ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Killer Constable (1980) Blu Ray & DVD (88 Films)
Killer Constable is Shaw Brothers-produced Wuxia action-drama set in ancient China. When the Empress discovers that some gold is stolen, constable Leng Tian-Ying (Kuan Tai Chen) is given 10 days to apprehend the gang of thieves responsible. He catches some of them when they take a rural household as hostages. However, when he kills one of group despite the fact that the latter is unarmed, his brother expresses his disapproval at his cold-blooded ways.
To hunt down the five remaining members of the gang Leng rides off with five of his own men, including a couple who are so loyal to him that they insist on coming along despite him telling them not to. However, the mission proves to be increasingly tough as they ride through the territories of the impoverished Han people, and start to succumb one by one to the formidable subterfuge and martial arts skills of the bandits they are after.
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Many of the Shaw Brothers’ productions aren’t necessarily great films, but are hugely entertaining - Five Element Ninjas (1982) being a fine example. Killer Constable however is a genuinely great film; while being hugely entertaining it also bears a dark and intelligent edge. For one thing, the ethics that our main protagonist and his sidekicks follow are rather grey as they are based on unquestioning, rigidly-defined principles of loyalty to higher orders. Leng sees it as acceptable to kill the thieves in cold blood as he is mandated to do so, without any deeper insight into the reasons behind their behaviour.
Killer Constable has a distinctively sombre, gritty atmosphere as our protagonists wander through dilapidated villages and pass people rendered gaunt-faced and immobile by burgeoning hunger. In comparison with many other Shaw Brothers period martial arts flicks there are a large number of scenes shot on location or outdoor sets. Even the studio-shot scenes are, for the most part, realistically lit. The realism carries over into the fight scenes, which feature little of the usual wirework but plenty of gruesomely convincing injury effects. They also alternate the plentiful frantic sword-swinging with a high level of strategy and cunning, as effective use is made of the surrounding elements and environmental conditions. There’s a fascinating action sequence early on involving hidden opponents in an eerily unlit house at night, which has a feel closer to one of those Hong Kong-made horror films of the period (director Chih-Hung Kuei also helmed Hex during the same year). Later on there’s another involving some extremely dangerous-looking fire stunts. Towards the end there’s a fight in a rain-soaked pool of mud. The action is exceptionally well-constructed and edited, featuring close-ups alternating with spectacular landscape shots - both to keep the viewer feeling on edge, and to metaphorically place the characters into wider territory than their own personal antagonisms towards each other.
Perhaps the finest moment however is one that heralds the introduction of a blind girl, who from then on serves as the element of pathos that lies at the centre of the film’s ultimate moral compass. The camera moves into a fantastical, almost fairytale-like farmland set that counterpoints the visual language of the rest of the film, and highlights how the vulnerable and innocent should be protected above society’s obsession with punishing the guilty.
Killer Constable is one of the finest, most exciting action films around - but it is also so much more than that. It’s an absolute must for anyone who wonders why the Shaw Brothers are so highly regarded when cineastes talk about Hong Kong genre cinema.
Runtime: 98 mins
Dir: Chih-Hung Kuei
Script: On Szeto
Starring: Kuan Tai Chen, Feng Ku, Jason Pai Paio, Tsui Ling Yu
A visually stunning print; both the colourful palatial sets and the grimier action sequences come out as vivid and painterly. Some of the nighttime shots could have been made a little clearer, but’s it’s nothing major.
The film’s music sounds a little wavering and crackly at times, rather like an old piece of vinyl. There’s a choice of English dubbing and Chinese audio (with subtitles available).
There’s the usual accompanying booklet, this time featuring a Calum Waddell essay on director Chih-Hung Kuei. He began as an assistant director on Shaw Brothers productions in the 1960s, then made his name directing the controversial The Killer Snakes in 1973 - a film Waddell himself calls “a depressing write-off” due to its gratuitous use of genuine snake-killing footage. Waddell is far more complementary when he talks about a number of Kuei’s other films, including (of course) Killer Constable. He also touches upon how they relate to Hong Kong’s geopolitical history of the time, with the territory heading inexorably towards its transition from British to Mainland Chinese rule. As with other 88 Films Asia Collection releases, the booklet helps to build a picture of part of World Cinema that has hitherto only been touched in a tip-of-the-iceberg manner here in the West.
On the Blu Ray itself we get the distinctively buff-orientated commentary of Bey Logan. As always he reels off non-stop trivia about the cast, the Hong Kong locations and the Shaw Brothers’ output. He also notes the European and Japanese influences in the film’s style - from the Chambara swordplay genre, through Spaghetti Westerns and Hammer Horror. Additionally he reveals that, despite Killer Constable being held in very high regard, director Chih-Hung Kuei didn’t make more swordplay films as it took less than HKD 1 million at the box office; Hex, by contrast, took around HKD 3 million and went on to spawn two sequels.
The film’s a genuine revelation for Hong Kong movie fans, and the 88 Films Asia Collection presentation isn’t too shabby.