Shaw Bros. Spotlight
Honour can be a tremendously important element between great warriors of high ranking. While in today’s military culture it would appear unthinkable for two officers to challenge one another to a duel to settle personal matters, such was not always the case. In various parts of the world during different periods, saving face in the event of an insult, whether real or perceived, was of the utmost importance. It was the offended party’s primary duty to preserve a sense of self-importance and honour when a personal attack occurred. Suffice to say that pride played a large role in the lives of military personal (and still does today, albeit in a different manner). Hsu Tseng-Hung’s 1967 film, King Cat, takes that very idea and explores it in an adventure filled with betrayal and espionage.
In a lavishly constructed court, Judge Pao (Cheng Miu) is presented with a young member of a political family who has been found guilty of stealing sensitive government documents. Despite the criminal’s pleas to spare his life due to his family’s importance, the judge applies the law as it should and has him beheaded. This event sets off a series of events that will challenge the imperial throne itself. A group of skilled assassins to do away with Judge Pao, although just before they accomplish their mission, he is saved by legendary hero Zhan Zhao (Chang Yi), also known as South Hero. Having won the judge’s favour, the latter sends Zhan to becomes the Emperor’s personal guard and baptizes him with the nickname King Cat for his stunning reflexes and nimbleness. When news of these developments reaches the clan of the Five Mice, it greatly irks Bai Yutang (Kiu Chong), also known as Brocaded Mouse. Fearful that a warrior of Zhan’s stature whose nickname is King Cat would harm his own reputation, Bai convinces the other four Mice leaders to concoct a plan that will lure Zhan into a duel against them. However, each side eventually realizes the existence of a far greater threat than bruised pride when the mischievous Variated Butterfly (Lo Lieh) sets in motion his own plan to usurp the throne.
King Cat is Light on Action, but its Story Reigns Supreme
King Cat can easily be nestled in the category of select few Shaw pictures in which the story and development of the characters are far more pertinent and successful than any of the on-screen combat sequences. Despite the very first scene in which a grotesque decapitation is performed, a fair bit of running time accumulates before director Hsu Tseng-Hung really offers the viewer the sort of entertainment fans of the studio generally look for and anticipate. There are some skirmishes here and there, yet the most elaborately staged fights are reserved for the movie’s final home stretch, and while they do have a few thrilling moments, even those display little ingenuity in how the battles play out or in the deaths of characters and extras. Even the demise of the film’s chief antagonist is a major letdown in how quickly it happens and is subsequently forgotten. There are however plenty of beautiful sets to admire, King Cat being one of the more impressively decorated films in the Shaw Brothers canon. Bai’s personal quarters, complete with a garden and fish pond equipped with a trap door being one of the film’s visual highlights. The fights themselves are not the most impressive, but there is no question that they occur on some lovely sets. Some praise should be showered onto the film’s opening title sequence, which is completely different from most Shaw movies. Here, cartoon representations of the characters the viewer shall soon meet do battle with some terrifically exciting music playing.
However, as already stated, despite the misfires King Cat suffers in the action, the film proves its worth when it comes to the handling of its story and themes, something that cannot always be argued when it comes to Shaw movies, save a few special exceptions. Truth be told, a case could be made that King Cat, at least as far as its story is concerned, is top tier Shaw material, which actually makes the tepid action all the more disappointing. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have some solid script to work with and make the most of it. The real heart of the story is the rivalry between Zhan Zhao, noble and uninterested in military decorations and prestige, and Bai Yutang, very prideful, easily flustered by the slightest provocations. Even if the film had remained content with this more primitive depiction of pride and honour, the story would still have been reasonably engaging. However, the director and screenwriter pad the adventure with many more layers than otherwise would have been the case with that simple of a premise.
Both individuals prove far more complex than originally believed. Zhan is utterly disinterested in attaining prestige and accolades from his peers and superiors, including the emperor himself. What matters above else is the mission at hand, in this case locating the whereabouts of a prized jade stove given to the princess but stolen by the Mice, which was part of their original scheme to provoke Zhan. Unbeknownst to the Mice, Zhan is not an easily excitable fellow, a quality which eventually wins the respects of the other four Mice, the lone exception being, of course, Bai Yutang. In fact, upon learning that his mere nickname, King Cat, may have deeply offended Bai, Zhan considers requesting that the emperor drop it to appease his rival. Tensions are not resolved so simply in King Cat, for the machinations of Variated Butterly see that Bai is the principal suspect in a series of murders, so that when Zhan offers his sincere apologies for his unwarranted offence, he nevertheless seeks to bring Bai before justice for the recent murders. The latter is just as multidimensional a character as Zhan. Bai takes great pride in being one of the five great Mice leaders yet, as is eventually revealed, actually cares surprisingly little for fame and prestige, which is very much in line with his rival’s philosophy. When prompted to form a truce with Zhan, Bai, still furious at his failure to best King Cat, goes so far as to relinquish his status as one of the clan’s leaders. Each represents a different side of the same coin. When push comes to shove, neither holds much stock in gaining special ranking or privileges, yet they approach their tasks and self-images in mutually exclusive ways. What others think of them matters less than what they feel about their personal senses of accomplishment and because of that their tit for tat confrontation rages on.
Had the film solely concentrated on developing its theme of personal pride through the bitter animosity between the two leads, King Cat would earn top marks for its story. Unfortunately, the movie wrestles with how to insert and work with the subplot involving the true enemy operating behind the scenes played by Lo Lieh. Lieh is one of the all-time greats. Little can be said or written to contradict that, although here he feels somewhat wasted. King Cat is not a particularly long movie, running at only 83 minutes, causing one to ponder whether a few more scenes would have helped to give Lieh’s place in the movie a greater sense of importance. His villain is not sufficiently developed, and even though he serves the purpose of Zhan and Bai ultimately pledging allegiance to overthrow a common foe, by that time Lieh simply does not feel very important.
True enough, King Cat is an uneven picture. That being said, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses so much so that it ends up being solid film despite that fans looking for another walloping ride of twisted action might come away unsatisfied. Had the action measured up to the story and the richness of its themes, it might have been an amazing film.
- Edgar Chaput