The Invincible Constable is, like, the fourth movie I’ve seen based on The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants, and it is absolutely nothing like the previous three, none of which is like any of the others. The novel follows Bao Zheng, historically a well respected official during the Northern Song Dynasty and subject of uncountable folk tales that detail his prodigious detective skills; The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants seems to spend more time on the heroic associates he keeps, if the movies are any indication.
I have not read or even sampled the novel, as translations span well over four hundred pages. The movies are definitely not the best way to experience the story, as they’re all wildly different. King Cat (Hsu Tseng-Hung, 1967), Shaw Brother “New Wuxia” take on the story, is a murder mystery with several characters that don’t appear in the other movies, but has many of the same events. Cat vs. Rat (Lau Kar Leung, 1982) is a kung fu farce with blistering choreography and terribly hammy comedic performances from Adam Cheng, Gordon Liu, and Alexander Fu Sheng courtesy of the Lau brothers. House of Traps (Chang Cheh, 1982), like much of Chang’s latter Shaw films, has the Venoms crew acting out a plot complicated enough to defy description.
The Invincible Constable, the second most recent film based on the story (I haven’t seen Gordon Chan’s 2003 Lunar New Year comedy, Cat and Mouse), is one of those b-rate Hong Kong wuxia movies featuring Cynthia Khan in a mitigated role and Yen Shi Kwan as a barely present villain. Anthony Wong gets prominent placement on the VCD cover, but not in the actual film, which is disappointing.
The movie starts with Bai Yutong (Lee Chi-Hei) infiltrating the imperial palace to more-or-less prank his rival, Zhan Zhou (Lam Wai) who received the imperial title of “Royal Cat” and acts as a bodyguard/gofer for Judge Bao. Angry at the disturbance, Zhan follows Bai, who calls himself the “Royal Rat,” back to his island hide-out, where he finds himself embroiled in intrigue involving Bai’s four brothers, their two friends, Yue Hua (Cynthia Khan) and her unnamed elder brother, and the villainous Sir Pang, who harbors a grudge with Judge Bao. The rest of the plot is impenetrable, but it involves arson, underdeveloped romantic entanglements between Zhan and Yue and Bai, and a treasured sword stolen by Bai in order to (again) prank Zhan. I didn’t follow how the plot involving Sir Pang (Yen Shi Kwan) related to the rest of the film, but much of the running time is taken with Zhan trying to track down Bai.
For all of the supposedly serious parts of the plot involving arson and intrigue and deadly feuding, there’s a lot of anachronistic dialogue. Characters “page” each other (paging services in Hong Kong were once a highly complicated ordeal, as can be seen in Wong Kar Wai’s Cheungking Express), and the characters occasionally reference contemporary technology. It’s occasionally funny.
The actual product wears the same low-budget look of other b-movies of the time and genre. Modest production values resemble those of The Thirteen Cold Blooded Eagles (Chui Fat, 1993) and Zen of Sword (Yu Man-Sang, 1992), which also star Cynthia Khan with Yen Shi Kwan playing a cantankerous, mostly absent villain. The Bai brothers in The Invincible Constable, for what it’s worth, include Alex Fong, and it’s always nice to see him.
It’s all so slight, though, which is the problem with all of the movies based on The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants. I can only wonder if the actual novel is worth reading for its inherent quality or if it stays in print and widely read because of its status as proto-wuxia. The nice thing about The Invincible Constable is that it has some nice action scenes. Wire work was the prevalent style for action in such movies in 1993, and with a couple of exceptions, it looks pretty good here. The doubling is well concealed, although it seems like Lam Wai and Lee Chi-Hei actually have some athletic skill, and the abilities of Khan and Yen in this arena need no explication. The final fight on the beach actually looks pretty good.
Sadly, there’s not enough of that action. Cat vs. Rat at least had the good sense to bolster its lame comedy with wild fight sequences.