"Slaughter in Xian" Chinese Poster
AKA: Xian Massacre
Director: Chang Cheh
Writer: Chang Cheh
Cast: Tung Chi Hwa, Cecilia Wong Hang Sau, Tu Yu Ming, Jia Kang Xi, Ku Wing Chuen, Wong Heung Wai
Running Time: 100 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Director Chang Cheh is commonly referred to as ‘the Godfather of Hong Kong action cinema’, and it’s a title well deserved. In 1967 he cast Jimmy Wang Yu in The-One Armed Swordsman at a time when most Hong Kong action movies featured female leads, and almost overnight an era of bare chested manly heroes was born. Cheh’s movies came to be defined by their machismo – usually featuring shirtless heroes who frequently declare their unbreakable bonds of brotherhood to each other, who take on legions of morally repugnant villains even when the odds are stacked against them, and who die in a hail of heroic slow motion arm flailing and fake blood.
For a long time Cheh was the go-to-director at the Shaw Brothers studio, often churning out close to 10 movies per year in his prime. However as time went by, it also changed, and by the time Cheh made his final movie for the studio in 1983, the classical tales of heroism that defined his early work had turned into rather camp tales of ninjas and trap riddled houses. While his later work had arguably lost the epic scope of his 60’s and 70’s movies, becoming almost entirely studio bound rather than being filmed outside, the movies were still a lot of fun to watch. The heroic deaths had become more and more exaggerated, to the point that our heroes were having their chests sliced open and tripping up on their own intestines, and his obsession with manly bonding had reached a point were some of his movies didn’t feature a single female cast member.
Cheh was once quoted as having a goal of directing 100 movies, so as the Shaw Brothers studio turned their attention more to TV rather than film making, he packed up shop and headed over to continue directing in Mainland China. At the age of 60, Cheh gathered together a new set of performers, and kicked off his Mainland productions in 1983 with Nine Demons. While there, Cheh had a total of 3 movies made with the sole purpose of providing him with enough money to retire – Death Ring in 1984, Shanghai 13 in 1985, and Just Heroes in 1989. However every time, somewhere inside himself he found the will to direct again, and ended up using the money raised to make more movies. In 1993 he’d direct his final feature, Ninja in Ancient China, which would also be his 93rd. He may not have made it to 100, but he certainly can’t be faulted for trying.
Slaughter in Xian was Cheh’s third to last movie, and is a curious work. Made in 1989, its production values give it a look which could easily make it pass for a movie made a decade earlier. The budget was clearly at a minimum, rooms are sparsely decorated with just a chair and table, perhaps with a phone or vase of flowers on it, and everything looks rather cheap. However, it is great to see Cheh working in the great outdoors again, so we’re treated to scenes such as a motorbike chase through the countryside, and a finale which looks to take place in a temple complex and mansion gardens.
The plot of Slaughter in Xian concerns the friendship between a thief turned Chinese opera performer, played by Chow Lung, and an incorruptible police officer, played by Tung Chi Wa. When a delivery of machine guns is hijacked and stolen by a group of not so incorruptible police officers, led by Ku Wing Chuen, who are in collaboration with a pair of gangsters played by Chin Siu Kin and Do Yuk Ming, they try to get rid of Chi Wa so that they can pin the crime on Lung.
If anything, there’s almost a little too much plotting in Slaughter in Xian for its own good, and there are moments when proceedings threaten to start dragging amongst all the scheming and conniving. However there is enough vintage Cheh here to ensure that some action is never too far away. In many ways the various stages of the director’s career are all on show in some form or another. The movie opens to a title sequence that plays over our main character gunning down several assailants. It’s a highly choreographed sequence that takes place on what almost looks like a theatrical stage, with all of the surroundings and props colored white, recalling the similarly theatrical sequence with Fu Sheng in Heaven and Hell. There’s a dagger throwing character that recalls the likes of Lo Lieh in The Flying Dagger, and there’s an extended opera sequence which could well have been lifted from Vengeance!, both movies which were made close to 20 years earlier.
However there’s little doubting that certain elements in Cheh’s later works are just pure bizarre. The level of manly bonding in his movies sometimes saw critics and fans, even at the time of his movies release, questioning his sexual inclination. The scene in Magnificent Ruffians, in which the main characters enter a bathing area to find a bevy of beauties waiting for them, only for our heroes to chase them away and begin grabbing each others posteriors, is often sited as being overtly homosexual in its nature. However this scene pales in comparison to what can be found in Slaughter in Xian.
In one scene, the two main characters arrive back home drunk. As one tries to help the other to stand up, they fall down on top of each other, at which point rather dreamy music kicks in, and they proceed to roll around on the floor embracing each other in slow motion. In another, an imprisoned character, shirtless and wearing white pants, is subjected to sitting on a chair with a 2-foot long spike in the middle of it. The guards lift him into the air and spread his legs, and once again in slow motion, he’s lowered onto the spike while geysers of blood erupt from between his legs. This isn’t the first time Cheh has had a character die by anal penetration, as anyone will know who’s seen his movies which have Fu Sheng portraying folk hero Fong Sai Yuk. However I don’t think I’ve ever seen it carried out quite as cruel and graphically as it’s done here. Ironically, the scene is juxtaposed with a scene from the opera performance, in a technique which was also used during Ti Lung’s death scene in Vengeance!.
Despite these absurdities, when the action does come it’s satisfying. The Mainland style of choreography has always been a little different from Hong Kong, and it’s evident in Chi Wa’s fight scenes. They’re a little more acrobatic and showy, which isn’t a bad thing at all. It seems that Cheh was looking to make his own heroic bloodshed movie with Slaughter in Xian, as there’s also a lot of gunplay in the action. Cheh’s own student, John Woo, had popularized the gun heavy action movie a couple of years prior with A Better Tomorrow 2, and in many ways it seems to be a case here of the teacher copying the student. What’s refreshing about Slaughter in Xian though, is how the two styles of traditional kung fu fighting, and new wave gunplay, come together.
The finale has a shirtless Chi Wa (the bad guys tear it off him of course) ploughing through several adversaries, which include a series of brief and intense one-on-ones, with just his fists, feet, and blade, culminating in a great knife fight against Wing Chuen and Siu Kin. However, it’s once he stumbles across the stolen machine gun stash that things get entertainingly violent, as wave after wave of bad guys are mowed down in a hail of bullets and blood. If Chang Cheh really was looking to make his own heroic bloodshed movie, then he came pretty close.
All in all Slaughter in Xian is far from perfect. It’s sloppy in ways like both the previously mentioned motorbike chase and the finale begin at night, then switch to broad daylight with no explanation whatsoever. The look is cheap and some of the scenes are just plain strange. However despite all this, there are enough glimpses of what once made Cheh so great to keep you watching, and when the finale does come, it doesn’t disappoint. If you haven’t seen a Chang Cheh movie before, then his 91st feature shouldn’t be number 1 on your list to check out. But if you’re familiar with his style and like your action served straight faced and bloody, this effort from his twilight years should definitely be worth a watch.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10