Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective.
This review contains many spoilers.
This is part of my Cheng Pei-pei review series. You can see my other reviews of her movies here: Come Drink With Me, Brothers Five,The Lady Hermit,The Shadow Whip, and Dragon Swamp.
The Sequel that Wasn't
I am conflicted when it comes to Golden Swallow. On the one hand, it is a great movie in its own right and Jimmy Wang gives a wonderful performance as the lead actor. On the other hand, this is something of a sequel to Come Drink With Me, but it relegates Cheng Pei-pei's character, Golden Swallow, to a secondary role. It is a film about both Golden Swallow and her lover Silver Roc but mainly it is concerned with the exploits of the latter.
It is hard not to wish the movie gave more screen time and allowed better development of Golden Swallow. While Cheng Pei-pei does regard Golden Swallow as having the best writing of any Chang Cheh movie, in an interview she gives the impression that he oversimplified female characters, saying "He thought he knew women really well....He would tell me to have my hair down. And the way that he shot Wang Yu looking at me was very sweet. But usually girls were just there as girls." There is definitely a noticeable shift in how the character Golden Swallow is presented in this film versus King Hu's Come Drink With Me. She feels almost like a different person here, or at the very least like a person inhabiting a different world from the first movie.
Sill despite these quibbles, I like Golden Swallow and the exceedingly violent and bloody final scene makes this a classic.
Golden Swallow was released in 1968 by Shaw Brothers Studio and directed by Chang Cheh. It stars Jimmy Wang (Silver Roc), Cheng Pei-pei (Golden Swallow), and Lo Lieh (Golden Whip).
Golden Swallow is a tale of love, justice and revenge. A love triangle in which the key protagonist, Silver Roc, nearly drags his allies to ruin on a ruthless quest to rid the world of iniquity. He leaps at his foes like a soaring bird and slices with an elegant gentlemen sword but is dark and brooding, seemingly incapable of forming real connections with other people.
His opponent in love is Golden Whip, a noble and kindhearted warrior who seems to lack the killer instinct necessary to survive the martial world. He wields a bian, sometimes called the hard whip, a sort of long bludgeoning weapon with a pointy end that can be used to stab.
The object of their affection is Golden Swallow. She provides a mean between the two, capable of killing without remorse when necessary but never going beyond what the situation demands. Golden Swallow provides a middle ground between Silver Roc's ruthlessness and Golden Whip's compassion. She carries two small blades, parrying blows with one and killing with the other.
Silver Roc studied under the same master as Golden Swallow. He was an orphan, whose entire family was killed by bandits. He survived the attack but his face is stamped with a crude scar from one of the killer's sword blades. As a student he was quiet and formed a bond with only one other disciple: Golden Swallow. However the others admired him for his martial talents and he was the only one among them to master their Sifu's deadly attack "The Roc's Coup de grace", in which he leaps at his foes and kills them with a deadly flourish. At the time he was known only as Little Roc. But he left his master suddenly and without any explanation to the other students, taking several of Golden Swallow's swallow darts before departing.
|Silver Roc performing Roc's Coup de Grace|
He also is a loner and spends most of his time going from one brothel to the next. His favorite is Li Chun Yuan Brothel where he is especially close to a woman named Mei-niang. Between butcherings, we get to see the swordsman unwind and drink himself into a stupor, when he unfurls some poetic verse about his lonely wanderings and his desire to see Golden Swallow again: "With sword I travel alone. The Roc soars high into the clouds. The land is vast, but where is my home? Oh Swallow, where are you nestling?"
This is a particularly effective scene because they superimpose the the poem and its characters over a silhouette of a landscape and the figure of Silver Roc. It is somewhat melodramatic but works very well. However it isn't long before Silver Roc is back on the road, cutting down evildoers.
And the path he carves here is especially brutal. We get one scene after another of Silver Roc effortlessly slicing through dozens of bandits, culminating in a fabulous attack on the Golden Dragon headquarters. The Golden Dragons are vicious, murdering innocent people and their families, and then cutting out the hearts of enemies and quartering their own men when they fail to follow orders. It is clear from the very moment you see them, these are bad people. Yet as Silver Roc cuts them down, one questions if his sadism is greater than theirs. He burns the place down and leaves another swallow dart at the scene.
As this unfolds, Golden Swallow is living in a mountain valley with Golden Whip, where they train together. They meet one of Golden Whip's martial brothers, Flying Fox. He brings news of the deadly hero Silver Roc and his exploits murdering thugs and bandits. Golden Swallow wonders if this Silver Roc could be her old classmate Little Roc.
|Golden Whip, Golden Swallow and Flying Fox|
As they are walk through the wilderness the three are ambushed by Iron Face, Liu Chong, Double Blade and Fan Len. They were all wronged in some way by Silver Roc's actions, and because he left the swallow pin at each scene, they've come to Golden Swallow to settle the grudge. Golden Swallow and Golden Whip both make short work of them, but Flying Fox is wounded in the fight and they bring him back to their valley to recuperate. It is obvious after the battle that Golden Whip considers Golden Swallow too eager to kill, and she regards his hesitancy to do so as a possible weakness.
Back in the valley, Golden Swallow is convinced that Silver Roc is behind everything, and that this is his way of trying to see her again. After they treat Flying Fox of his injuries, Golden Swallow leaves to deal with Silver Roc on her own, however Golden Whip follows after her.
Meanwhile, Silver Roc hears the cries of a grieving mother from his brothel window and is informed that her husband was murdered and her son forced to commit suicide by the two Master Cao's who wanted the family's land. This fills Silver Roc with rage and he goes after the men, finding the first Cao easily before setting out for a tea house where he believes the other to be.
|Silver Roc Burning the Golden Dragons|
On the road Golden Swallow is attacked by a group of thugs who have united under the new head of Golden Dragon, Poison Dragon Wang to seek vengeance against her. She fends them off and manages to escape. Somehow Golden Whip manages to find Silver Roc first and arrives at the Tea House just after the hero has rendered justice and killed the second Master Cao. Silver Roc stands over one of Cao's men, who pleads for his life, and his first strike against the man is parried by Golden Whip who encourages him to show mercy. Still in a fury, Silver Roc slices the man's throat.
There the two have a cold stand-off and exchange of words. Golden Whip takes exception to Silver Roc's cruelty but it is clear that this is really about jealousy. They agree to a duel when Golden Swallow arrives and tries to dissuade them. Both are insistent on fighting, however when Golden Swallow tells them that she is now being hunted by a newly united criminal underworld, Silver Roc promises to deal with them for her first.
Silver Roc makes his way to find Poison Dragon Wang, again slicing his way through henchmen who fall before his sword like blades of grass. Golden Swallow and Golden Whip give pursuit but are always one step behind, picking off his scraps as they try to catch up. After facing a group of guards called The Five Heroes, Silver Roc faces against Poison Dragon Wang in a ruined tomb. There he is about to kill Wang when Golden Swallow and Golden Whip arrive. A wounded henchmen tries to strike Swallow and Silver Roc's efforts to protect her give Poison Dragon Wang an opportunity to escape. Once again Silver Roc gives chase and the other two return to their valley home.
Later Golden Swallow tries to find Silver Roc by going to different brothels. At one of them she runs into Flying Fox, a long-standing patron of such establishments, and he tells her that Silver Roc sees a girl name Mei-niang at Li Chun Yuan Brothel. She goes there and the two spend the night together after drinking and talking. Though she asked him not to go to his duel with Golden Whip, the date and time are already made for the next day and he departs in the middle of the night to meet his fate.
|Golden Swallow and Silver Roc meet again|
The next morning, Mei-niang and Golden Swallow try to track Silver Roc down to stop the duel. They are followed by a Poison Dragon Wang, who plans to use the duel to his advantage and kill Golden Swallow and Silver Roc. He is intercepted by Flying Fox, who buys some time for his friends but dies in the effort.
As all the characters converge on the duel, where the two men have already been fighting for some time, Silver Roc is distracted by the presence of Poison Dragon Wang and leaps over Golden Whip to stab him. As he does, Golden Whip's bian is accidentally split and drives into Silver Roc's belly, wounding him mortally. He does manage to kill Poison Dragon Wang but he loses a lot of blood and knows he is going to die.
Golden Swallow tells Silver Roc that she loves him, and he asks Golden Whip to take her away so she doesn't see him die. Instead he stays in the company of Mei-Niang (who he doesn't love) as he fades.
Just when it looks like we have arrived at the melancholy ending, Silver Roc hears the sound of marching, of Poison Dragon Wang's troops arriving. Determined to die a hero, he faces them all, taking arrows and swords, whip lashes and hooks but defeating them in the end. He stands triumphant over his enemies and declares that he "still reigns as supreme swordsman."
|Silver Roc on his way to face Poison Dragon Wang|
Blood and Spirit
This movie is exceptionally bloody and particularly ruthless in how it depicts violence. There are two scenes where characters cut open their own belly just to prove their honesty and loyalty. The movie is filled with images like this. Still there is an underlying elegance to the fight choreography, particularly with Jimmy Wang's Silver Roc, who flies through the air with flowing white sleeves and slashes like a dervish.
Jimmy Wang is rather lean, so this style works for his physique. His face is hard, but his body is like a dancer's. He dashes and whirls his way to victory and carries himself with a lightness that is believable in its deadliness.
There are several standout scenes. Unfortunately Cheng Pei-pei doesn't get as much fight time in this one. She is mainly on the edge of the film. Even Lo Lieh, who has third billing really, gets some of the better swordplay scenes. This is definitely one of the disappointments of the movie.
The scenes that work mainly focus on Jimmy Wang, and the crowning jewel of Golden Swallow is his final battle against Poison Dragon's men. It is so bloody it borders on the ridiculous but it still manages to ring true. Already dying, Jimmy Wang's Silver Roc is impaled with four swords, down to the very hilts, wounded by countless arrows and stabbed a number of times, but still stands and fends off his opponents. The scene plays like a crucifixion and has a lot of emotional weight because of its bloodiness. For me, it is the visual depiction of the martial art notion of indomitable spirit. Siver Roc is a character who simply refuses to lose, who refuses to die until he has won.
|Silver Roc as the supreme swordsman|
I do recommend Golden Swallow, though I think it is not the best Cheng Pei-pei vehicle. If you want to see a film with her in a more prominent role, I would suggest Come Drink with Me or Lady Hermit. However Jimmy Wang is a tremendous actor and you won't be disappointed by Golden Swallow if you go in not expecting a straight sequel of Come Drink With Me.