Shaw Bros. Spotlight
What a difference a week can make. Not long ago, the film under review was The Black Tavern, which earned the highest praise for originality, creativity, and a willingness to go in the deep end by mixing things up in some demented ways. Not to belittle the many quality movies reviewed since this column’s inception, but Black Tavern really did make an exceptional effort to differentiate itself from the pack. Following such an adrenaline-inducing high, the enthusiasm expressed toward a follow-up movie that fails to capture the same magic is understandably more muted. Even when tempering one’s expectations, Ho Meng-Hua’s Killer Darts, despite its amusing title, is merely a serviceable middle-of-the-road entry in the canon.
A gang of scoundrels led by Chou Chao (Ma Ying) brutally assaults its will on a small defenseless community in the middle of the night before its leader, Liu Wen-Lung (Fang Mian), can return and implement defensive tactics. Upon his arrival, the enclave is aflame, his wife dead, and only a few faithful remain, among them, servant Ah Fu (Pang Pang) and pupil Hu Chi-Feng (Cheung Pooi-Saan). They quickly follow the trail borrowed by the villains in their escape, stopping off at a lonely house inhabited by a mother and young girl along the way for rest. At this stage, all these characters’ fates are set on a dramatic course, whereupon Chi-Feng attempts to rape the mother and, failing that, murders her with his teacher’s titular darts before fleeing. Master Weng-Lung must face enemies on two fronts and take a newly orphaned pupil (Chin Ping) under his wing.
Honestly always being the best policy, it should be made perfectly clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with Killer Darts. From a direction and especially an acting standpoint, the film is a well-made crafted bit of escapism that trots along briskly for a cool 83 minutes. Ho’s work has been analyzed several times already, with the conclusion being that his skills are practically second to none, aided in no small part by his innate talent as a visionary. Killer Darts only exemplifies the director’s auteurist touches in short spurts, offering brief but brilliant highlights amidst a lot of decent if redundant flourishes.
The issue partly stems from the type of weapon awarded the most screen time: darts. In fact, heroes and villains alike toss various airborne agents of death from darts, cymbals to coins that pierce rock. Basing the majority of a movie’s action on throwing instruments may seem clever on a conceptual level. Still, given the technical and budgetary limitations of the era, the filmmakers are forced to utilize rough edits to make the attacks look as believable as possible, which is not saying much. It is an issue plaguing almost any Shaw picture in which a character throws darts or knives at a target: in one frame, the victim looks onward, followed by a painfully obvious edit to another shot where the weapons have either been plastered onto the actor or a nearby wall, rock and so forth. On one level, it adds a certain amount of charm to the films, the filmmakers utilizing the limited means to create a sense of danger as best they can. Done only every so often, it can be cause for glee, but when the deaths of about 25 people are realized with the same cheap technique, the magic is lost.
Conversely, there are moments of typical Ho brilliance, such as the fantastic sequence when heroine Jin Yu-Sien, now a grown woman played by Chin Ping, infiltrates the enemy’s hidden underground layer to rescue her adopted father from captivity. The sets look great, not to mention that plenty of Bond villain-like traps are laid out, which is always a plus. What’s more, Yu-Sien is filmed very stylistically. She wears a pitch-black battle robe, so whenever the character is jumping or running through a dimly lit area of a room, she looks like a specter. There is another single overhead shot in which Yu-Sien arrives at the compound, walks towards the part of its wall immersed in shadow, runs upward, and hops over said wall. Obviously, some variety of wirework was used to aid the actress with the stunt, but it looks completely seamless as far as the presentation is concerned.
Even on a story level, Killer Darts is a mixed bag. The film begins by stirring a lot of potential intrigue with the presentation of not one but two separate villains the viewer is led to believe will play a significant part in making the protagonists’ lives hell. The first is Chou Chao, who burns down Liu Wen-Lung’s village, the second being the treacherous attempted rapist Hu Chi-Feng. Other films have successfully juggled multiple villains before, Five Fingers of Death representing arguably one of the finest examples (that movie features at least three major villains and a fourth minor one). Curiously, the script forsakes the importance of Chou Chao in favour of concentrating on Chi-Feng’s corruption of Yu-Sien once the latter comes of age. There are several stories in which a young, ambitious warrior is told a pack of lies by a malevolent figure hiding behind an amiable façade, thus encouraging the youth to turn on their master temporarily. Will Yu-Sien believe that Wen-Lung and not Chi-Feng killed her mother and complete her revenge? No, of course not. The real issue is that rather than complicate the drama with possibly three unique villains, screenwriter Tu Yun-Chih restricts the story to two villains for the majority of the story and has neither engage in any particularly novel acts. The love triangle with Yue Hua’s character Yu-Long, Yu-Sien, and another woman (Shen Yi) has not even been broached yet, but suffice to say; it doesn’t earn points for adding much heft to the story either. As is the case with most aspects of the film, there are two sides to the same coin. Chin Ping is quite good as the heroine of the piece, downplaying many of the melodramatics many of her female counterparts go for in such pictures. Plain as his character’s scheme may be, Cheung Pooi-Saan is effective as the principal baddie, his jovial demeanor nicely camouflaging his sinister intentions.
Pending which version the viewer gets their hands on, there is some quality unintentional amusement to be had with the subtitling. The issue of subtitles for Asian films has long been a thorn in the side of Western film buffs. When done inappropriately, the results can cause a risible experience. Thankfully, such is not the case with Killer Darts, the subtitling of which features some hilarious lines of dialogue that could not possibly have been the screenwriter’s original intent, such as when the rotund Ah Fu takes a large bite out of a bun and claims, “Ah, smells good!” Another fantastic moment occurs earlier when Chi-Feng kills Yu-Sien’s mother with Wen-Lung’s darts, to which the latter yells, “You dare use the Killer Darts to kill!?!” Bad subtitling: it rarely fails to produce a giggle or two.
Killer Darts offers some fleeting moments of upper echelon Shaw Brothers cool, but it’s tethered to the all-too-familiar territory for the most part. The principal culprit is the story, which carries the potential of a wild ride but opts to play it safe. The other problematic aspect is the over-reliance on darts and the like, making many of the action and deaths feel extremely repetitive. The characters’ aims may be perfect, but the film is a bit off.
– Edgar Chaput