Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: Golden Swallow


[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]

I hadn’t intended on covering another Shaw Brothers film so closely after The Bells of Death, but it’s interesting to go back to Hong Kong cinema in the 1960s and see the seeds being planted for something greater. It’s also interesting to see that acclaimed director Chang Cheh had more of a thoughtful eye in the 60s than he would in the rest of his career. Case in point is Golden Swallow, the “sequel” to Come Drink With Me that sidelines its leading lady to place an emphasis on Jimmy Wang Yu.

While I’ve watched a ton of Cheh’s films back in my youth and even in the last few years, I’ve only ever covered a few of them on this site. That’s not because I’m not a fan of his work: far from it. The main reason is that Cheh’s particular style never really left a mark on me. He loves his violence and that keeps his sometimes-wonky editing from being too noticeable, but he also puts a tremendous amount of emphasis on manly men doing manly things. While I never picked up on that as a teenager, it’s completely evident as an adult.

Golden Swallow - Celestial Remaster Trailer

Before discussing Golden Swallow, let me cover some of Cheh’s philosophy when it came to cinema. While his filmography has a couple of films pre-1960, he really started to take off with Shaw Brothers in the mid-60s. This era of Hong Kong cinema had a pretty big focus on female leading stars, which is how a film like Come Drink With Me became such a significant movie. There was a good mixture of men and women performing action either together, against each other or as independents. Chang Cheh didn’t like that.

While you could read his intention as possibly misogynistic, watching his films with this knowledge completely changes your perception of his work. While he loved making his protagonists badass, he loved even more having them bond in “brotherly” ways with each other. One of those ways was by ripping off their shirts and wrestling, fighting to the death against impossible odds, and impaling each other with all manner of sharp objects. While it has never been confirmed, it’s entirely possible Chang Cheh was gay and put all of his closeted emotions into his works.

The result of all of his love for the male form came about in a term he dubbed “yanggang,” or staunch masculinity. In the Shout Factory box set “Shaw Brothers Classics Vol. 1,” a few of Cheh’s earliest directorial efforts are included and they feature women with more than two lines of dialogue. Since Cheh’s dominance at the box office hadn’t quite started yet, he was still bound to direct in the old-fashioned ways and this would eventually culminate in Golden Swallow.

Golden Swallow

© Celestial Pictures

To finally bring it back around to King Hu’s seminal classic Come Drink With Me, Hu had left Shaw Brothers in search of more creative freedom and the studio wasn’t exactly happy about that. With his next film, Dragon Inn, opening to immense reception from Union Film Company, Shaw Brothers decided to eat into the marketing of that by creating a sequel to his previous work. Thus, Golden Swallow was born, but Cheh didn’t really want to have Cheng Pei-Pei continue as the main star.

All of this background is incredibly interesting from a historical standpoint, but it really is just an explanation for why the titular heroine goes from being a total badass lady to being stuck between a love triangle with Wang Yu’s “Silver Roc” and Lo Lieh’s “Golden Whip.” As the first film that Chang Cheh had complete creative control over, he deliberately decided to focus on Wang Yu and put him on full display for the majority of the film.

If you think all of that pettiness behind the scenes would result in a shoddy film, you’d be mistaken. While it is absolutely a crying shame that Cheng Pei-Pei had her role diminished, Golden Swallow is maybe the best of Chang Cheh’s earlier films. As I said above, he gets creative behind the camera for once. The opening of the film shows Golden Swallow getting attacked by some assailants and receiving assistance from Golden Whip (because she’s weak now, I guess), but it’s filmed with almost pop-out panels that look shockingly similar to comic book pages. While the entire film isn’t that inventive, the rest of the movie is framed eloquently and switches between opera style and shot-reverse-shot conversations. There are even some innovative tracking shots!

© Celestial Pictures

With Wang Yu very early into his career, there’s also a lot of emphasis put on how powerful he is. Playing an anti-hero, Silver Roc is looking to draw out Golden Swallow -his long-lost love- by slaughtering members of the Golden Dragon gang. While that makes no real sense, he often goes up against ten people and walks out with nary a scratch. Roc is draped in white robes and they remain impossibly clean until the very end.

There’s an incredible fight scene at the end of the first act where Roc enters one of the Golden Dragon camps and kills about 50-ish people. Once the battle is over, the camera pulls out to reveal the carnage and it’s almost unbelievable how Roc is so good. It makes for a striking shot where Wang Yu is walking over corpses while also showcasing the immense production that Shaw Brothers would put into certain films.

Golden Swallow may have sidelined Pei-Pei, but she does get at least one solid fight sequence to herself. When she and Golden Whip learn of Roc’s plan, they try to get on his tail by interrogating some of the Golden Dragon members. This semi-backfires as Swallow enters a tavern (in a scene that is basically a rip-off of Come Drink With Me’s first battle) and is forced to fight the clan by herself. Knowing what we do about Chang Cheh, I imagine he had a conniption fit behind the scenes since Wang Yu wasn’t cleaning house.

© Celestial Pictures

The reason there is even any bit of Pei-Pei performing acrobatic feats and skillful swordsmanship is due to her own pride. As revealed in some interviews included with Shout’s Blu-Ray, Pei-Pei went over Chang Cheh’s head and directly to Shaw Brothers president Run Run Shaw. She demanded that her character have a more active role in the film instead of being relegated to just “the woman.” At this point in Shaw Brothers’ history, both she and Wang Yu were the two biggest stars, so she had some pull to get things done.

It doesn’t result in her character being the one to save the day, sadly. By the end, Silver Roc and Golden Whip are facing off over their love of Golden Swallow and Roc takes a deadly wound during their duel when he diverts his attention to save Whip’s life. Whip apologizes, but Roc is content with the outcome. He had proven beyond a doubt that he was the superior fighter, even if he now has to perish. In what would soon become a Chang Cheh trope, however, more bandits come and Roc fights against them with his dying breath to die in a blaze of glory.

As the very first in a line of Chang Cheh’s “yanggang” films -despite how The One-Armed Swordsman had released a year prior-, Golden Swallow represents a turning point in his career. The film was a pretty big hit for Shaw Brothers and it would result in even more creative control being handed over to Cheh. While his next film in the 60s would continue on in a similar tradition to this, his work in the 1970s would go full steam ahead on rippling male bodies and awkward penetrations and define an entire generation of movies for Hong Kong. His work, in fact, would be continued on in some fashion by John Woo, a protégé of Cheh’s that worked with him in the 70s and 80s.

© Celestial Pictures

Would I recommend you check out Golden Swallow? Yeah, absolutely. While it doesn’t have anywhere near the technical prowess of Come Drink With Me, in some ways this is the superior film. The fight choreography is better realized and the pacing creates an almost cat-and-mouse style before Swallow and Whip catch up with Roc. Even if it was basic as hell, it’s important from a historical standpoint, so it’s worth it for that alone.

If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.