The Beheaded 1000 (1993)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-12-02
"The Beheaded 1000" is full of morally ambiguous characters. None of them other than the rebel Blood Lotus and Chow Ying, the daughter of the executioner, are people who even the most sympathetic viewer could identify with although Executioner Ren De Tie is one of the most brave, resolute and fierce characters that one will encounter anywhere. He represents, both literally and metaphorically, the alternative to chaos, embodying and symbolizing the law and punishing those who break it. However he seems to take such personal pleasure in the rituals of state sanctioned killing that, to at least one western observer in the 21st century, he is a repellent character.

Most of those who have fallen beneath his blade have been rebels and typically rebels are good guys. Since one of the few surviving Blood Clan members Blood Lotus, played by the luminous Joey Wong, we are predisposed to like them. This changes quickly, though, since the captured rebels, particularly the fearsome Cripple Chee, are portrayed as vicious, thuggish louts who have killed indiscriminately. Even Blood Lotus is thwarted when she attempts to kill the saintly daughter of the executioner. Constable Chou, the strong right arm of the magistrate and the person who delivers criminals for trial and (inevitably) execution has secretly become infatuated with Blood Lotus, thwarting several attempts to either capture or kill her. She is made of sterner stuff, though, and haughtily rebuffs his very lame attempts.

By the time he has done 995 beheadings the imperial executioner, overacted with hammy gleefulness by Jimmy Wang Yu, has developed quite a routine. He slices through the neck of the condemned prisoner, cleanly severing his head which flies into the air. The prisoner's body doesn't fall over because he has been secured to a halter like device. Executioner Ren catches the head with one hand, flips it back onto the neck, secures it with a scarf that he has ready to tie at the cut and says that he enforces the law with his sword and that the head will never touch the ground. An amazing show. He is also a family man, living with a loving wife and a daughter who carries out rituals for those he is beheading in the hope one of them might repent and be allowed a happier rebirth.

Things begin to unravel for Ren and the rest of the bureaucracy with the botched beheading of Cripple Chee. Chee is an enormous man, strong, agile and able to withstand great pain. Ren has a vision—a ghostly spirit in the shape of a beautiful woman appears and asks him to make sure that Chee suffers the same way he made his victims suffer with a slow and painful death, that Ren not do his usual clean and efficient cut. This violates his code and he has his not very able assistant Quick Kid (terrible translation I would imagine) do this one. Clearly fated to fail—this is technically and artistically the most difficult beheading so far, nothing for an apprentice to take on—Chee rampages through the town with the executioner’s golden blade imbedded in his neck until Ren himself intervenes and very dramatically finishes things off. Even worse, Kid digs up the body of Crippled Chee to examine his very large and uniquely shaped head in order to learn how to execute the next condemned person he encounters with such a head. To the surprise of no one other than Kid the ghost of Chee appears and is very angry.

The plot takes a nonsensical turn—Chee decides to retire and open a restaurant with his wife cooking, his daughter waiting tables and him working the front of the house. Why he does this gets clarified first when Madame Ren disappears and then when a very singular group of guests arrive for a late supper. Madame Ren’s body is discovered in a shocking but not surprising state and the dinner guests are ghosts of villains who Ren has killed.

When the ghosts arrive for dinner Ren doesn't panic. It is only when they begin to use their supernatural tricks on each other--Steel Claws pulling out Scar Face's heart, for example, he gets concerned. He isn't worried about them as such--isn't afraid of ghosts--but only what they can do to him. He is made of much sterner stuff than many protagonists show when confronted with their victims—he is no Don Giovanni terrorized by the Commendatore.

The movie ends, as it must, in a rush. The Guardian of Hell arrives with his sister whose wedding day it is. The groom doesn’t make an appearance which is just as well since anyone who would willingly marry into such a family deserves a story of his own. The Guardian decrees that the golden sword must shed innocent blood to continue to be effective since it has been stained by so much evil blood. This makes no sense from any point of view but does serve to set up the not very surprising climax.

Special effects that were amateurish even when the movie was made, characters no one can identify with, a script that is both too obvious and badly muddled are offset by some delicious overacting by Jimmy Wang Yu, Chin Siu-Ho and all the assembled ghosts and Joey Wong looking delectable. Not really recommended but it does have some exemplary scenery chewing moments.
Reviewer Score: 4