Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (WHOG) draws on a number of sources for inspiration. I watch a lot of wuxia movies and TV shows, and these have had a big influence not only on Ogre Gate, but on Sertorius and many of my d20 campaigns. I am hoping to share some of my favorite movies and shows in the genre here as we work on WHOG.

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, and The Lady Hermit

Cheng Pei-pei has described Lo Wei as a story teller, in contrast to King Hu who she described as an art director. The Shadow Whip often gets compared to Hu's Come Drink With Me, because it re-unites that film's stars Cheng Pei-pei and Yueh Hua, and the comparison is often unfavorable. It should be pointed out though that they appeared in many films together between Come Drink With Me and The Shadow Whip (including Swamp Dragon and Brothers Five). I think it is clear from interviews with Cheng Pei-pei that she reserved her greatest respect for King Hu as an artist and director, and events of her later life would seem to support this as well. But it is somewhat unfair to hold The Shadow Whip to the incredibly high bar of Come Drink With Me (which is rightly widely regarded as a much better film). Personally I enjoyed the Shadow Whip immensely right from the opening scene, and I think it offers a much different look and feel than other wuxia films of the time. It does have its flaws, and it is a movie rooted firmly in the trappings of the genre. Still, I think The Shadow Whip is a strong movie, with a steady, exciting pace and a little bit of everything. 

The Shadow Whip was released in 1971* by Shaw Brothers Studio and directed by Lo Wei (Brothers Five and Fist of Fury). It stars Cheng Pei-pei (Yang Kaiyun), Yeuh Hua (Wang), Tien Feng (Fang Chengtian/The Shadow Whip), Ku Feng (Chief Hong) and Lee Kwan (Ersha). The art direction is by Chen Ching-Shen and music by Wang Fook-Ling). 

Readers have probably guessed I am a sucker for dramatic opening music and The Shadow Whip doesn't disappoint here, leading in with a strong overture, followed by an actual song within the opening sequence itself. The movie starts with a shot of a merchant caravan moving supplies between two mountain towns. One of the character's (Ersha) sings a melody about trading goods like pipes for smoking and gifts for children, and this blend of location and song that establishes the atmosphere of The Shadow Whip

The caravan is led by Yang Kaiyun, who runs the nearby Red Pine Village Inn with her uncle. She is accompanied by Ersha, an employee of the inn, to the nearby town of Dafeng. Along the way, a group of three horse riders calling themselves The Serial Trio**, harass Ersha for being in their way, one of them lashing him with a whip. 

The Serial Trio reach Defeng and go to the Guanyi Inn where they demand seating despite no tables being available. The inn keeper asks one of the guests, Wang Jianxin, to share his table with the trio and he agrees. Wang is peaceable with the new arrivals but between their treatment of Ersha and their unruly behavior in the Inn it is clear they are dangerous guys. 
Kaiyun leaping to avoid some darts

When Ersha and Kaiyun arrive in Dafeng, Ersha has worked himself into a fury over his beating. He spots the trio's horses by Guanyi Inn and storms in to confront them. Physically, the diminutive Ersha is no match for his assailants, but that doesn't stop him from insisting on a fight. This leads to Wang stepping in to save the smaller man and then a battle between the trio, Wang, Ersha and Kaiyun ensues. 

The fight is short-lived, as the innkeeper talks everyone into a temporary truce. The Serial Trio leaves but vows that the score hasn't yet been settled. Wang and Kaiyun exchange some friendly banter, with Wang expressing interest in Kaiyun's whip technique. He asks if she was trained by The Shadow Whip, a great master whose style resembles her own. Kaiyun tells him she learned from her uncle. After Kaiyun leaves, Wang asks the innkeeper about her and is told she runs the inn in a nearby town with her uncle. 

When Ersha and Kaiyun return to Red Pine Village, a mysterious guest arrives (we learn later that this is Chief Hong). When Ersha sees that the man leaves no footprints in the snow, he becomes suspicious and goes to Kaiyun's uncle. Meanwhile, Kaiyun tells her uncle that she thinks he is the Shadow Whip, after learning about the master from Wang. We also learn that they have been in hiding for fifteen years but Kaiyun is too young to know the reason. When Ersha brings news of the guest, Kaiyun goes to investigate, fearing it may be a person her uncle is hiding from.
Wang and Chief Hong

Wang leaves for Red Pine Village to follow Kaiyun and is intercepted by the Serial Trio in the wilderness. They push for a fight and he agrees, but says he is pressed for time and can only spar for a few short rounds. During the battle Wang disengages and makes his way to Red Pine Inn, the Serial Trio on his tail. 

All the players converge on the Red Pine Inn, with the trio chasing Wang into the courtyard. The mysterious guest is revealed to be their master, Chief Hong. He dismisses his students and departs. Wang tells Kaiyun he believes her uncle is the Shadow Whip and wants to learn from him and tells her to have his uncle meet him at The Guangyi Inn. 

Kaiyun's uncle and Chief Hong square off in the forest, for an epic snow battle between whip and sword. Soon Kaiyun arrives to help her uncle and bring Wang's message, as Hong's Serial Trio arrive to aid their master, but the uncle tells her to go to Guangyi Inn ahead of him while he deals with the fight. She leaves and the uncle eventually manages to disengage his attackers. 
Kaiyun faces the 16 Bandits

Kaiyun returns to the Red Pine Inn to find poor Ersha speared against a post and a group of thugs called the 16 Bandits waiting for her in the inn's tavern. They tell her that her father is a criminal named Fang Chengtian, who stole 300,000 taels worth of jewelry under the protection of Chief Hong 15 years ago. According to the bandits, Chief Hong and Fang were sworn brothers, so the chief has gathered men in the martial world to help him obtain revenge. Kaiyun refuses to believe that her uncle did anything wrong and refuses to tell the Bandits where he is, leading to a spectacular fight. Her uncle returns to the Inn and helps her fend off the bandits, telling her once again to go to Guangyi and meet Wang while he deals with them. 

Uncle Fang and Kaiyun against the 16 bandits
A confused Kaiyun arrives at the Guangyi Inn and enters Wang's room, only to be attacked by him. He apologizes once he realizes she isn't her uncle, and he tells her that he is the nephew of Chief Yang of the Xuan Wu Security company. According to Wang his uncle was in charge with a shipment of jewelry, and had asked for both Chief Hong and Chief Fang's assistance protecting it. Yang was killed by Fang, who stole the jewelry, leading to the suicide of Wang's aunt. Wang wants revenge for his uncle and aunt but holds no grudge with Kaiyun, and even seems to admire her. During their talk, the inn is surrounded by Chief Hong and his forces who demands that Wang give him Kaiyun They fight together to escape the courtyard in a fight with dozens of men. They eventually escape to the woods but are tracked down by Hong for another showdown. Hong seems to think Kaiyun is Fang's daughter and therefore a fair target for his wrath, but she insists her surname is Yang, which provokes Hong and he tries to stab her. 

Fang arrives and helps them escape back to the Red Pine Inn. There Wang accuses Fang of killing his uncle, stealing the jewelry and causing his aunt's suicide. Fang explains that he is in fact The Shadow Whip but has been hiding his identity for 15 years to protect Kaiyun. He then takes them to a secret chamber below the Inn where he keeps a shrine to the Yang family and has a book that provides his account of events. 

There is a well done flashback scene to the incident 15 years ago. Chief Yang came to Fang to ask for his helps with the shipment, and Fang agreed because Chief Hong was involved and they were sworn brothers. That night his men learned of rumors that the 16 Bandits were planning to strike at Yang to steal the shipment, so he took his horse and went to Yang's inn to inform him. When he arrived, the inn was under attack led by a masked man wielding a whip using a technique similar to Fang's. He understood immediately that he was being framed and when he learned that Yang was already killed he took Yang's daughter (Kaiyun) and took her into hiding. 

Fang says he wants revenge but doesn't know who the person wearing the mask was. Wang suggests that it was Chief Hong, based on his lethal reaction when Kaiyun told him her true surname. He suggests they use that against him, and have kaiyun claim to remember who killed her father to lure a confession from the chief. 

By this time all of Chief Hong's men have gathered in the courtyard and Kaiyun appears before them, saying she is the daughter of Yang and she knows the identity of her father's killer. A nervous Chief Hong dismisses her claims but the other men want to know the truth and press her to tell them. When she says it was none other than Chief Hong himself, he denies saying she couldn't possibly know it was him because he "was wearing a mask that night". His identity as the killer revealed, alliances suddenly shift, and everyone attacks Chief Hong, leading to a showdown between him Wang, Kaiyun and Fang. 

The fight scenes in this movie are quite interesting to view, largely because the whip takes center stage. It is a bit difficult to imagine a fight between swords and a whip, and I was skeptical before I saw it myself, but the weapon compliments Cheng Pei-pei's circular style of movement very well. And it honestly has some great martial arts choreography. Also there is plenty of straightforward swordplay as Yeuh Hua uses a sword throughout the movie. 

Wang and Kaiyun
The film makes good use of Chen Pei-pei's height; she is powerful in her stance and performance. This is in fact probably the strongest physically she has appeared in a film, just in terms of her stature, motion, attacks, etc. At least in my opinion. I may be in the minority on this point, as I haven't really seen it reflected in other reviews or commentaries, and I do not know what I am picking up on specifically but she just has a strong presence in the action scenes. 

The use of the whip really forces the filmmakers to get creative, and opens up all kinds of possibilities. They do all kinds of interesting things with it, like launching spears into people's chests with a whip lash. I really enjoyed the balance between the sword and the whip. It stretches plausibility a bit, because it is hard to imagine a person with a whip not getting cut down by swordsman, but it works for the screen. 

While I couldn't find any isolated clips from the film, I think this kill count put together by a fan helps illustrate what I am talking about: 

In terms of gaming it is a solid source of inspiration. Like a lot of these movies it introduces viewers to the idea of Security companies working with martial artists to transport goods safely through dangerous territory. There is a lot there that could be incorporated into a campaign. Also the two inns are useful because they each have a distinct feel and some imaginative flourishes. Definitely great gaming material. 

While this isn't the strongest Cheng Pei-pei film, it is a solid movie with solid performances and has unique qualities that make it one of the ones I re-watch more frequently. I think the combination of the mountain location, the whip, and Cheng Pei-pei's more powerful presence are what set it apart. 

One thing I really like about the movie is it has everything: music, comedy, tragedy, action and drama. This is common in many wuxia films and one of the reasons I like the genre. The comedy is largely provided by Ersha, who also provides the tragedy when he meets an untimely demise. It is packed with action, so there really isn't a dull moment to spare. And the plot twist in the middle where Kaiyun learns her identity followed by the flashback sequence gives the movie another layer. It is one of those films when you step back and view, has a lot of texture due to all the elements it contains. 

*I should note that the DVD I watched said it was released in 1970, but all other sources I could find indicate 1971. 

**This may have been a translation issue in my version, as the Serial Trio sounds like an odd name. 

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