According to his bio on Celestial’s Clan Feuds DVD, director Chang Peng-Yi earned the nick-name, “Taiwanese Chu Yuan” with his many film adaptations of Gu Long novels. It certainly wasn’t because of his cinematic style, if he can be said to have had one.
Clutch of Power tells the story of a group of martial artists fighting each other over a map that records the positions of the Chinese army in the waning days of the Sung dynasty. One particular swordsman, who calls himself the “Spirit of the Sword,” searches for the map not because he cares about the Sung’s impending doom or the invading Mongols, but because of the opportunities it presents him to fight with the top martial artists of China. Filling in the role of the hero is Zhan Yi, a young swordfighter charged with finding a reclusive master, thought to be the only one capable of killing “Spirit of the Sword,” reclaiming the map, and saving China from a couple of centuries of foreign rule. But while Zhan Yi is as upright as such characters can be, the most highly regarded of the martial world fail to live up to the standards taught to their students.
If taken seriously, Clutch of Power is a merciless attack on the authority of elders that totally reneges on its central theme at the end. But then, there’s little justification for taking this movie seriously. One of the major differences between Chu Yuan and Chang Peng-Yi is that Chu seemingly knew that his movies often fell short of the quality for which he strove. Chang doesn’t seem to know much about making a movie. Whereas Chu often tried to imbue his films with an aesthetic sense that marks each as a product of his auteurship, Chang’s films clearly come out of their region and genre. That is to say, they look like Taiwanese wuxia/martial arts films. The images of fighters flipping in the air, silhouetted against a setting sun and fighting in the waning light of a crumbling dynasty all come from the world created from years worth of genre exercises, which took their cues from pulp writers, who took their cues from older pulp writers.
Chang just doesn’t do anything to put his stamp on any of them. I’d not be surprised to hear Clutch of Power was directed by Lee Tso Nam or Ding Shin-sai. Taiwanese Chu Yuan my ass. The only similarity between them is Gu Long.
That’s not to say that I dislike Chang. I’ve liked all his movies I’ve watched thus far. In fact, Clutch of Power is very appealing, or at least should be to genre fans. The fight choreography is good enough, and the pacing moves quite fast without losing the plot completely. The film makers at least attempted coherency, assuming that the English dub accurately represents the film as a whole.
Chinese audiences approach movies like this in a manner that Western audiences might approach films based on Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard or Ian Fleming. Compared to the sprawling narratives of other wuxia authors, Gu Long wrote characters intimately. That somebody might prove himself the best sword fighter in the world, save the Middle Kingdom from evil Mongolians, or explode heads with his chi blasts are largely incidental details; the real appeal of Gu Long comes from characters, dialogue and a Gu’s peculiar style. Chinese speaking audiences wanted movies that felt like Gu Long sometimes more than they wanted films that were actually good.
It’s difficult to understand why the novels and the subsequent films and television serials attained such enduring popularity without knowing the language (only one Gu Long novel, The Eleventh Son, has been professionally translated to English) but Chu Yuan gave probably the best visual representation with elegant, violent, sometimes trippy Shaw Bros. films, usually involving Ti Lung, Derek Yee and Tony Liu. Movies like The Magic Blade were revelatory when Celestial started to release them on DVD. It was like James Bond in ancient China, with Grand Guginol gore scenes and sleazy exploitation being thrust in with martial arts and soap opera intrigue.
Neither knowing the Mandarin (or whatever Taiwanese dialect these movies were filmed in), nor having read the books upon which most of them were based, I cannot tell you whether the dialogue and characterization represent Gu Long well enough that Taiwanese and Hong Kong audiences didn’t miss Chu’s visual sense. I can tell you that Clutch of Power is fun to watch, even if it is the low-budget version of what I typically like. For those not fond of such movies, I assure that this will not change your mind.