Review: Face Behind the Mask (Hong Kong 1974)

Chen Chi-hwa’s Face Behind the Mask is a solid piece of wu xia entertainment. It’s not revolutionary, and it really doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before. However, all the elements come together nicely to create a quick-paced piece of entertainment.

The plot is typically twisty and convoluted but eventually begins. Chi Tien-wei is the head of the First Family. Along with his disciples, who include Leng Yen-ching (Lo Lieh) and Hsiao Meng-fei (Yueh Hua), and his daughter Chi Mu-tan, he dispenses righteous justice, eliminating bandits and making the countryside a safer place. Unfortunately, shortly after his coronation as leader of the martial world, he is sent a threat by a mysterious “Mystical Guest” and attacked by a series of traitors and assassins. The rest of the story follows his efforts to discover and uproot his enemies. Aficionados of the genre will probably be able to spot the hidden villain early on, but the allegiances of many of the characters remain doubtful long enough to create a genuine element of suspense.

Those familiar only with the post-Swordsman New Wave wu xia films of the 1990’s should approach FBM with appropriate expectations. FBM harks back to the days before Tsui Hark revolutionized the swordplay genre with modern special effects and wirework. There are still great stunts and fun special effects, but don’t expect light beams, flying swordfish, or ridiculously fast-paced wirework. Neither does FBM rise to the level of Chu Yuan’s outstanding series of Gu Long-scripted wu xia films made for the Shaw Brothers. Chen Chi-hwa directs FBM with a steady hand, and the plot is more compelling than most (and more easily comprehensible, at least after the first 15 minutes or so), but FBM misses the mournful appeal of Chu Yuan’s frequent star Ti Lung, and any sex appeal whatsoever. Most importantly, FBM lacks the gorgeous art direction that turned so many of Chu Yuan’s films into living tableaux.

Nevertheless, Chen does his best with the standard locations, varying battle scenes between some compelling geography and nicely dressed internal sets. A battle in an atmospheric temple in particular stands out as worthy of any of the wu xia greats. Fights are a mixture of legitimate kung fu and the sort of flamboyant swordsmanship favored in the genre.

Moreover, fans of old school fu will be more than pleased by the incidentals. Characters carry outlandish weaponry, wear crazy wigs, and lop off limbs with abandon. Villains have ornate titles like “Dragon and Tiger, the Malignant Stars,” and the “Three Mice of the North.” There are also some classic goofy subtitles. Contemplate the following exchange between the blonde, leopard-printed “Blood Evil Star” and heroine Chi Mu-Tan: “Why do you invite me?” “For killing you.” “Why?” “Because you deserve it.” “Hahahaha … no one can kill me!” “But this’s the exception.”

The best thing FBM has going for is its cast, which includes some prominent actors from the Shaw Brothers studios. Lo Lieh dominates the film in a rare late-period non-villainous role. While Lieh participated in some of the greatest kung fu classics of all time, and occasionally played the hero early in his career (as in Five Fingers of Death, one of the breakthrough martial arts films in the American market), by the mid-to-late seventies he was more often cast as the heavy in films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Dirty Ho. Here, as the wronged swordsman Leng, he gets a chance to play the doomed, romantic hero, and shines in the role.

Lieh is ably supported by Hsu Feng, the star of such King Hu masterpieces as Raining in the Mountain, A Touch of Zen, and Dragon Gate Inn, and by Yueh Hua, another Shaw Bros regular who made his career playing the drunken wanderer in Come Drink With Me and with supporting roles in Chu Yuan films like The Sentimental Swordsman. Together with Lieh, Hsu Feng and Yueh Hua form the legs of a love triangle that recalls Chang Cheh’s poignant Have Sword, Will Travel.

[Note: The packaging on the 2006 Rarescope DVD claims that Jackie Chan plays the masked assassin. It’s impossible for me to verify this as he is, well, wearing a mask. As Chan was beginning to become a successful star in his own right at that time, it seems unlikely that Chen would waste him in a role with no face time. However, Chan did have relationship with director Chen Chi-hwa, and was taking small roles so I would not rule out the possibility.]

2 ½ out 4 stars (Good).

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