The Desperate Chase (1971)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-01-27
China is in turmoil with rebels throughout the countryside being hunted by the premier's men, while blind orphans beg in the street. Mongols mass on the border preparing to invade while the army spends its time hunting those considered subversive and harassing the civilian population. There is a list--everyone knows that it exists and that names the leaders of the rebellion but the army and intelligence services haven't been able to locate it. This is the overused premise that is the premise for the slaughter, heroism and treachery in "The Desperate Chase".

It begins with Lung Tai (Wang Yu) defeating a sword wielding Ma Chin then contemptuously refusing to kill him. Wang Yu laughs at the enemy at his feet and tells him that the spell of his magic sword has been broken. We know right away the Lung Tai is not only very good with his spear but also is completely fearless, a warrior who would rather humiliate on opponent and leave him alive than kill him.

Mr. Yang and his wife, known rebels, are trying to make their way through the kingdom in disguise--Yang as a peasant pushing a wheelbarrow upon which his pampered wife rides. They have to fight when five of the premier's men literally drop from the trees in front of them. The Yangs sell their lives dearly--the handles of the wheelbarrow hide swords and the pair of them kill two of their assailants before Mrs. Yang dies while Yang escapes on a horse (even though he has a sword stuck in his back). It does get a bit campy--we next see Yang when he falls from the horse in Beijing with the sword stuck all the way through him, protruding twelve inches or so in each side. He is not only a rebel he is very hard to kill. He reaches around, grabs the hilt of the sword and pulls it out of his body, then gives a secret document to a young boy in the alley before he finally breathes his last.

Lung Tai re-enters the story when Kang Fu (the premier's soldier) and his aide chase down the young boy and take the message away from him. After slapping around the kid and a lovely young woman who is his protector they are leaving when a voice from above tells them to return the message. It is Lung Tai sitting in a tree. There follows a very well done fight scene among Lang Tai with his spear, Kang Fu armed with a fearsome mace and his cohort who has a sword. There are shots from above and at an angle from the action--as if we were sitting in the tree that Wang Yu just dropped from--that show the pattern of the fight as the swordsman tries to sneak up on our hero while Kang keeps him occupied with the swinging mace. These shots are intercut with medium close-ups, each shorter than one second, that shows the ferocity of the close order fighting and even some low angle shots that give a good sense of disorientation, of the distortions of time and space that often happen to combatants in a fight to the death. The planning, camera work, editing and choreography created a thrilling scene.

A dynastic complication occurs--Ma Tang, the young prince to whom the message must be delivered turns out to be the son of Ma Chin, left to die of shame by Lung Tai. Clearly he and his young companion won't be welcome at the prince's household. Ma Tang is an energetic swordsman but lacks the skill and polish of his father so Lung is able to deal with him using the butt end of his spear and some teeth-rattling kicks. Ma's advisor intervenes but Ma gets the drop on Lung and stabs him in the back.

After Lung escapes, still bleeding from his wound, a messenger comes to Prince Ma, telling him that the message the Yang's had been carried wasn’t found. Ma and his men assume the worst, that the Emperor's men have the vital letter while Lung and his young assistant still possess it. “Desperate Chase” touches on one of the universal problem of the fog of war. Neither the premier’s men nor the rebels have a complete grasp of the battlefield and those arrayed against them. They are fighting with incomplete intelligence regarding the intentions of the enemy, the disposition of their own forces and the loyalty of irregulars, in this case Lung Tai. Both sides distrust him which makes sense—he is less in favor of the rebels than he is opposed to the premier.

The last battle between Lung Tai and the forces deployed by General Tai was a real donnybrook. Lung was weak from loss of blood when he faced them. After the first attack against him from four sides, four of the General's men lie dead. Very brutal almost non-stop action for the last 12 minutes of the film culminating when Lung, after almost falling victim to the General's secret weapon—a sword that turns into a whip--finally runs him through with his spear and then lifts his body while still impaled and spins it around a few times.

There is a lot of handheld (or at least unsteady) camera work in “Desperate Chase” which melds smoothly with the shifting points of view during the fight scenes. The savagery and fierce cruelty of the premier’s men was always part of the action—they slapped around women and children, bullied unarmed civilians and enjoyed shedding the blood of their fellow citizens. And a lot of blood was shed. Lung was knifed in the back early on and bled freely for the rest of the movie, at one point carrying the child Ni Chiu on his back and using his weight as a compress. The horseback dash of Yang from the countryside to Beijing with a sword stuck all the way through his body would have drained a blood bank. Faces are slashed, limbs are severed, heads are pulverized—the budget for fake blood must have been pretty high.

Some of the costuming was interesting. Lung was also known as the White Dragon and he dressed in an all white outfit, a flowing coat over slacks and a shirt set off by a black cloth belt. Kang Fu, the head of the premier’s guard and his henchmen were costumed in deep brown leather set off with brass rivets—very striking looking uniforms. O Yau-Man played the Gold Leopard but his costume was plain, lacking gold or animal prints. Everyone else made due with the typical layered robes that signified “China a long time ago”.

Wang Yu plays a drifter with finely honed military skills and a strong sense of honor. He denies that he is an itinerant knight and refuses to take anyone on as a pupil. He claims he has killed so many men that he can’t remember any of the individuals very well. While far from a typical hero—there is no “purity” in his brand of fighting, no finely refined techniques that must be mastered before a practitioner can go into the world. None of the manifestations of Shaolin Temple would want him as a recruit. He is the classic outsider, beholden to no one and contemptuous of authority but at the same time willing and ever eager to get involved when he sees the strong exploiting the weak. And beneath his tough exterior beats the heart of a true Chinese patriot, willing to sacrifice everything for his country.

Reviewer Score: 7