The Bells Of Death (Duo hun ling)
Hong Kong (1968) Dir. Yueh Feng
The bells of St Clements might have said oranges and lemons but the bells in this Shaw Brothers revenge movie only signal impending death. By the time our protagonist is done with his targets, citrus fruits will be the last thing on their minds…
Simple woodcutter Chang Wei Fu (Chang Yi) gives directions to three men on horseback – longbow master Zuo Jinglong (Lam Kau), scarred swordsman Ying Tien (Tin Sam), and axe-man Ku Feng (Yang Zhang) – to the town of Jiangbei. When they stop for a break they see Wei Yun (Chao Hsin-Yen), Wei Fu’s sister, and chase her to her house, killing her parents and younger brother before kidnapping her.
Wei Fu returns home to the carnage, realising it was the three men and sets out for revenge despite the lack of fighting skills. After seeing an old master (Yeung Chi-Hing) defeat eight swordsmen single handedly with ease, Wei Fu asks to become his disciple. Five years later, a dangerous and focused Wei Fu closes in on his family’s killers.
If you can count on anything from the Shaw Brothers, it is a tale of vengeance with swordfights set in China’s past. The Bells Of Death is more than just another entry in their impressive catalogue – the late 60s saw the studio open up to new ideas, and even though these would soon become the norm, they had to start somewhere.
Director Yueh Feng was a thirty-year plus veteran at this time yet this is a sprightly film then belies any sign of him being creatively washed up. The vitality and experimentation with different shooting technique and ideas was a step ahead of other films from the Shaw Brothers at that time, giving it an air of uniqueness.
One of the first things we notice is the camerawork in the opening scene, of the three horsemen riding across the plains and into the forest. Feng takes advantage of the wide open space with his shots, also employing a POV shot during a frantic gallop, the effect being remarkably menacing and ominous. He then steals a shot right out of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (you know the one) but it’s a great shot so he is forgiven.
Another thing is how we don’t immediately suspect that Wei Fu is going to be the hero of the tale – after all, he is just some chap halfway up a tree. When was the last time the main protagonist appeared that early in a film and under such innocuous circumstances? Usually this is reserved for someone never to be seen again or will die shortly after.
Feng does it again with the first sighting of Wei Yun, presenting her as the lustful target of the villains as a throwaway scene to underline their inherent venal credentials. Little did we know this wasn’t just a momentary distraction for three men keen to find Jiangbei, and they did indeed harbour unpleasant intentions for Wei Yun, and that her family would pay for the price.
Violence against children and the elderly was rarely shown in films at this point, making it quite a shock to see the parents slaughtered in graphic fashion, not to mention the bloodied corpse of the young boy. As much as it was a turning point in Hong Kong films it was also the catalyst for milquetoast Wei Fu to find his backbone and desire revenge, though he is clearly ill-prepared and out of his league.
But after five years of training, a new, stoic but confident Wei Fu wanders into Jiangbei just as Xiangxiang (Chin Ping) runs away from being made a prostitute after her father is killed by a crooked manor owner Tso Ching Lung (Lam Kau). Wei Fu buys Xaingxiang’s freedom with some leaves (don’t ask) then proceeds to show off his newly learned sword skills against Tso’s men before chasing Ku Feng into the woods.
Here the titular bells finally come into play. They are attached to a bracelet belonging to Wei Fu’s mother which he now has tied around his neck and uses to psyche out his prey. Much like the brooding Jaws theme or the stinging Psycho musical motif, the bells build terror and dread in the same way, and set against a backdrop of forest at night, it’s a nice suspenseful prelude to the violence about to be unleashed.
Really, there are a number of elements present that allow this film to sit alongside some of the great horror films of the era, not in the least the severed body parts. The script from first time writer Chiu Kang-Chien, who went on to enjoy a prolific 25 year career, offers Feng the chance to try something different visually for each of the three major showdowns between Wei Fu and the villains, whilst keeping the subplot with Xiangxiang prominent enough to remind us this relentless avenger is still human.
Martial arts fans can enjoy some hand to hand combat too, just to give the fights a bit of variety if the wu xia lite swordfights aren’t your thing. Regarding the latter, these are fluid, hard hitting affairs and not encumbered by the usual Shaw Brothers style with flashy acrobatics, this is very grounded and direct combat, whether one-on-one or Wei Fu against many (including a very young Sammo Hung).
Chang Yi grows into a believable ass-kicking leading man as Wei Fu, whilst it is a bit of a disappointment that Chin Ping was limited to love interest status, as Xiangxiang as there was a feistiness to her character that could have afforded her to see some action and show a bit more substance. Also, the villains aren’t cackling caricatures which was a nice change.
The Bells Of Death is a deceptive work among the Shaw Brothers canon, in that it seems to offer little that is new yet rewrites the whole playbook with its atypical presentation. Deemed a lesser title, this film deserves much more attention and credit.
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