In June 1968, The Bells of Death landed on the Hong Kong screens, directed by Yueh Feng a heavy weight touches everything from the film industry of this part of the world. Both the director and his films are not very well-known in France, surprising given the quality of the work …
The story is a fairly formal vengeance, a young man named Wei Fu (Chang Yi) sees his family being massacred by three brigands, his sister is kidnapped in passing. Following this tragic event he met by the greatest chance a master of a rare martial skill who after a stubbornness on the part of Wei will become his master. Five years pass, the young man goes to perform his revenge …
Chang Yi, Ku Feng, Chin Ping, Wu Ma … The performance of Chang Yi is quite remarkable, I had become accustomed to see him in roles of beni -yes-yes, acting in the name of justice, here it is totally the opposite, the character is disturbed, violent out of necessity, acting on his own account. It is also interesting to see the evolution of the character, who after his training acquires a certain confidence then with the encounters that he makes during his journey, understands the suffering from another point of view.
Yueh Feng surprises. The Bells of Death is very much influenced by the Italian productions of westerns, as well as chambaras, we know that both genres are cousins, it is enough to rethink the Yojimbo of Kurosawa and the For a handful of dollars of Leone , An unofficial remake of the first. The plot of Yueh Feng’s film story is basic, a few months ago Death Rides A Horse came out with an intrigue and a similar approach to the theme of revenge: a child hidden in a corner watches helplessly at the massacre of his family by Bandits, a few years later he launches in pursuit, each of them will be killed …
But what is so surprising to take a story? But no, we must not doubt Yueh Feng, as a director he fills us with happiness with his very rich staging. We can remember the sudden zooms on the faces of the characters, camera movements of a fluidity enjoyment … but the highlight of the show is the fighting because The Bells of Death is indeed a wu xia pian and that should not forget it.
The staging of the fighting is very varied, Yueh Feng not only tirelessly apply a precise pattern. It is far from filming the fighting as with Chang Cheh which generally captures the whole of the action or Liu Chia-Liang which allows us to appreciate at best his complex and wonderful choreographies. No, Yueh Feng does not forget that he is in a story of revenge, his fights are filmed in the same state of mind. He thus does not dwell on the action, preferring zoomed on the face of the hero or another character with in the background the horrible noise of the suffering inflicted on the individual. The director impeccably marks the violence of history which is above all a moral affair, physical violence follows in the following plan, the blood flows like Chang Cheh, There is no restraint. Wei Fu repeats in every fight his motto “a life for a life”, the law of the eye for eye.
This moral side is already present in the sequence of introduction, a man kills an arrow in the heart of a woman fleeing, another pierces the head of a child … The setting up of his horrors is attached To the finished facts, Yueh Feng never film the action in broad plan, he lingers on the face of the bandit then shows the result of the action. What could be more atrocious than seeing a man smiling as a child crumbles miserably and without defenses?
Let’s go back to the fighting. I speak of influence above, the “japanization” of the fighting is very clear, especially during the fight of presentation of the master, the man surrounded by several brigands, the men launch into the attack, close-up on the master performing everything A heap of movements, silence – the attackers are motionless, the man leaves the circle continuing his way, the men fall their bodies completely hammered. Still in the same idea of influence, the way in which Wei Fu puts his saber in his shoes reminds us of the samurai, he does not put the blade back in his scabbard at first but first slips the weapon on his scabbard Store it.
Then there is the fighting against each of the brigands, each of these scenes reflects a different atmosphere. The first battle takes place in a bamboo forest, one can still see the Japanese influence, in full darkness. This bandit is a coward trying by all means to absolve himself. The second fight, my favorite, starts in a pouring rain. The villain proposes to go to another place: a temple. The fight is going to be spiced by a small detail that gives all its charm to the scene, indeed each of the fighters pose on the end of his blade a piece of candle lit. With each attack, the candles are sent into the air, plunging our two characters in the most complete black. We see nothing, we can only hear the noises. This choice of combat is of a rare effectiveness, It is as if Yueh Feng told us that this duel is the business of these two men, not ours. For the last fight, it is a question of highlighting the smallness of a man full of arrogance, who without his favorite weapons and his men, is nothing at all. Yueh Feng happens to focus perfectly on revenge, in this regard, it should also be noted that we will not see the five-year training of young Wei Fu.
Apart from these famous fights, there is only one sequence in which Yueh Feng films broadly a fight, the one in the beginning hostel, a particularly violent scene (decapitation, limbs cut …) but which in the background Follows the schema explained a little earlier by marking the frontal horror of the act. In the passage, we can emphasize the scenes following the main fights that are really dazzling in their brightness and their bright colors.
The last remarkable element of this film is his music, extremely close to a soundtrack of an Italian western on which Morricone would have worked. The music itself is accompanied by another sound, that of the bells of death, its symbolism that resonates during the majority of the film, in passing it can also make think of the boots of the cowboys … Besides Yueh Feng does Not just the close-ups of the eyes / faces of the Italian western, he also resumed the setting up of a tension by filming the firm steps of individuals sailing towards their destiny (a fight).
The Bells of Death is a surprise, a true pearl of the Shaw Brothers. His director shows us his ability to vary the pleasures of staging, there is no visual facility in this film, at every moment Yueh Feng tries to interest us, to spoil us. I can not deny that the film has defects, as at times a montage rendering a key scene incomprehensible, but there is in this film such visual richness that we quickly forget this kind of problem.