An early Chang Cheh script with a typically macho bent – well what else would you expect?…
As you might expect from a script by Chang Cheh, The Knight of Knights wastes no time dropping us straight into the action. No preamble. No plot even. Just six, muscle bound, heroic brothers from the Drayon School attempting to get to the truth of the goings on at the Chao Ching Monastery. Unfortunately for them, the monastery itself is a hideout for a ruthless gang of outlaws for whom pretending to be monks is the least of the dirty tricks they’ll get up to. And pretty soon all of them have fallen foul of the monks’ booby-trapped fortress.
What the so-called ‘monks’ haven’t counted on is their comrade – the toughest of them all Wen Suchen (Chiao Chuang, The Trail of the Broken Blade). Disguised as an wimpy student, he convinces the ‘monks’ to let him and his two loyal servants (including Chin Tung, Vengeance!) stay within the monastery’s grounds.
Before too long a masked vigilante is causing them no end of problems, saving prisoners, releasing women they’ve kidnapped for their own pleasures, as well as putting an end to a scheme to assassinate the province Inspector Lin and his beautiful daughter (played by Lily Ho, The Water Margin, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan). Despite their suspicions, they can’t seem to associate such acts of bravery with the meek looking academic type. But they won’t be fooled forever, will they?
The mistrust of religious figures, particularly Buddhist monks, seems deep-seated in Chinese culture. The idea that they could be villains, or at least harbour villains, can be found in classic texts since Shi Nai’nan and Lou Guanzhong’s Outlaws of the Marsh. It filtered through popular culture throughout the 60s. In King Hu’s Come Drink With Me that same year the criminals are also hiding in a monastery (which appears to be the same temple used in Knight of Knights). In Escorts Over Tiger Hills the lead character may have become a monk, but his earlier indulgences, in the form of two ex-wives, cause no end of problems! It wasn’t till Hu’s Touch of Zen and later The 36th Chamber of Shaolin that monks began to be framed in a better light.
It’s a distrust that still exists to this day, and in some ways it’s understandable. You have a group of people who pretty much keep themselves to themselves, but still appear to take the best of the land and the most promising of the children as students, it’s bound to lead to conjecture and general misgivings about what might really be going on behind temple walls.
Perhaps the earliest true example of Chang Cheh’s so-called ‘yang gang’, the masculine code that would colour his films to such great extent later, his script gives us no doubt as to who is the weaker sex. Strangely risky at a time when women where still the major box office pull in Hong Kong and female ‘knight-errant’s’ were all the rage. Compared with the Red Heroine from 1929 it’s attitudes seem pre-historic.
Despite the popularity of Tiger Boy in 1964 the Shaw Brothers seemed happy to consign Chang Cheh to just writing, and he also had the successful Temple of the Red Lotus and it’s two equally profitable sequels under his belt before being let loose behind the camera again in the equally macho The Magnificent Trio later in 1966. Here Hsieh Chun, who like Chang and most of Shaw’s employees had begun his career in mainland China, took the helm.
Chiao Chuang, though convincing as the student, looks too frail and, well frankly effeminate to carry off Chang’s vision of a macho lead. Chang stuck with the young star of Tiger Boy and Temple of the Red Lotus, Jimmy Wang Yu, who would also take the lead in Magnificent Trio and One-Armed Swordsman. The two appeared together a year later in the fantastically melodramatic swordplay fantasy The Trail of the Broken Blade.
Perhaps Knight of Knights biggest claim to fame is that it contains one of the raunchiest moments in Hong Kong cinema before Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. The scene where Lily Ho strips off her clothes to dry them, though rather innocent by comparison, is daring for it’s time and a true precursor for what was to come. (In fact from the original poster and trailer included on the DVD, it appears to have been the one aspect the Shaw Brothers sold the film on.)
Yet for all this, the one thing that really makes up for the lack of discernable plot is the action scenes, extremely well choreographed and comparable with those in Come Drink with Me – if not better. It’s just a shame about the film that goes with them. This is one lesser known Chang Cheh work that’s bound to stay that way.
Home media details
Distributor: IVL (Hong Kong)
Yes - Celestial Pictures have done another great job, even if the extras are a little lean. This reissue bears out the point that by no means was EVERY Shaw Brothers release a bonafide classic.