to get revenge. As he journeys to Jiangbei he comes across an elder in a straw hat holding a cane sword surrounded by eight armed men. Observing from a distance he hears the armed men call themselves "The Eight Heroes Of Yanzhou" as they give the old man an ultimatum: "surrender or die"!
Chang Wei-Fu watches in anticipation of the old man's certain death but instead the elder quickly and skillfully dispatches all eight assailants and calmly walks away totally unscathed. At first stunned by the unexpected events, Wei-Fu quickly recovers and trails the elder for a day and a night, nonstop without food or drink begging the elder to take him as his student. After seeing his determination and hearing his story the elder decides to accept Chang Wei-Fu as his disciple and they stay in the mountains and train for five (5) years.
THE BELLS OF DEATH (1968) is perfectly cast for effect and that is what makes this a great film but NOT for its kung fu but, hold on --there isn't anything wrong with that. Remember it is still only 1968 and the standards for kung fu have yet to be set let alone be established so we can be generous knowing in the future the kung fu standard will be established, but this is very much an excellent film. Chang Yi is Chang Wei-Fu and he acts in a strong and stalwart manner as a young man (not a teen) fulfilling his obligation of honor revenge for his family's murder and his elder sister's kidnapping. It is a solid performance and is perfect in juxtaposition to the maniacal psychotic antics of the three ruffians played by Ku Feng, Tien Shun and Lam Kau with Lam Kau' character being the most stable of the three but whenever any one of them is on screen that there is a sense that anything could happen, bravo.
However the best supporting actor of this film must go to Chin Ping, yes, that Chin Ping in an non-action role as the totally believable damsel in distress and the character that allows us to invest emotionally in the outcome of the film while keeping the stalwart determination of the hero intact. Perfect casting indeed.
HONORABLE MENTION: I don't know why there is any doubt but Sammo Hung Kam-Bo is clearly in this movie, wearing a head covering but still clearly him so I included a screen shot for proof.
FIGHT TIME: Hey, welcome to my fight analysis for THE BELLS OF DEATH (1968). There is no one credited with the fight choreography in this movie. I counted five (5) fight scenes and they all come after the first third of the movie is over. The techniques are well done but are done in by the shaky cam that director Yueh Feng seems to be quite fond of, not that he over does it this time. I must just admit that I am not a fan of this technique. Fortunately the horror film aspect of the movie is its greatest attraction and the kung fu is but a wonderfully added plus.
Eerie, creepy, spooky, and scary are just some of the adjectives that come to mind when I think of many of the scenes from THE BELLS OF DEATH (1968). The overall theme of the entire movie of how randomly scary the world can be, even if you are just minding your own business is often used in today's movies aimed at the teen audience. I would put this movie up against any slasher or Halloween themed movie produced at any time and so yes I enthusiastically recommend this movie for all audiences and collectors of Shaw Brothers classics except maybe, when watching it, you might just leave the lights on. See you next time.
UP NEXT: THAT FIERY GIRL (1968)