Shaw Bros. Spotlight
The Invincible Fist (Lo Lieh) is a government-assigned bounty hunter whose latest mission is to track down a quartet of thieves and murderers who collectively have gotten a hold of over 800 golden taels. Not one to venture into danger without help, the Fist, Tieh Wu-Ching being his real name, is aided by his trusty companions, chief among them his brother Tieh Er-Long (David Chiang). The villains Southern Geese (Ku Feng), Golden Abacus (Cheung Pooi-Saan), Iron Bat (Chang Sing) and the leader Ma Wai-Jia (Fang Mian) are traveling the region under the guise of simple merchants. So begins a treacherous pursuit in the typically quaint countryside.
After a stint when it seemed as though the column reviewed movies exclusively from the oft-described master of Shaw Brothers, Chang Cheh, his oeuvre was set aside to award other filmmakers an equal amount of time under the spotlight. Now, with The Invincible Fist, viewers are reminded of just how good Chang Cheh could be when he was at the top of his game. When directors are as prolific as the likes of Chang, churning a film (if not two) a year, some efforts will not live up to expectations. Two more easily recognizable North American filmmakers who could easily be accused of a similar obsession of making more movies than necessary are Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood. Even so, by nature of creating so much, they all turn out with a spectacular piece of cinema every now and then.
The Invincible Fist is one of Cheh’s more artfully constructed efforts, one that relies on a surprisingly small number of sets as well as an impressively high number of quiet moments that build tension with patience and subtlety. Over the course of 94 minutes, viewers only visit three distinct locations. One is the reed fields and the dusty paths that cut through them where most of the characters are introduced. A somewhat miscalculated attempt at mystery is made by not immediately revealing who the heist ringleader is; halfway through, that question is answered and is a complete letdown given how unoriginal he is on face value (as pitiful as it may sound coming from a Western perspective, a lot of the elderly antagonists in these movies sport the same hairdo and pointy beard as M Wai-Jia does here). His trio of right-hand men, however, are equally colorful and offer up some imaginative defense mechanisms once the heroes track them down one by one. The codename The Golden Abacus is enough to produce a wry smile on anyone’s face and although his screen time is limited before being offed, his absolutely ridiculous weapon of choice, an abacus from which he brushes off golden beads like a gun firing bullets, is fantastic. Ironically enough, another villain also makes of a watermelon (!) to strike at Tieh Wu-Ching, the pressure of cracking the fruit open causing the seeds to fly out at lighting speed.
The Invincible Fist is a Smartly Directed Blend of Stylistic Action and Melodrama
In what proves to be the film’s highlight sequence, Tieh engages in a slow, quiet game of cat-and-mouse in a reed field. Neither foe knows precisely where the other lays hidden, each carefully treading through the flora, beads of sweat trickling down their faces as showcased in close up shots that instantly recall classic Sergio Leone style. Not a word is uttered for about 5 or 6 minutes, the silence observed via judiciously selected camera angles, cranes and pans.
The second location where much of the action transpires is a tavern that serves Ma Wai-Jia whenever he requires a safe haven. Two separate interrogations and ensuing fights occur in this singular place, degrading the establishment’s décor from simple and quaint to a junk yard. There is a visceral sensation to the violence in these encounters that Cheh rarely matched in his other films, each body crashing against tables and walls accompanied with ‘oomph’ that the viewer can nearly feel as well. Much like in the reed field, various heroes and villains see their journeys come to grisly ends.
Lastly, Ma Wai-Jia’S house is the location where the story arrives at its sad conclusion. The Ma domain carries with it more dramatic nuance for it is where his blind daughter, Kuei Ku (Li Ching) resides, preparing a beautiful garden of flowers for they are what she loves most in life. There is one early scene where the film cuts from the reed field to Wai-Jia talking to Kuei Ku, a scene that clearly establishes two things: first, as much as Ma disregards the law to make a living, he cares deeply for his daughter, and second, Muei Ku has been kept in the dark regarding her father’s career, no pun intended. Later in the film, when Tieh is accidentally carried by horse to Ma’s estate, his meeting with Kuei Ku and the latter’s honest attempts to heal his wounds carry with them important, if not exactly subtle meanings.
The Invincible Fist is a film for which the direction does more heavy lifting than the acting, but a couple of performances should not be overlooked, from Li Ching and Fan Mian. Truth be told, Li Ching plays Kuei Ku with such showy innocence and altruism that some might be turned off. It is by no means a spirited performance, yet it sets the table adequately for the latter scenes when her newly formed friendship with Tieh complicates matters for Ma. The second performance deserving of recognition is that of Fang Mian, who balances a whole host of personalities, from loving father to the seething killer, to kindly elder when trying to fool his pursuers.
Chang Cheh’s early works exemplified some of the brimming talents he would employ later on when making such landmark classics as Five Deadly Venoms and Crippled Avengers. This would make for an informative double-feature alongside another of his popular early projects, Golden Swallow, a film that shares stylistic touches, such as handheld tracking shots in the midst of vicious sword fights, but feels more polished.
— Edgar Chaput