[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.]
It’s really been a hell of a time to be a fan of Hong Kong action films. With UK and US distributors finally releasing competent remastered versions of some of the biggest films from the 70s-90s in HD and 4K, reliving the golden era of Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest is now easier than ever. Just next month, Shout Factory will be unleashing the Shaw Brothers Classics Volume 1 box set with a whopping 11 films in it. One of those is an early Shaw swordplay film that I’ve been meaning to cover for quite some time: The Bells of Death.
Truth be told, the only reason I ever bought The Bells of Death back in the day was because of the amazing cover done for the IVL Celestial DVD. It just looks so awesome and I was drawn to the protagonist with his cane sword. I knew nothing about the film, and it’s still ridiculously hard to find any info about how this was made or what happened to its stars, but it represents a turning point for Shaw’s film productions.
Following the departure of King Hu once he finished Come Drink With Me in 1966, Shaw was left with a gap in its lineup of directors. Chang Cheh had yet to become the super big draw that he is remembered as and Lau Kar Leung hadn’t yet stepped behind the camera, so the company was in a bind. Should it continue to explore genres outside of martial arts or go all in on this new craze? While it would take a few more years before Shaw nearly stopped producing musicals and comedies, the immediate aftermath of Hu’s departure gave rise to swordplay films at the studio, culminating in the release of One-Armed Swordsman in 1967 and The Bells of Death in 1968.
I’m simplifying things here because Shaw Brothers put out a tremendous number of films in the 60s and 70s. Even just looking at the company’s output in 1966 is enough to make you wonder how anyone ever found time to sleep. Even so, looking at the company’s output pre-Come Drink With Me reveals that Shaw had a more diverse selection of films than what the company is known for internationally. In fact, Malaysian director P. Ramlee had been delivering comedies and romance films for the studio since the 50s, though he never received much recognition during his lifetime. All of this is to say that The Bells of Death might not be super well known, but it exemplifies a cultural shift that happened within Shaw Brothers.
Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng (who I cannot find much information on apart from a filmography), The Bells of Death is incredibly simple by today’s standards. One of the first in a line of revenge films, the movie follows the struggles of Wei Fu (Chang Yi) as he attempts to get redemption for the murder of his family at the hands of some bandits. There isn’t some grand conspiracy or ulterior motive either. Wei Fu’s family was a result of senseless violence that led to him becoming a master swordsman and taking out a crime syndicate.
Having not seen the film in nearly 20 years, I forgot how straightforward everything is. That’s maybe a bit refreshing in a day where films keep stretching beyond two hours needlessly, but at just shy of 85 minutes, The Bells of Death sometimes feels too lightweight. I laugh at the description on IMDB that states, “Wei undertakes extensive martial arts training,” because that does not happen in the film. Sure, he meets up with a wandering swordsman and somehow convinces the man to train him, but the movie then cuts to Wei Fu already being a badass and seeking out the killers of his family.
What The Bells of Death does have going for it is some sentimental imagery contained in its title. While the original Chinese title, 奪魂鈴, roughly translates to Reaper’s Bell, it actually comes from Wei Fu’s mother. She had a bracelet with bells on it that rang out as she was murdered. As a way to remember his family, Wei Fu takes the bracelet and wears it around his neck while stalking his prey. In the scenes where Wei Fu is coming for someone, the soundtrack echoes with the ringing of bells that drives his targets mad before they get sliced in two.
Just like Come Drink With Me, The Bells of Death is filmed more like a Western film than traditional Chinese cinema. Camera angles are more dynamic, the action choreography is fast and kinetic, and there is an emphasis on centering figures in the frame versus displaying things like a stage play. Not every bit of action has held up after 55 years, but any film that is half a century old is bound to have some blemishes.
It’s interesting to see how restrained Come Drink With Me was compared to One-Armed Swordsman and The Bells of Death. Kung Hu didn’t shy away from blood spurting, but he didn’t have much in the way of dismemberments or decapitations. Chang Cheh would define his career with brutal and over-the-top violence, but Griffin Yueh Feng seemed to be taking notes. At one point during a battle, Wei Fu not only slices a man’s head clean off but chops off another man’s hands while he is brandishing a spear. It’s actually very reminiscent of the later Zatoichi films in Japan, which did play a big part in defining Chang Cheh’s style.
I wish I could comment on the characters, but Wei Fu is really the only one that gets any development. He meets up with a woman named Xiang Xiang (Chin Ping) and is kind of hostile towards her. While he is putting up a brave front to intimidate the assailants trying to capture her and sell her into sex slavery, he still comes off as something of a jackass. It seems to be copying elements from One-Armed Swordsman but fails to capture the magnetism of Jimmy Wang Yu.
Apart from these observations, there isn’t that much to The Bells of Death. I still love the cover of my old DVD and the film is executed fine enough, but it’s more like a prototype for what would come rather than a massively enjoyable film in its own right. In 1968, I’m sure audiences were floored by how visceral and fast-paced this movie was. In 2023, we’ve seen this style of film countless times and done better. King Hu, in fact, would one-up Come Drink With Me just a few years later with his magnum opus A Touch of Zen, which pretty much put every swordplay film to shame.
I don’t dote on The Bells of Death to say you shouldn’t watch it or that it’s actually a pile of garbage. On the contrary, I do find the film an enjoyably breezy watch. It has some strange villains who contort their necks and immaculate costumes. There isn’t much in the way of Shaw Brothers elaborate sets here, but then this film seems to be lower budget than what Shaw would later produce. The action choreography also feels a decade ahead of the game and feels very reminiscent of what Tsui Hark would eventually accomplish in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. It’s just that with so much classic Hong Kong cinema finally seeing the light of day and me getting to experience some films I missed out on, I realize that The Bells of Death was a bit more simplistic than I remembered.
None of this makes the film bad. I’d be really interested to learn more about how it was produced and what happened to its stars. Chang Yi, for instance, is still alive and was featured in a wuxia TV series as late as 2009. There is even an incredibly early appearance of Sammo Hung as an extra here that almost makes it essential viewing for HK film historians.
As it stands, The Bells of Death is an interesting curio in Shaw Brothers’ history that came about during a big shift in the studio’s priorities. Maybe it doesn’t hold up well, but it has just enough going for it that I can’t imagine existing in a world where it never got filmed. Too much of what this film does would become standard in the decade that followed, leading me to call this an overlooked gem. If you can’t justify spending $170 on a box set just to get this one movie, at least try to find a digital copy and experience the genesis of Shaw Brothers’ action turn.
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