The Angry River (HK 1971)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 11/28/09
Cast: Angela Mao, Pai Ying, Samo Hung

Angela Mao's debut film is a big budget swordplay drama in which she plays the daughter (Lan) of a righteous and respected kung fu teacher. When her father is injured by a poison dart, she decides to make the dangerous journey to Soul Valley in order to procure the magical black herb that will restore his health. It's a 1000 mile journey and she has to make it across the Angry River as well as the Merciless Pass. Her determination and purity of heart finally win her the herb, but she loses her kung fu powers in the process. This makes her an easy target on the long journey home, and she is constantly ambushed by bad guys. A righteous young swordsman named Leng finally comes to her aid and escorts her the rest of the way home, but it's too late. Vowing vengeance, she takes the herb and restores her kung fu, just in time to battle the evil Pai Ying to the death.

A beautifully filmed period piece in the vein of "Come Drink With Me" (1965) with minimal wirework and flying stunts. Angela Mao fights primarily with a sword, but does some open hand fighting as well. The choreography is quite good considering the age of the film, and it also employs a shocking amount of blood. After seeing so many bloodless kung fu movies recently, it was a very pleasant surprise to see actual wounds being inflicted and making a mess. Where the film really shines is in its location shots, which create a grand sense of scale and beauty. Plot wise, the film is fairly simplistic, but continuously engaging. Angela Mao is rather stiff in her role, but so are all of the actors, as was the style for swordplay films at the time. The trials at Angry River are unintentionally funny, culminating in a battle with ghosts and a guy in a rubber dinosaur suit. Apart from that, pretty much everything else is played straight. Pai Ying plays a typical laughing villain and his fight scenes are pretty good, even if his clawed weapon is rather silly. If you can look past its shortcomings and its age, "The Angry River" is an enjoyable kung fu classic.