One of the final films from legendary director Chang Cheh could have ended up being a good post-Shaw Brothers film. However, there are too many flaws in the story and editing to focus on rather than focusing on its true strength, the fight sequences.
In 1936 Szechuan, China, respected Nationalist Party member General Liu has plans to oppress the people by allying himself with Japanese forces. In order to succeed, he gets two bodyguards in the form of ninjas, Takewake and Takekura as well as his number one man, Captain Shen. Hoping to show the townsfolk that he means business, he has people captured and whipped in public.
This becomes disturbing for a new Peking Opera troupe in town. Led by Mu Hsiao-Liu, the troupe performs and spends their time checking out the sites. Female troupe member Hua Fan-Yan is married to fellow leader Tsao-Yung even though she has eyes for Hsiao-Liu. When General Liu sees the young Hua, he wants her all to himself. To achieve this, he plans to have Tsao-Yung murdered on stage. When Tsao-Yung performs and he is killed by a real knife rather than a prop knife, Hua is investigated.
To find a scapegoat, Hsiao-Liu is captured and at first about to be tortured. However, under Shen’s orders, Hsiao-Liu is to be safe. Kept in a detention center overnight, Hsiao-Liu slowly begins to put the pieces together. When he learns the General’s real plans, he sets a plan in motion to stop the General and save Hua, hoping to get her out of Szechuan.
One of the legendary auteurs of the Shaw Brothers film era, Chang Cheh has delivered stunning action with some interesting scripts back in the day when he teamed with veteran I Kuang. Judging from this effort, Chang truly could have used Kuang’s help again and the film seemed somewhat out of place in terms of both fashion and execution. The fashion “mis-statement” comes into the form of the heroes, notably lead character Mu Hsiao-Liu. He can be seen at times wearing jean jackets and jeans, something one would expect in more modern day fare and not 1936 China. The villains of the film wear more traditional fashion seen in that era.
At times, it is difficult to see whether the film at times came from the Joseph Lai School of Filmmaking. Sometimes, there are scenes that don’t fit into place in the overall plot of the film. This includes a scene of actors who don’t resemble the heroes practicing their flips and acrobatics as if it just came out of nowhere. This proves not helpful considering the film clocks in at only 75 minutes.
Despite the two flaws, that doesn’t take away the performances of the actors. Lead actor Dong Zhi-Hua, who later gained international fame as the noodle maker/staff expert Donut in Stephen Chow’s hit film Kung Fu Hustle (2004), proves here that he can be a bankable lead actor. An amazing martial artist and Cantonese opera actor at one point, he brings both his brand of acting and fight skills well to the screen, showing that with the right project, he could have been quite the superkicker himself. Dong would lead the last generation of Chang’s Baby Venoms team before the director’s retirement in 1993.
The supporting cast does well in their roles, notably Suen Yee-Man, who plays suspected widow Hua Yan-Fang. She proves herself to be more of a dramatic actress, yet she is credited with assisting Dong Zhi-Hua in choreographing the film’s action. Perhaps, she assisted in more of the opera acrobatics as she proves her mettle in that area while Dong took care of the film’s more kickboxing-paced action scenes.
Director Chang Cheh must have loved his film Five Element Ninjas (1982), one of his final films for the Shaw Brothers. It seems that some of his post-Shaw films have to include ninjas. Here proves no different as the bodyguards for the villainous General Liu are a band of gun-toting ninjas. However, the climactic fight scene is well done and ends with a Fist of Fury (1972)-like ending.
Cross the River may not seem as if it could be done by a legendary director like Chang Cheh. Despite Dong Zhi-Hua and Suen Yee-Man shining, this film should be only recommended for hardcore fans of the late Chang Cheh.
WFG RATING: B-
A Yangtze Productions Limited Production in association with Hong Kong Chang He Film Co./Ngo Mei Din Ying Chai Pin Chong/China Film Co-Production Corp. Director: Chang Cheh.
Producers: Chang Cheh and Teng Jinxian. Writers: Tan Su and Chang Cheh. Cinematography: Che Yee-Cheung. Editing: Zheng Yongming and Wang Xiaoyun.
Cast: Dong Zhi-Hua, Chiu Siu-Kin, Ku Wing-Chuen, Suen Yee-Man, Do Yuk-Ming, Lok Woon-Yau, Mu Li-Xin, Yuk Heung-Wah.