Deadful Melody (1994)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-11-20
“Deadful Melody” portrays the Martial Arts world as irrational, chaotic and lawless. It is divided into warring clans each controlled by a leader who is very powerful but whose power is incomplete. The contending warlords attempt to undermine, cripple and conquer each other while engaging in short term tactical alliances. The Magic Lyre is the ultimate weapon—possessing it means mastery over the entire sorry mess—or so the villains in this movie (and the audience) think. However acquiring the lyre and being able to use it effectively, they find, are two different matters.

Bridgette Lin is terrific as Snow, the current keeper of the magic lyre and (apparently) the only person who knows how to play the “Heavenly Dragon Eight Notes” melody that causes her enemies to explode. Others who gain brief possession of the lyre find that their attempts to use it either don’t work or backfire against them. There is at least a hint that the feuding clan leaders want to find the lyre so they can destroy it since it has caused so much death and destruction but this seems to be a stratagem that they use to fool each other—and, once again, the audience. As is generally the case, Lin dominates the screen whenever she is on it. Her look—actually a number of variations on the semi-sidelong glance—can be seductive, terrifying and hypnotizing—or all three at the same time and Ng Min-Kan makes full use of it. There have been other actresses who could stop traffic on Times Square with a glance—Greta Garbo, for example—consider the last scene in “Queen Christiana” or any of a number of shots in “Mata Hari”. The young Joan Crawford is another—in the very early “Rain” she showed how she could command the screen with a glance. The same is true of Lin, although I think she may be an under appreciated artist since she was cast in so many roles similar to this one. But within the confines of that typical gender-indeterminate role she could be electrifying.

Yuen Biao as Liu Lin was serviceable but not much more. His greatest strength—his astonishing martial arts prowess—was never on display since “Deadful Melody” was shot and edited in typical wuxia style—quick cuts, high or low camera angles, the camera panning to follow the warriors as they flew through the air. At no point was he allowed to do what he did best, engage in an extended fight scene. He is not bad as an actor but the combination of pathos, broad comedy and melodrama that this script called for was a bit beyond him. Carina Lau had an excellent role as Tam Yuet Wah, the student of Master Fire who is charged with tracking down the lyre and bringing back. She goes from imperious to coy to a bit lovestruck in her character’s various guises and does everything well.

There are two threads that unify the action—one is the journey of Liu Lun to deliver the lyre. He doesn’t know why so many people are after it or how valuable it really is—he is simply trying to cement his position as the new head of his father’s security company. The other thread is the discord within the martial arts world, as the various villains (Master Fire, Master Ghost, Tong Fong Pak, the Six Fingered Master) plot with and against each other to obtain the lyre. That corruption of the martial arts world is generally known—at one point Lun, when dealing with what he thinks is a young man who seems to want to help him (actually Tam Yuet Wah, disguised as an innkeeper) he says that he is surprised to find an honest man among martial artists. That she is neither honest nor a man leads to some of the very broad (if you will) comedy—he also remarks, for example, that his helper must have some very odd kung fu since his chest is so springy.

This is only one instance, and a very obvious one, of the ambiguity, sexual and otherwise, that characterizes “Deadful Melody”. The point of view is extremely unreliable. The movie opens with what seems to be the slaughter of an innocent family. The father is a kung fu master who has given up his deadly ways—not unlike one of the archetypes of Westerns, the gunfighter who has hung up his pistols. The mother is also very skilled in kung fu. They are no match for the hoards who are attacking their isolate house in search of the lyre which has been entrusted to the reluctant head of the family. We are led to believe that the father and mother were killed while defending their children—Snow and Liu Lun—which is most likely the case. Later, though, Liu and the audience is told that his parents committed suicide when the lyre was taken from them and that the massed clans attacking the house wanted only to destroy the lyre. There are other examples of this lack of reliability, which could be there to keep the audience guessing. While it could also be the result to sloppiness in continuity and editing, there are enough instances of earlier “facts” being at least partially (and credibly) refuted to make one think it was part of the vision of the director and screenwriter.

One (at least this one) was relieved that the comic relief was made a part to the story and not simply tacked on. The questionable gender of Tam Yeut Wah at one point is an example. Another is the regular appearance of Liu Lun’s sifu, “Late”. He not only is always late, arriving to impart a word of wisdom a few minutes after it would have been useful, but also consumes the stinkiest of stinky tofu.

This would earn a rating of a five, but the presence of Carina Lau and (especially) Bridgette Lin are worth a point between them, so it is a six.
Reviewer Score: 6