Sunday, December 24, 2023


This is part of a series I started when working on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, reviewing wuxia films and discussing their relevance to tabletop RPGs. I am a little rusty on these written reviews and my last one was a little long winded, so I am going to aim for brevity on this one. 

If you want to bring wuxia to your RPG table, try Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades or Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. 

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.

The Devil's Mirror is a 1972 Shaw Brothers wuxia film, directed by Sun Chung (Human Lanterns, Avenging Eagle, The Deadly Breaking Sword, etc). It stars Shu Pei-Pei (Bao Xiaofeng), Lau Dan (Wen Jianfeng), Lee Ga-Sai (Jiuxuan Witch), Wang Hsieh (Chief Bai), Tung Lin (Deputy Chief Leng) and Ching Miao (Chief Wen). I believe the title in Chinese is Wind and Thunder Magic Mirror

The Devil's Mirror kept me entertained the whole way through. I want to lead this review with saying just how much I liked the film. It is bloody, filled with great fights, and builds a world through awe-inspiring sets and characters who are all larger than life. This is also an adult wuxia movie. Not in the sense of being pornographic but in the sense of not shying away from blood, sensuality and other elements. But it never felt like it loses sight of delivering a solid adventure and keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. 

The movie starts out with a sense of urgency as men ride on horseback to a racing background melody on their way to Golden Lion Clan Headquarters. The music here works really well and was one of the things that instantly drew me in. This brings us to a great opening where the Taishan allied clans have gathered to hear Chief Wen as mourners weep in the background. 

We soon learn the martial world is being terrorized by Jiuxuan Witch, head of the Bloody Ghouls Clan, who wants to steal the Thunder Magic Mirror and the Wind Magic Mirror in order to open Emperor Wu's tomb so she can obtain the Fish Intestine Sword to control the martial world and the Millenium Ganoderma to increase her longevity. Chief Bai and his daughter, and Chief Wen and his son, work to thwart her but these efforts are complicated by the presence of a spy, Deputy Chief Leng, in Chief Bai's organization at Jixian Mansion. 

Jiuxuan Witch 
Jiuxuan Witch (called Nine-Souls Witch in the subtitles) is an incredible villain. Lee Ga-Sai is great here. To call her lascivious would be a polite way of phrasing things. She uses black magic and poison. Her martial arts are exceptional, though she seems rarely to have to stoop to them. She also is an apex seductress, though it is a little unclear if this is natural charm or a product of magic as the soundtrack hints at supernatural elements to her captivating expressions. Her presentation is quite impressive too, with black and gold robes, an elaborate golden top-knot and a third eye on her forehead. This is cackling mad over the top wuxia villainy at its finest. 

Chief Bai and his golden chain
Wang Hsieh also stands out as Chief Bai. He has an enormous presence. As a righteous chief with a strident personality who is hobbled by a peg leg, he is almost as entertaining as the Jiuxuan Witch. He is the sort of hero who bellows "You're all trash!" to his own men, and a hero whose men plead not to be executed when they fail. Also through much of the movie he seems duped by his deputy chief, Leng, which makes for interesting moments down the road and adds a layer to his personality. 

Shu Pei-pei and Lau Dan make a nice heroic duo. Tung Lin as the duplicitous Deputy Chief Leng was also a good fit for the role. The deputy chief is working with The Bloody Ghoul sect in secret, and seems to have Chief Bai fully convinced of his loyalty. His motivations appear to be that he is either enchanted by the Jiuxuan Witch or simply lusts after her. To me it looked like a bit of both but the end result is he is wrapped around her finger. Together they try to divide the alliance by implicating the Golden Lions in a theft of one of the mirrors at Jixian Mansion. 

Jiuxuan Witch and her lover Leng
The witch's relationship with Deputy Leng is something that I like about the movie. It doesn't shy away form what is going on. There are no subtle hints here, they are sleeping together, and I think revealing that fully for the camera works because it does make his slavish devotion more believable and it highlights aspects of her personality (where she does what she wants and doesn't care because she has the power to do so). 

The fight choreography and performances are sharp throughout for the most part. Also the use of reverse crank helps maintain that energy. There is some interesting use of wire work. At one point, the Witch is spinning as she flies through the air. This looks almost unintentional but I think it was for effect and fit her wild character. For 1972 the wirework seemed quite good to me. 

It also has ample gore, something Sun Chung is good at. I love his film, Human Lanterns, and even though this is one of his earlier films, you can see foreshadowing of it in this film. And the gore is balanced with a kind of gonzo approach. This isn't quite at the level of later movies like Holy Flame of the Martial World or Web of Death, but you can see hints of that type of gonzo wuxia here. There are moments where characters do things like cut up bits of wood and throw them into peoples faces, kick drums into their chests, smash doors open into peoples chests or slice off a head using two swords like a pair of scissors. Each such moment is punctuated with blood. In one scene a key character is stabbed from all sides and releases a startling sanguine spray. The ample gushes of blood are a core feature of the morie. The action is stretched right to the edge but always still feels violent and deadly. 

You also have Chief Bai with his peg leg, using it as a weapon in combat, even impaling a someone with it. 

Bai Xiaofeng and Chief Bai 
One scene I liked especially was the first real battle where masked intruders infiltrate Jixian Mansion to steal the wind magic mirror. It is the kind of fight that wakes you up as a viewer, with rapid cutting sword strokes at an energetic pace. In another movie it would be procedural filler, especially since there aren't any major characters and any characters of note are all wearing masks, but the shots and performances are all great with a few surprising moments. And it got me excited for the rest of the movie. 

The Devil's Mirror fight sequences do a good job of pairing up weapons as well. Chief Bai fights both his crutch but also a golden chain that has a distinct look and feel. The Jiuxuan Witch uses the two mirrors once she gets them in either hand, and this fits with her fending off Bai's chain and the two younger heroes swords in the finale. It is the kind of artful pairing you often see in Chor Yuen movies, where the fights feel a little more like poetry or dance than combat. I think the effect of her wielding the two mirrors was it enabled a flowing movement that felt this way. 

The sets are magnificent. I particularly like the underground chambers and tunnels. The finale is set in the Tomb of Emperor Wu and it doesn't disappoint. You really need to see the film to view them for yourself, as it isn't easy finding good stills of the various lairs, but they add so much to the movie. 

This works well as a concept on a number of levels. Borrowing the idea of a villain hellbent on obtain vital objects that the PCs protect has a lot of potential. 

Jiuxuan Witch holding Court 
This movie also has dungeons galore. Not only is the headquarters of the Bloody Ghoul sect perfect in its own right as a dungeon, it connects to Chief Bai's headquarters through secret underground tunnels. This opens the way for a pretty sizable dungeon but one that has a very practical purpose. The sets should give any GM plenty of inspiration here. 

Emperor Wu's Tomb was particularly impressive. It is based on history and folklore, so the GM can do additional research and learn more. At first I thought it was meant to be the Tomb of Emperor Wu of the Han, but looking into it further I think it is meant to be the tomb of Liao Emperor of the state of Wu, because according to folklore an assassin named Zhuan Zhu attempted to kill him with a sword smuggled in fish and came to be called Fish Intestines (the black smith who made this sword Ou Yezi is also known for making a number of legendary weapons which can provide more ideas for adventure. Whatever the historical details, I think there is a lot for the GM to work with. 

The Fish Intestine sword as depicted in the movie can slice through other peoples weapons. My instinct in a game like Ogre Gate or Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades is to have this provide a +1d10 to counters and to cut or break opponent's weapons on a result of 10. In folklore it has a reputation for causing the welder to be disloyal so I think having it impose an appropriate flaw could work. 

The mirrors are also interesting. We don't get deep inside into what they can do but we know they work as a pair (which I think opens up the door to there being many more mirrors for increased effect). We also know that Chief Wen is concerned about its environmental effect, so there should be some potential for catastrophe using them. It appears they summon a storm when used together and can be used to concentrate a beam of energy that busts through the gate to the emperor's tomb. I think something that does enough damage to break solid rock but also break through magical seals would work here. So probably it does open damage to objects and disrupts magical effects. 

This is a film I highly recommend to any fan of wuxia, and in particular to fans of darker wuxia stories or horror movie cross overs. But even though it is dark it keeps a focus on being entertaining. These are ultimately fun and engaging wuxia characters. And the action is action and atmosphere are both stellar. I was pleasantly surprised by The Devil's Mirror

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