Sons of the Good Earth ★★★½

King Hu's second film, and the only one of his that I know of that is set in the 20th Century (he had some extremely hard to find ones in the 1980s that I'm not sure about). It's still a period film, set 20-30 years earlier during the Japanese invasion of Japan. Seen in retrospect, it serves as a kind of encapsulation of the shift in the films the Shaw Brothers in general and Hu in particular made from the early to the late 1960s: from musical melodramas to bloody action films.

It begins, as so many films do, with a woman being forced into prostitution. In this case it's the great star Betty Loh Ti. She's rescued by Peter Chen Ho, a local sign painter and Loh's real-life husband (things did not end happily for the two actors: she committed suicide in 1968 and he died of cancer in 1970). The two, with the help of Chen's buddy and fellow painter and the various motley residents of a tenement house (looks like a converted mansion, or at least a converted mansion set) manage to outwit the pimps who try to recapture her and everything ends in a happy celebration of togetherness and community. That's the first half hour.

And then the Japanese invade and blow everything to hell. The community splinters into various factions, the women end up suffering as much if not more than the men (the film's highlight involves a minor character, a singer who sings a pointed folk song at the Japanese army and pays for it with her body as soon as someone translates it for the officers). The middle third of the film is packed with reversals and betrayals, finally splitting apart the protagonists and driving Chen into the wilderness to join the resistance.

The last third is an all-out war movie with King Hu himself leading the Chinese in an invasion of the town. The action is well-captured but poorly acted, the guns look incongruous in the actors' hands, like they've never handled them before (one's movie death is less effectively heroic when the hail of bullets you're flying out on comes from a gun that's bigger than you are). More convincing is Peter Chen freaking out after a friend gets killed and hacking a Japanese solider up with a sword with blood-splattering fury. But the best is a pre-battle scene, when Chen and his buddy have first come to the rebel camp and Hu addresses all his men while a pharmacist pulls a bullet out of his shoulder. He makes barely a sound despite the agonizing pain, so strong is his resolution to fight for his country. Good stuff.

The cast is a who's who of mid-60s Shaw Brothers talent, filled with the That Guys of the 70s golden age. I missed Wu Ma this time, but I did spot Lau Kar-leung's brief appearance (he plays a Japanese agent that gets knifed by a hero).

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