26 Jul Top 5 Wuxia Villains of Shaw Brothers by Far East Films
Nothing in world cinema is as wonderful, as maddening, as electrifying, as absurd, as oblique or as intoxicating as the Wuxia film. Bathed in colour, populated by galactic-sized super characters who are so flamboyant that they make Western superheroes look like food health inspectors, Wuxia films are a portal to a bizarre interpretation of the Martial World. Heroes are ice-cool, villains are hubristically megalomaniacal and the land around these figures is peopled by eccentrics and vast clans whose byzantine rules and regulations make the viewers’ head spin. While literature was the first home of Wuxia, cinema has added another layer of intensity to the genre and the Shaw Brothers’ studio of the late 60s to early 80s was the undisputed home of the tales of luminaries like Louis Cha and Gu Long.
What often draws a viewer into the world of a Wuxia film is not so much the plot – as long as it is suitably insane, we’re happy – or the hero or heroine. It is the villain. A villain with a throat-wobbling laugh, insane powers and a suitably flamboyant environment from which to operate from is so often what makes a pedestrian swordplay movie into something memorable. With that in mind, it’s fitting that we take a look at five notable villains from that most febrile of genres.
To get away with wearing elbow-length glittering gloves with Zayn Malik-like confidence in one’s masculinity, you better be a terrifying villain. Thankfully the first on our list is such a figure, a man who brings single-minded obsession with ruling the martial world to incredible new heights. Dugu Wu Di from the two Bastard Swordsman films is one such phenomenon. Played by Alex Man, Dugu spends much of the stories incubating his tremendous skills in a cave, trying to reach the next level of his latent ability. His ‘Invincible Style’ is probably not as bombastic as its name suggests as when Dugu does mix it up with the patrons of the martial world he leaves a trail of destruction in his wake. He gets full wuxia marks for the ability to literally bounce of the walls and fire laser bolts from his hands and the way he decimates his opponents is quite a spectacle. Unfortunately that pesky ‘Invincible Style’ leaves Dugu impotent and eventually destroys him, but devotion to his craft and sheer force of his powers has to be something to be admired.
For sheer eye-watering wickedness and general demeanour, Yoh Xi-Hung, played in the classic ‘Avenging Eagle’ by Ku Feng, is impossible to ignore. Although he leaves much of the unbridled madness and wanton slaughter to his trained underlings, the 13 Eagles, he quickly puts on his iron talon gauntlets when the need arises and ruthless dispatches anyone who dares oppose him. With very little conscience, Yoh is an equal rights killer and builds his empire on snuffing out threats of all kinds, regardless of age or gender. Naturally this kind of malevolence has certain consequences and when former Eagle Chi Ming Sing, conscience finally twinged by all of the killing, comes back for revenge, Yoh’s advancing years catch up with him. Nevertheless, few images are as powerful in Shaw Brothers’ wuxia cinema as Yoh Xi-Hung, arms outstretched, gauntlets on, bearing down on the camera.
Two great and slightly melancholic wuxia films are ‘The Sentimental Swordsman’ and its official sequel. Much of the first film relies on the mystery surrounding the identity of the main villain, ‘The Plum Blossom Bandit’, so giving away too much about him might spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it. Needless to say that, despite a relatively innocuous name, The Plum Blossom Bandit is nearly without equal and as scores of protagonists try to unmask him in the film, he fashions ingenious ways of getting rid of anyone who gets too close. Single-minded, his final reveal is suitably heart-breaking in light of the downbeat style of the film and his ability to stay one step ahead of everyone in this impressive. A much less flamboyant villain than the aforementioned, but a perfect example of a shrouded wuxia villain who operates in the shadows.
Although he doesn’t play as significant part in ‘The Brave Archer’ as his famous name suggests he should, Ouyang Feng deserves a place among any mention of great Wuxia villainy. ‘The Brave Archer’ films are huge ensemble films that try to condense Louis Cha’s vast ‘Legend of the Condor Heroes’ story into just a few hundred minutes and perhaps, to some, Wang Lung Wei’s turn as the fearsome is Ouyang Feng can be somewhat overlooked. Yet Wang Lung Wei imbues the character with such gravitas that each scene he appears in feels as if its spilling out of the frame. Ouyang Feng is nearly unequalled in the martial world in terms of sheer power and ambition, but as you might expect it is the latter that begins his downfall. Still, in his mighty pomp, bedecked in a glittering silver robe he somehow pulls off, Wang Lung-Wei’s Ouayang Feng is a suitably deadly antagonist. When he floats onto screen and looks to dominate the martial world through his own incredible power and the promotion of his snivelling nephew Ouyang Ke, all the whirl carrying his Souther Venom staff, you know you’re in for a treat.
Naturally, there a scores of honourable exclusions that deserve a mention, particularly the annoying tomboy villainess Little Lord – played by Candy Wen – in one of the loopiest of all Wuxia films, ‘The Swordsman & The Enchantress’. It would be remiss not to suggest Long-Armed Devil from ‘The One-Armed Swordsman’ or Han Tang (played by the late, great Lo Lieh) from ‘Killer Clans; the latter is more of an anti-hero, but wields a mean circular blade in his straw hat and is not averse to using it on people who disturb his fishing. There’s been zombified assassins, coffin-dwelling killers with deadly gasses at their disposal (Pursuit of Vengeance), English-spouting mummies (Holy Flame of the Martial World) and scores of cackling monstrosities who bring the fantastical world of Gu Long, Louis Cha and Jin Young to life.
The final mention, though, goes to Zhou Tung Lai from ‘Heroes Shed No Tears’ played by a star, Derek Yee, usually associated with roles as the main hero. Yee revels in his opportunity to play against type as a master manipulator and Machiavellian super-villain who pits two clans against each other with little thought about the fall-out. Draped in his purple robes, Zhou might seem a fiendish schemer rather than an arch-enemy, but in the finale he shows that he very much has the fighting chops to compete with the best; the way he disarms Fu Sheng’s Gao and his allies is mightily impressive. About as a perfect a combination of brains and brawn as the Wuxia world ever contained, characters like Zhou Tung Lai is the reason the genre is so captivating.
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