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, Golden Swallow, Brothers Five,The Lady Hermit,The Shadow Whip, The Golden Sword and Dragon Swamp.
IntroductionLike my last Cheng Pei-pei film, this is one I hadn't seen until reviewing it. I watched it last night and was unaware until about a quarter of the way through that The Thundering Sword is based on The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, a Louis Cha (Jin Yong) novel that has been made into many movies and series over the years. They took a lot of liberties with the storyline, pretty much focusing on the early part of the story and condensing everything into that portion of it.
This is a movie that deals with martial sects and the division of them into "orthodox" and "unorthodox" (sometimes labeled "good sects" and "evil sects"). The names of the sects and their characters seem to have been shuffled and tweaked to suit the adaptation, but Cheng Pei-pei's character, So Jiau Jiau, belongs to an unorthodox sect and is the daughter of their rather ruthless chief, So Shing Fung. Her character begins as ruthless as her father, killing with little reason and taking what she wants. But she falls in love with a member of the orthodox Baiyun Temple Sect and is slowly redeemed during the course of the film. I found So Jiau Jiau quite different from other roles I've seen Cheng Pei-pei in from this period, a little more vicious and cruel.
The Thundering Sword was released in 1967 by Shaw Brothers and directed by Hsu Cheng-hung. It starts Cheng Pei-pei (So Jiau Jiau), Chang Yi (Yu Chien Wan), Lo Lieh (Chiang Kwan Yuan) and Shu Pei-pei (Gin Hsia). It also stars Fang Mian (Chief So Shing Fung) and Wu ma (Chief Wang).
The Thundering Sword
|The Master of Baiyan comes out of seclusion|
|So Chau-wu cripples Chiang Kwan|
The Baiyuan Mountain Temple sect is peaceful and orthodox, they believe in using violence to further peace and do not kill lightly. Both Yu Chien and Chiang Kwan adhere to this principle but their lives intersect with So Jiau Jiau who belongs to a less discriminating sect that is trying to find the Thundering Sword. First she meets Yu Chien, who witnesses her attacked by bandits. She fends them off with ease, slaughtering each one without mercy. Yu Chien admonishes her lightly and encourage her to only kill when necessary. He inquires about the Thundering Sword and she claims to have no knowledge of it. They part ways but it is clear that she has fallen in love with Yu Chien.
|Cheng Pei-pei as So Jiau Jiau|
Chiang Kwan encounters her after he finds and removes the Thundering Sword from a booby trapped tomb. She steals the sword with her whip and hits him with poisoned darts. After he succumbs to the toxin and passes out, she realizes he is a martial brother of Yu Chien and attempts to save him by masquerading as Yu Chien and hiring the Yue Escort agency to take him back to Baiyun Temple. On the way they meet So Chau-wu, So Jaiu Jaiu's brother and the son of the Wu Du Clan chief. The chief's son and his men attack the Escort caravan, driving them off. Believing Chiang Kwan knows the the Thundering Sword's location So Chau-wu interrogates him and cripples his body when he refuses to talk.
So Jaiu Jaiu learns about the Yue agency failure and goes to their headquarters to kill them all. Dressed again as Yu Chien, she slaughters everyone, leaving only one man alive (though gravely wounded). After the massacre and So Jiau Jaiu's departure from the scene, the real Yu Chien happens by and tries to help. However the remaining members of Yue Escort agency return and accuse him of killing their brothers. He flees and during his flight once again meets with Jiau Jiau.
At this point a bold and aggressive wandering swordsman (who I assume is loosely based on the character Golden Haired Lion King from Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre) appears from out of nowhere and saves the two, but takes the sword. Even though he takes the Thundering Sword for himself, the wandering swordsman develops a rapport with Jaiu Jaiu and Yu Chien, offering to act as a go between for their marriage.
|The Yue Escort Agency|
There, Jiau Jiau's second crime follows her, as the Yue Escort agency comes to her father asking for justice. They want Yu Chien executed. To avoid causing trouble, Yu Chien leaves but is ambushed by Yue, drugged and brought to Baiyan Temple where his master is expected to help render a verdict. In the meantime, Jiau Jiau's brother has found another Thundering Sword. It becomes unclear which one is real and which is the fake.
|Jiau Jiau swallows poison|
At Mount Baiyan Temple, they are preparing to execute Yu Chien when Jiau Jiau intervenes and takes responsibility for her actions. The wandering swordsman also arrives to defend them, but it is too late as she has taken poison to punish herself for her crimes. When her brother arrives with his father, he has a duel with the swordsman to see which weapon is the true Thundering Sword. As the swords clash together they break and crack the ground. The master of Baiyun Mountain announces that the martial world will no longer feud over the sword and seems satisfied.
As a last request, Jiau Jiau asks to be married to Yu Chien and her wish is granted. Perhaps moved by his sister's actions, So Chau-wu cuts off his own leg before Chiang Kwan and declares that they are even.
In the final moments of the film, Yu Chien and Jiau Jiau have their wedding ceremony and she gives a prolonged farewell as she dies.
Sword and Melodrama
|So Chau-wu looking for the Thundering Sword|
This is a melodrama, which wasn't uncommon in much of the earlier wuxia (you also see plenty of this in more recent wuxia television series). The basic focus is on the redemptive arc of Cheng Pei-pei's character So Jaiu Jaiu. It is a classic situation of personal desires and wants being impeded by the codes, alliances and grudges of the martial world. In the end her character willingly pays the ultimate price for her crimes to save her husband's life and restore peace in the Jianghu.
|Yu Chien wrongfully condemmend|
While some of the plot points and twists feel a bit out of the blue, they make more sense if you know the Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre story. For example, while it seems like they just inserted a duplicate sword midway through for little reason other than lengthening the plot, this actually fits the source material and is a very important piece of the backstory. The problem is, that is difficult to convey in a one hour and thirty minute time frame.
For gaming there is actually a lot here. The trapped tomb, the two swords that fulfill a sort of prophecy, and the feuding sects all make for great adventure material. This isn't the best version for the story to go to for that, but there is still a lot to pull from the film.
Thundering Sword does have its flaws. Some of the edits feel abrupt and I suspect it might be a bit confusing if you are not already familiar with Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. I was familiar enough with that storyline that it wasn't a problem to follow but I don't know how the movie would play for someone who hasn't seen a more complete adaptation of the story. I might advise watching one of the television versions of Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre before viewing The Thundering Sword. This is a soaring melodrama with infrequent but occasionally elegant swordplay scenes. I recommend this but cautiously. It feels dated and it is heavy on the sentimentality (though not always in a bad way). Some of the action sequences are nice, some less so.