AKA: Deadly Melody
Director: Ng Min Kan
Writer: Johnny Lee Gwing Gaai
Producer: Ng Min Kan
Cast: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, Yuen Biao, Carina Lau Kar Ling, Elvis Tsui Kam Kong, Wu Ma, David Lam Wai, Peter Chan Lung, Chung Fat, Cheng Song
Running Time: 93 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Reading reviews for Deadful Melody is somewhat of a fun exercise in itself. Depending on if the reviewer thinks it’s a good or bad movie tends to depend of their expectations of it. On the one hand, you have the Yuen Biao fanatics. One of the Three Dragons, the other two being Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, Biao was easily the most physically gifted of the three, seemingly capable of performing the most amazing acrobatic feats without breaking a sweat. Throw in the fact he had an ability to pull of some jaw dropping fight choreography, and it’s somewhat understandable that these skills are what his fan base pretty much expected from every movie he was in.
On the other hand, you have the fans of the 90’s Hong Kong new wave wuxia movies. Wuxia movies take place in the ‘martial arts world’, and if any comparison must be made, you could say they’re like macho versions of the western worlds fairy tales. Full of noble swordsman, treacherous villains, and exotic weaponry, everything in the world of wuxia is highly exaggerated and dramatic, to the point were you shouldn’t bat an eyelid when people start to fly. The Shaw Brothers movies of the 60s and 70s were filled with entries into the wuxia genre, before it slowly died out during the 80s. However the likes of directors Tsui Hark and Ting Chiu Sung brought it back with a bang in the 90s, with a series of highly stylized movies which were heavily reliant on mind boggling wire-work and explosive set pieces.
Deadful Melody will only satisfy one of these two fan bases, and it’s the latter. To this day there seems to be no other genre that divides kung-fu movie fans as there does the wuxia movie. It’s perfectly normal to see complaints demanding to know why people are flying and twirling about in the air, however these complaints are the equivalent of complaining about magic being used in a Harry Potter movie, or fantastical beasts showing up in the Lord of the Rings. Wuxia movies are usually based on traditional Chinese swordsplay novels, and have a poetic quality to their visual style, as was often found in the Shaw Brothers movies of the past. Fluttering reams of silk in slow motion, whimsical musings on what it means to be the best swordsman in the land, and yes, said swordsman defying gravity at every given moment are all part of the deal.
By the time the 90’s had rolled around, the directors of the new wave took these tales, and gave them a forcible injection of adrenaline. This led to the creation of a plethora of movies with a distinctive visual style, somewhat madcap plotting, and highly exaggerated and energetic action sequences which often involved whole trees being uprooted and thrown at each other, bodies exploding into puffs of dust, and buildings being obliterated with single sword strokes. 1992 gave us Swordsman 2, 1993 gave us Butterfly and Sword, and in 1994, we had Deadful Melody.
The iconic actress Brigitte Lin plays a mysterious woman who, clearly channeling the character she played in the hugely popular The Bride with White Hair movies made a year earlier, entrusts Yuen Biao as the head of a security company to deliver a lyre, a type of Chinese musical instrument, to a clan headquarters. The lyre in question also happens to be one of the most powerful martial arts weapons in the world which, if played correctly, can render anyone in its melodies path to die within a few steps. It’s worth pointing out that when I say ‘die’, I specifically mean start pouring blood from every orifice before exploding into a whirl of dust and silk.
Of course Biao doesn’t have it easy on his journey to make the delivery, as he regularly finds himself being tracked down by various scoundrels attempting to steal the lyre and use it to gain dominance over the martial arts world. Amongst them are the late great Wu Ma, playing a clan leader called Fire, who sports a skin tone which looks like he spent the year before production on a sunbed, and Elvis Tsui as Ghost, another clan leader who hilariously declares upon hearing of his sons death that he couldn’t care less, as long as he manages to get his hands on the lyre his son doesn’t matter! These details should give you some indication as to the zaniness of the plot, and true to how it sounds the movie speeds along at a break neck pace barely stopping for breath.
The action comes thick and fast as well, choreographed with an equal level of wild abandon as the plot. In the hands of action director Meng Hoi people twirl through the air and spin through trees at a hundred miles an hour, heads are kicked off bodies, characters have drums the size of trucks hurled at them, bodies explode in splashes of multicolored dust, and a single punch can send you flying like a human cannonball. What’s truly joyful to watch in Deadful Melody so many years later is to appreciate just how much skill must have gone into creating the action scenes. Recently Tsui Hark has recaptured the zany tone of the new wave movies with his Detective Dee series, and as effective as the CGI is in these efforts, to witness the level of chaos on screen in Deadful Melody and appreciate that it’s all taking place exactly how you see it, using practical effects and highly complex wire-work, is a wonder to behold.
It is of course these exact reasons why for fans of Yuen Biao this movie is a disappointment. Although it’s great to see him sharing the screen with Brigitte Lin, it’s worth noting that Biao’s career was already in a bit of a slump in 1994. Deadful Melody was made in the middle of such lesser efforts as The Sword Stained with Royal Blood and Tough Beauty and the Sloppy Slop (probably the worst English misspelling of any HK movie out there). Biao is a performer who seemed to need his fellow opera school brothers Sammo and Jackie to bring out the best in him, as can be seen in any of their collaborations together, but out on his own he never fared as strongly. While Biao does perform some acrobatics and displays his trademark nimbleness at some points in Deadful Melody, the movie is by no means a showcase for his talents. But as I mentioned, during the 90’s, not much was.
All in all Deadful Melody is an entertaining ride, but it’s for those of us who love The Bride with White Hair and Swordsman II, rather than those of us who love Above the Law and Knockabout. Well worth a watch for some wild and wacky wuxia insanity.
Paul Bramhall Rating: 7/10