Eight Escorts, The (1980) Review

"The Eight Escorts" VHS Cover

"The Eight Escorts" VHS Cover

AKA: Eight Peerless Treasures
Director: Pao Hsueh Lieh
Writer: Katy Chin, Ni Kuang
Cast: Hsu Feng, Au Lap Bo, Michael Chan Wai Man, Choi Wang, Fang Mien, Goo Chang, Ko Keung, Danny Lee Sau Yin, Lily Li Li Li, Ling Yun, Mau Ging Shun, Stewart Tam Tin, Dorian Tan Tao Liang, Wong Ching, Wang Chung, Wu Ma
Running Time: 90 min.

By Martin Sandison

In 1972 director Pao Hsieh Li and screenwriter Ni Kuang created one of the all time classics of kung fu cinema, Boxer From Shantung. A tour de force of memorable characters, clever plotting and bloody violence, the movie was a highlight of the early 70’s Shaw Brothers canon. Both had illustrious careers with Shaws; especially Ni Kuang (whose screenwriting credits stretch beyond 200) who can count such milestones as One Armed Swordsman, Blood Brothers and Five Venoms as his creations. Pao began as a cinematographer on movies such as Trail of the Broken Blade and The Golden Swallow, both directed by Chang Cheh. In turn he became one of the few Shaws directors to rival Chang Cheh in the early 70’s, with movies like Delightful Forest and The Water Margin under his belt.

By the early 80’s Ni Kuang was dividing his time between Shaws and Independent productions, and Pao was only directing movies for the latter. The Eight Escorts was one that they collaborated on, a Taiwanese production with all the hallmarks of the time, and featuring a superb cast.

The plot revolves around Hsu Feng as Miss Wu, the leader of an escort service who is also searching for her brothers killer. Feng was a favourite of King Hu, one of the greatest Hong Kong film makers of all time. She had substantial parts in Dragon Gate Inn, A Touch of Zen (one of the deepest Martial Arts films you could see) and The Valiant Ones. A good actress, she brings a touch of class to The Eight Escorts.

Li Yun appears as Chin Kai Tai, an honourable martial artist who assists Miss Wu. Yun was a versatile actor, beginning his career in Taiwan in the early 60’s then moving on to Shaws and appearing in movies such as Killer Clans and Death Duel. He moved back to Taiwan and became an action star and director.

Danny Lee appears as Tung Feng, another honourable martial artist. Everyone knows him due to his parts in the Heroic Bloodshed movies City On Fire and The Killer, so it’s interesting seeing in him in a Taiwanese Indie production, especially because he performs a lot of action. Appearing in a small role, Chan Wai Man scorches across the screen with aggression and magnificent kung fu chops. This was one year before he kicked some serious ass in The Club, one of the most raw HK gangster films and two before he appeared in Five Element Ninjas, a movie that needs no introduction.

The ubiquitous Lily Li is on good form as a would be thief who fights almost everyone in the cast at some point. One of the best female martial arts actresses, she appeared in many of classics of the time, including Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and The Loot. The legendary Wu Ma has a small role and supplies some good comic relief as an inn owner who has pigtails and employs young kids to do his bidding.

Rounding off the cast is the magnificent Tan Tao Liang, who most agree is the most flexible kicker of the golden age. One of my favourite martial arts actors, although not a great actor his kicking is a joy to behold. My favourites of his are The Hot, The Cool and the Vicious and the underrated Revenge of the Shaolin Master. There are two stories that capture the imagination when it comes to Tan. The first is when he was in Taekwondo competitions he would land a kick but it would be too fast for the judges to see, so he developed a technique of hopping and landing multiple kicks. This lends itself beautifully to his onscreen fights. Another is that he was the master of John Liu, another awesome kicker. The story goes that Liu was very inflexible, so they agreed that Tan would force him into the splits. Apparently he was in pain for two years, but after that could kick very high. It’s a real shame that they never appeared in a movie together, and that Tan never appeared in a movie with Hwang Jang Lee. Actually at the Eastern Heroes event last year Hwang was asked about Tan, and he didn’t really say much about him.

Unfortunately there are major problems with The Eight Escorts. The story is very convoluted and there are too many characters, meaning it’s nearly impossible to follow the plot. This is a criticism that applies to loads of old schoolers, but here it gets very irritating. There is so much fighting that the plot doesn’t even matter. So to the action. It’s great when there is loads of fighting in a movie as we all know, but if it doesn’t reach a decent level the audience is left unsatisfied. This is the biggest problem with the film.

Most of the fights are slow and uninspiring. The choreographer is Chan Muk Chuen, a veteran old school choreographer, and definitely not up there with the best. He choreographed Big Boss of Shanghai, a movie I enjoyed, but again the choreography never reaches that high a level. The use of unusual weapons is a definite plus point though. When Tan and Chan Wai Man get into the mixer the level immediately goes up, and there is some great invention in the exchanges and the use of environment.

All in all Eight Escorts scores points for a fantastic cast and some great fight scenes towards the end, but in the end it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Martin Sandison’s Rating: 5/10

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