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Last Hurrah for Chivalry

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Release Date: 
HK Legends
Martial Arts
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Directed by: 
John Woo
Pai Wei
Damian Lau
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 This 1978 Golden Harvest wuxia swordplay epic from John Woo sees the director more confident in his cinematic technique since his sketchy kung fu flick, "Hand of Death", of a few years before. The film boasts an attractive mise en scène that is luxurious, colourful and ornate; many of the outdoor settings were created on studio-bound sets that engender a magical unreality to this mythic tale of revenge and betrayal. Woo's technical mastery of the movement of the camera and of editing are clearly displayed in the film's central swordplay action sequence: a dazzling display by the combatants of athleticism, lightning fast reflexes and sword manipulation, that is equaled by the virtuosity of the director's exciting portrayal of their skills on film. The energetic exuberance of the more comic-book, fantastical battle scenes toward the climax of the film, are full of the slow motion violent ballet aesthetics so familiar from Woo's '80s gangster flicks, and also feature an awesome POV crane swoop that takes the place of the combatants' swords as they charge in for the kill. Most of all, Woo's trademark themes seem fully formed in the director's self-penned screenplay, which concerns itself with old style values of male honour and brotherhood threatened by a new age of cynicism and Machiavellian plotting.
The film starts with the interruption of the wedding ceremony of nobleman Kao Pun (Kong Lau) by cackling villain Pak Chun-Tong (Hoi San Lee), who arrives with a cavalcade of his shrouded swordsmen to deliver a disrespectful wedding gift of a bloody pig's head! Pak wants to take back Kao's fancy fortress, taken from him by Kao’s father many years ago — and this he duly does.  Kicked out on his arse, Kao becomes desperate for revenge against Pak, for the honour of his family.
However, Kao's wise master and teacher refuses to let him do battle with his nemesis, and will not let him use the sword of shadows because his heart and mind are not pure. Kao determines to find the best swordsmen in the land and employ them to do the dirty deed instead. One of these turns out to be a brave and chivalrous soul called Cheung Sam (Pai Wei). He has a dying mother, so when Kao pay's for her funeral after her death, Cheung feels duty bound to make Kao's enemy his own — especially after Kao's master is apparently attacked and left for dead by a swordsman (Hark-On-Fung) assumed to be working for Pak Chun-Tong.
Joining Cheung Sam on his mission is an effete wandering swordsman called Greeno (Damian Lau), who likes to spend his days gulping down wine with his mistress (a courtesan from the "Fragrant Mansion" brothel) but who is also a dab hand with a sword and has become a great friend to Cheung Sam. They join up to take back the fortress from Pak Chun-Tong's army of fighters and to take on the man himself in a magnificent showdown.
The first half of this movie is rather slow moving and convoluted, as we are introduced to a bewildering array of characters that at first appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with the revenge plot at the heart of things. From the middle of the film onwards though, it becomes a fast-paced masterpiece with a plot crammed with unexpected twists and turns as we learn that there is a bit more to Kao's plan for revenge than we at first suspected. Woo's usual themes soon become apparent: male brotherhood, betrayal, honour, sacrifice — and they come packaged in an inventive display of sword-play which peaks in the series of battles Cheung and Greeno take on in order to reach Pak at the heart of his fortress. There is even time for a comic interlude with the sleeping Buddha: a monk swordsman who fights in his sleep, and breaks off battle for a quick snooze whenever possible! The big showdown in Pak's candlelit domain at the heart of the fortress is a furious, fast-paced display of skill and inventiveness, but it is not the final battle in the film. It turns out that there is a larger scheme afoot, and Cheung's honour and chivalry have been exploited by a master tactician for his own purposes.
The big showdown with this ultimate villain is staged with an almost surreal abandonment that makes extensive use of  wire work (unlike most of the other battles in the film) and the combatants seem almost to be an allegorical representation of the two opposing attitudes that come to be dominant in Woo's later work: honour between comrades and the treacherous cynicism of the new real politick.
"Last Hurrah for Chivalry" is part of Hong Kong Legends' Super Bit collection and gets the expected exquisite transfer — super-sharp and colourful! There are 5.1 audio tracks for Cantonese and English languages as well as the original Cantonese mono track. The only extra is a ten minute featurette entitled "Familiar Faces: A Film Retrospective" which is really just a reel of clips from other Hong Kong Legends titles.

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