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Plot: daughter avenges the death and dishonor of her bankrupted father

Supreme Sword was a Cantonese period costume wuxia produced at a time when Cantonese cinema was on the way out. The Japanese wuxia of the day were more impressive but they had resources, financial and otherwise, that Supreme Sword did not have access to. Starring leading lady of the day Connie Chan Po-Chu and martial arts pillar Walter Tso Tat-Wah Supreme Sword is a fairly ordinary example of the form and about the only thing that makes it stand out is that it’s fairly bloody for its time. The revenge plot is the oldest in the book but Supreme Sword puts in at least one surprise to make it worthwhile. Supreme Sword is a vehicle for Connie Chan Po-Chu, of the Seven Princesses, and if it weren’t for her presence the production certainly would’ve been rendered a footnote in martial arts history.

When her father (Ling Mung) is bankrupted and dishonored by a counterfeiting ring employing loanshark Mr. Ma (Ko Lo-Chuen) and headed by Gold Fist (Lok Gung) he kills himself to save his relatives from further disgrace. His daughter Wang Tsui Ying (Connie Chan Po-Chu) vows revenge. The counterfeiting ring is part of a much larger criminal operation led by The Four Tigers (See Kin, Ng Yan-Chi, Sze-Ma Wah-Lung, and Wah Wan-Fung). In her quest for revenge Wang Tsui Ying makes her acquaintance with master swordsman Fong Tien-Biu (Yuen Siu-Fai) and his student Cheng Wen Chieh (Lam Kam-Tong). The three run into a dirt-poor drifter/beggar by the name of Fang Tien Hung (Walter Tso Tat-Wah) who themselves are in the process of freeing the captive father of his client Liu (Gam Lui). Loyalties are tested when it is revealed that Liu’s father Cheng Chung is none other than Gold Fist.

Connie Chan Po-Chu, one of the Seven Princesses of 1950s/60s Cantonese cinema

The star of Supreme Sword is Connie Chan Po-Chu, who was one of the so-called 'Seven Princesses' of Cantonese cinema all through the fifties and sixties together with Josephine Siao. Chan was the daughter of opera stars Chan Fei Nung and Kung Fan Hung and was trained in Northern and Southern martial arts. Starting acting at an early age Chan appeared in every genre under the sun including, but not limited to, Chinese opera, wuxia, fantasy and even the occassional romance. Chan was a protégé of famous Cantonese opera star Yam Kim-Fai, famous for frequently playing male roles. Connie Chan Po-Chu and Josephine Siao had starred together with the remaining five other Cantonese starlets Petrina Fung Bo-Bo, her older sister Alice Fung So-Po, Wong Oi-Ming, Nancy Sit Ka-Yin, and Sum Chi-Wah in the two-part monochrome epic Seven Princesses (1967), from whence the collective derived its pet name. Connie Chan and Josephine Siao had a great and devoted following with Chan exceeding Siao in sheer volume, some 230 titles, even though her career was considerably shorter. Despite the friendly rivalry Chan and Siao would often star together in various productions.

A bitter rivalry existed between the genre’s two prime studios Shaw Brothers from Hong Kong, China and Motion Picture and General Investments Limited (MP&GI, later and better known as Cathay) from the Republic of Singapore. As Cathay ceased operations in 1970 Cantonese cinema all but collapsed as Mandarin productions became de facto standard at the box office. The ensemble comedy The House of 72 Tenants (1973) was the only Cantonese movie made that year and a rousing success. Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong company formed by exiled Shaw Brothers executives Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, was in no small part responsible for keeping Cantonese cinema alive. The decline of Cantonese productions forced Chan into early retirement. Connie decided to move to America to further her education but she was encouraged by director Chor Yuen - with whom she had worked frequently in the sixties - to join Shaw Brothers studio and star in his production The Lizard (1972). Following the release of The Lizard in 1972 Connie Chan retired from the entertainment industry completely.

Chan's place was taken by a bright talent called Angela Mao Ying. Mao Ying would continue the pioneering work and pave the way for Michelle Khan (later Yeoh) in the 1980s, who herself was replaced by Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima during the eighties and nineties. In 1999 Chan returned in the record-breaking stage play Sentimental Journey, a story based upon the life of her mentor Yam Kim-Fai, that was a critical success and ran for an impressive 100 performances. In 2003 Chan staged a series of high-profile concerts of beloved films songs and Cantonese opera classics. After the trek had ended Chan appeared in the play Red Boat that ran for 64 performances. Two years later, in 2005, Sentimental Journey was brought back for a six-week revival. Finally, in 2007, Connie was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hong Kong Drama Awards.

Supreme Sword was produced by Walter Tso Tat-Wah for Wenhua Film Company. Tso was a star in his own right. Tso had a career spanning seven decades and got his start in the industry in the mid-1930s when he worked for Grandview Film Company Limited as an assistant director to Chiu Shu-San, Moon Kwan Man-Ching and Tang Xiao-Dan. From there he worked his way up the ladder to production manager in 1949, all while staying active as an actor through out. In 1946 Walter Tso Tat-Wah and his sister Tso Yee-man, who The New York Times famously called the “Mary Pickford of China” at the time, were the stars of Yau Kiu Films Company, the company co-founded by his brother in law and Toishan native You-Chuck Moy. Yau Kiu Films Company was a state-of-the-art 48 thousand square feet studio compound in Kowloon City near the Hau Wong Temple where Sai Kwong and National studios were also housed, making it the mini-Hollywood of Hong Kong. Tragedy struck on November 20, 1948 when Tso Yee-man, the creative force behind the studio, suddenly passed away at the young age of 30 due to complications arising from pneumonia. In an interesting strategic alliance Moy married Susan Shaw, the only daughter of Shaw & Sons Studios mogul Runde Shaw, in March 1949, mere months after the passing of his wife Tso Yee-man.

As one of the major movie studios in Hong Kong in the late 1940s and early 1950s Yau Kiu produced a modest 16 features and filmed 13 others. In 1952 the Mandarin section of Yau Kiu studio burnt down when a short circuit took place in one of the movie sets. From that point forward production was halted at Yau Kiu but other production companies still used the facilities. Walter Tso Tat-Wah not only was a shareholder in Yau Kiu studio but also owned the Palace Theatre (皇宮戲院) in Pak Ho Street in Sham Shui Po which opened in 1953. Tso had to sell his Palace Theatre as well as a number of other properties to pay off his gambling debts, one of his known vices. The most successful production for Yau Kiu was The Seven Swords and the Thirteen Heroes (1967). Yau Kiu was absorbed by Great Wall Movie Enterprise (now part of Sil-Metropole Organization), the leader of Mandarin films in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2001 the properties underwent re-development and it has since become the home to HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity and the Stone House Family Gardens. Yau Kiu was overshadowed by Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest from 1970 onward. Walter Tso Tat-Wah was a veteran from in excess of 700 films and was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Hong Kong Film Critics Association in 2001 and was given the Professional Achievement Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2003.

Walter Tso Tat-Wah was one of the biggest stars at Wenhua Film Company, famous for his roles of Leung Foon, the head disciple of Wong Fei Hung in the four-part Wong Fei-Hung series (1956-1958) that started with Wong Fei-Hung at a Boxing Match (1956) and Wong Fei-Hung's Fight in He'nan (1957) and concluded with How Wong Fei-Hung and Wife Eradicated the Three Rascals (1958) and How Wong Fei-Hung Stormed Phoenix Hill (1958) as well as for his role of Lung Kim Fei from the Buddha’s Palm (1964) series. The directorial duties were given to Ling Yun, a material arts veteran who had worked with Tso earlier on the Buddha’s Palm (1964) series and with Chan on the The Sword of the Palace (1963) trilogy, the two Young and Furious (1966) films as well as the Jade in the Red Dust (1966) trilogy. The screenplay was written by Sze-To On, a prolific writer in Cantonese and Mandarin cinema with credits in a variety of genres dating as far as back as the mid-fifties. Although he was a specialist in the martial arts and wuxia genres Sze-To On also wrote the screenplay to Erotic Ghost Story II (1991) an adult feature that capitalized on the success of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) franchise, which was on to its third episode by that point. Assistant direction on Supreme Sword was done by Chan’s long-time paramour Law Kei.

The fight choreography isn’t quite as acrobatic as would become the norm thanks to Shaw Brothers’ “second wave” wuxia from the second half of the sixties onward. The sword-wielding avenger is a classic figure of Asian cinema and Connie Chan Po-Chu’s portrayal of the vengeful Wang Tsui Ying might not surpass Lady Snowblood (1973) in terms of on-screen carnage and bloodshed, although it doesn’t shy away from severing extremities and spatters of blood, both are equal as far as intensity is concerned. Supreme Sword is one of the transitional titles between the earlier, more rustic wuxia and the more acrobatic variety that would come to dominate the seventies. While the two Lady Snowblood (1973) movies with Meiko Kaji are retroactively more remembered (not only because they were far more bloodier, but also because they were remade in 2003-2004 by a certain American director as the two-part Kill Bill feature) Supreme Sword is not any less impressive. Especially considering that it came from a considerably smaller studio. If there’s one title to start exploring the massive repertoire of Connie Chan Po-Chu Supreme Sword is an excellent startingpoint. Although truthfully the two-part Seven Princesses (1967) epic is where any such journey should really begin.

Plot: underground warrior sect vows to stop invasion of extraterrestrial demons.

The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the long awaited and much overdue collaboration between director/action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and producer/writer/director Tsui Hark. Yuen Wo-Ping and Tsui Hark are veritable Hong Kong legends and this Mainland China feature sees both men combining their strengths to create the ultimate fantasy wuxia event movie. Allegedly a remake of Yuen Wo-Ping’s own The Miracle Fighters (1982) The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the first chapter in a grand two-part saga chronicling an epic confrontation between good and evil on the tellurian and the celestial plains. Apparently this was very much supposed to be a Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) for this generation. Unfortunately The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia falls disappointingly, depressingly short of the mark and instead ends up somewhere along the lines of Dragon Chronicles: The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994) and Mural (2011).

As producer Hark graced the world with everything from Peking Opera Blues (1986), the A Better Tomorrow (1986-1989), Once Upon a Time in China (1991-1997) and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987-1991) franchises, as well as Dragon Inn (1992), and Green Snake (1993). In capacity as director Yuen Wo-Ping worked with some of the finest martial artists, among them Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh with a resumé including Drunken Master (1978), Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), Iron Monkey (1993), Fire Dragon (1994), and Wing Chun (1994). As an action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping is known in the West for his work on Fist of Legend (1994), The Matrix (1999), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and its amiable sequel Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia sees Tsui Hark writing and producing with Yuen Wo-Ping directing. Nominated in three categories (Best Action Film, Best Costume Design, and Best Visual Effects) at the 12th Asian Film Awards and an additional two (Best Action Choreography, and Best Visual Effects) at the 37th Hong Kong Film Awards The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is shockingly average and falls well short of both Hong Kong veterans' individual and collective legacy.

action choreographer/director Yuen Wo-Ping (left) and producer/writer Tsui Hark (right)

No less than 19 production companies and three visual effects firms were involved in the creation of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia. Interestingly, at least for those who pay attention to such things, there was no involvement from the Film Bureau who specialize in these kind of endeavours but on a much smaller scale. Probably because Hark’s screenplay somewhat condemns the corruption of ancient Chinese bureaucracy. Not only does The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia frequently ends up looking like a video game, it’s even structured like one as the merry band of spiritual warriors, each with their own superpower, embark on a perilous six chapter journey to save the world from certain doom at the hand of alien invaders. It comes replete with character power-ups, object fetching quests and end of level boss fights. It’s bad enough when Mural (2011), Angel Warriors (2013), and Ghost Story: Bride with the Painted Skin (2016) end up with better visual effects. At this rate even Bollywood has superior special effects with box office hits as Krrish (2006) and Krrish 3 (2013). You know a production is in trouble when Ada Liu Yan’s breasts attract far more attention than the grand heroic tale it’s spinning.

In ancient China during the Northern Song Dynasty agile fighter Dao Yichang (Aarif Rahman) travels to the capital of Kaifeng hoping to become the constable. Sent on a mission to intercept non-existing wrong-doers Dao quite accidently happens upon a plot much larger than himself. Chasing a strange-looking villager all through the city and into the local brothel where his goldfish turns into an oversized, three-eyed demon causing pandemonium and chagrin to prostitute Mermaid (Ada Liu Yan). The incident attracts the attention of the secretive Wuyinmen warrior clan. They have long held the prophecy that such an event would herald the coming of their destined leader. The seven Wuyinmen members have inherited the magical skills of Qimen and the Dunjia orb will allow them to repel the alien invasion. Iron Butterfly (Ni Ni) forges an alliance with Dao, which prompts Big Brother (Wu Bai) to seek out the Destroyer Of Worlds device. Meanwhile Wuyinmen doctor and strategist Zhuge Fengyun (Da Peng) happens upon waifish ingénue Circle (Zhou Dong-Yu), who's not only an amnesiac but bears the wrist markings of the prophesied Wuyinmen messiah, in a catacomb. That the fragile and slender stray also is a demonic shape-shifting monstrosity is something only Tsui Hark could come up with. With time rapidly ticking away Iron Butterfly and her brothers engage in a desperate effort to safe the world from a ferocious alien force that threatens to destroy it.

If nothing of the above comes across as your typical Tsui Hark fantastical adventure then you’re absolutely right. An everyman chases what turns out to be an alien lifeform and happens upon an impending invasion while being initiated into a top-secret organization (that civilians are blissfully unaware of even exists) and they need a certain object of great importance and magnificent power to stop said invasion from destroying all life on Earth? The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, should there really be any doubt it is, the Chinese equivalent of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black (1997). Aarif Rahman does his best Will Smith impression, Ni Ni is Tommy Lee Jones complete with snark and cynicism, and Da Peng is Rip Torn. At various points Ada Liu Yan and Zhou Dong-Yu stand in for Linda Fiorentino. It’s depressing to see Hark imitating Hollywood, especially in light of how he once was an innovator. Only the messiah prophecy is somewhat redolent of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) but that’s the extent to which Hark deviates from the Men In Black (1997) model. For Chinese audiences the story might have been something else with its daring mix of comedy, Chinese folklore, science fiction and a decidedly Western idea of a plot. For Western audiences The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia riffs on Men In Black (1997) just a bit too close for comfort. It has neither the charm nor the goofy comedy from the Barry Sonnenfeld original. Slapstick humor has long been a boon to the work of Tsui Hark, but here it’s definitely more of a bane.

At least the story is reminiscent of both Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) but there’s where the good news ends. The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is frustratingly episodic and builds towards a climax that never really comes. It’s so busy setting up the inevitable sequel that it frequently forgets that it’s supposed to tell its own story for that sequel to make any sense. Somewhere in the early 2000s Mainland China features started to resemble 2 hour trailers more than actual movies and The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is no different. Tsui Hark’s masterful eye for composition and use of color is painfully absent and the acrobatic action choreography from Yuen Cheung-yan and Yuen Shun-yi isn’t enough to save The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia from prematurely collapsing in on itself. As a greatest hits of sorts there are clumsy constables and well-meaning Confucian scholars, brave sword(wo)men, gravity-defying physics and plenty of beautiful women, prostitutes and otherwise, who are either chaste or promiscuous and always prefer a few slaps across the face as a form of foreplay. Most of the men are bumbling idiots constantly dangling for threesomes with girls who might, or might not, be monsters. Granted everything’s beautifully photograped by Choi Sung-Fai but it never congeals into the Chinese The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) that it probably was meant to be.

Perhaps the worst of all is that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia never becomes more than a sum of its parts. At its best it harnesses the mad kinetic energy of We’re Going to Eat You (1980) but those moments are far and few. 34 years after Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) you’d imagine Tsui Hark having the fantasy wuxia down to a science. If The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was meant to rejuvenate and redefine the fantasy period costume genre then it’s perhaps time to look to at the small screen where series as Ice Fantasy (2016) and Secret Healer (2016) do the same thing to much greater effect on a comperatively smaller budget. Ni Ni is overflowing with talent even though the shadow of Joey Wong, Brigitte Lin, and Maggie Cheung looms large over her. Xie Miao was in God Of Gamblers Return (1994) and it’s always good seeing him in another high-profile production. Ada Liu Yan was in Painted Skin (2008) and Mural (2011) and her star is definitely on the rise. Yan is well underway eclipsing Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Wu Jing-Yi and Yang Ke in terms of bankability. Arguably Tsui Hark has seen better days and his new obsession with digital effects might very well spell the end of practical effects in his movies from here on out. Yuen Wo-Ping on the other hand helms The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia with all the finesse and professionalism you’d expect from an esteemed veteran of his caliber.

Critical – and fan reception was mixed to negative and for once they were spot on. It’s sad to see Tsui Hark, the Steven Spielberg from Asia, undertake such an ambitious project and have it fail so unbelievably spectacularly due to a hamfisted screenplay and some of the most unconvincing digital - and visual effects this side of a bad PlayStation 3 game. That the man who innovated Asian cinema time and again (by taking old folklore stories and reinventing them as action-filled special effects extravaganzas) in the past three decades now finds himself a follower instead of a leader of contemporary cinematic trends is depressing enough. If, and when, the proposed second chapter of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia does arrive we can only hope that Tsui Hark will be able to properly amaze us with his enchanting vistas of mythical figures engaged in epic battle once again. There’s no shortage of the fantastical element in The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, if only the human element was half as interesting as it ought to be. There is a time and place to admire Ada Liu Yan, but we have an inkling suspicion that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was not supposed to be it.