Life Gamble (1978)
Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Chang Cheh, Ni Kuang
Starring: Fu Sheng, Philip Kwok, Lo Meng, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng and Li Yi-min

The Plot: Mo Jun Feng (Lo Meng) is a swordsman in search of weaponmaster Qiu Zi Yu (Phillip Kwok), who is retired and in hiding. Mo Jun Feng desperately needs seven deadly daggers made, after his were stolen, but Qiu refuses to come out of hiding in order to help. Qiu has no interest in making weapons after an instance where he made a weapon for a man named Yan Zi Fei (Lu Feng), who turned on him immediately after completion of the special weapon. The situation nearly left Qiu dead, but he is a cunning martial artist who has traded weapons for training many times in the past. Mo Jun Feng on the other hand still embraces the martial world and has been hired to kill four less-respectable martial artists who have recently stolen a jade worth thousands. This group has decided to gamble for the sole ownership of this valuable jade and the four are in the process of heading to a gambling house run by Mao Kai Yuan, who specializes in rigging his games. Yun Ziang (Fu Sheng) is a masterful martial artist who has been living in servitude to the master gambler. Xiao Hong, a lovely young lady who has recently started work at the gambling house, immediately catches Yun Ziang’s eye. Unknown to him however, Xiao Hong has been placed undercover in this gambling house in order to gain information at the behest of the constable, who also wants to help Mo Jun Feng take down those who have stolen the valuable jade. What will Yun Ziang think of his muse once her secret is revealed? Will Mo Jun Feng convince Qui Zi Yu to come out of retirement? Will the jade be returned to its rightful owner? Tune in and find out!

The Review
There is no doubt about it, Chang Cheh is one of my favorite directors of all time. He makes the list next to filmmakers as distinguished as Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch, as well as filmmakers who aren’t quite as distinguished such as Rugero Deodatto and Lamberto Bava. I can’t outright deny the fact that the man was a workman director and likely never said no to any script handed to him, but even amongst the hundreds of other martial art films from his era you could always tell when you were watching a Chang Cheh film. Filmmakers such as Liu Chia Liang may have been just as adept at staging action and maybe even surpassed Chang in terms of narrative structuring, but few could match his ingenuity and his ability to deliver precisely what the audience wanted. Life Gamble is a film that takes Cheh in his prime and matches him yet again with the Venom clan with the intention of delivering another martial classic. Do they reach that goal? To be honest, no they do not. However, like pizza, even when a Chang Cheh film is bad, it is still pretty good. The choreography, as always, is top notch, and the film looks as good as any of Cheh’s work ever. As with many of Cheh’s more ambitious works (Ten Tigers From Kuangtung, House of Traps), it unfortunately falls prey to its own narrative structure.

Our film today was released within the same year as Five Deadly Venoms, 1978, which was a good year for the Venom clan. That year also saw the release of Crippled Avengers, which also featured a prop that again shows up in this film! That’s right, the iron hands that Lu Feng wears in Crippled Avengers show up yet again with the exact same powers! As fun and clever as Crippled Avengers is, Life Gamble instead focuses on melodrama and a dry delivery that ultimately comes across feeling cold. The fun bits of gimmickry that we get on occasion never come close to making up for the massive influx of characters. This is the heart of the problem with Life Gamble, instead of focusing on a singular narrative strand it instead looks to complicate everything around it. Although I have not read about it anywhere, I can imagine this story being based upon some kind of historical context or perhaps a popular Chinese myth. If that is so, one can imagine that local audiences could have been more adept at keeping up with the characters due to a familiarity with their story but for those of us not accustomed, it can be downright infuriating.
The crux of the story follows a stolen jade, but instead of having the four criminals who took the previous object being our main antagonists we focus on a series of characters who inevitably end up as cannon fodder. This jade ultimately has anywhere from ten to twelve martial artists vying for it at any given point during the film, which is pretty difficult to keep up with for even the most experienced of western viewers. The first half of this movie in particular will leave you dizzy from the consistent flow of new characters, a flow that gives the appearance of never actually stopping. We watch as a new character walks in and out of the story every few minutes until you simply can’t keep up with the names any longer. Thankfully I had been taking notes for my review and jotted down names every time a new character made an introduction, otherwise I would have been terribly lost while writing out this review. I still have questions about characters and their motivations, despite taking notes, so what does that tell you!

There are returning aspects of Chang Cheh’s oeuvre here that should remain interesting for fans. Chang Cheh delivers yet another of his treacherous female characters, this one looks to ensnare Lo Meng with her womanly charms. Cheh actually makes up for the potentially offensive display of femininity by giving us a “good” woman as well, with the character of Xiao Hong. The previously mentioned iron-hand from Crippled Avengers does indeed show up again. This fits in with the continual appearance of maimed and deformed leading men in Chang Cheh’s work. Generally, it seems he loved tiny additions that would make his characters seem different. His films with the venom clan in particular would feature a bevy of gimmicks, from the weapons that they carried to their uniform appearance, and they helped give these films an appearance of solidarity. The weaponry shown in Life Gamble certainly fits that bill as well. Lo Meng and Fu Sheng’s characters both carry sets of throwing-daggers with them at all times, but the real fun comes when they get to show off their various hidden techniques. I should also mention the nunchaku style weapons that Phillip Kwok gets to handle during the final minutes! The weapon may be called a two-section staff, but it looks like nunchaku to me!

The venoms all do well in their parts. Chiang Sheng unfortunately doesn’t appear for very long, only in a few scenes really, but he is well suited for his part. He is at his most reserved here and really has few lines throughout. Lu Feng and Phillip Kwok make out the rest of the Venom representation and they do a great job in holding their own upside the incomparable Fu Sheng. Phillip Kwok is at his most leader-like, and has a interesting story arch that has him hiding his ability to build weapons before ultimately coming around to do what is right. Lu Feng plays an interesting character that is back and forth between good and evil. You never know precisely where his character is going, but once he has that iron hand attached it is hard to imagine him being anything other than a bad guy. The actors all work together well and although this isn’t their most action packed title, the fight sequences are innovative and fun. The concluding thirty minutes essentially devolves into one fight scene after the other but after so much “plot” in the preceding hour, it is actually a relief. The set decoration and visual style of Chang Cheh is all here and in top form, as he maneuvers his camera to catch every bit of action throughout the movie. His use of the camera has always amazed me and when you watch, you can see how he choreographs the movement of the camera to shape itself alongside the movement of the actors. It gives the choreography an even more fluid feel. This is just another reason why I love this director.

The Conclusion
Life Gamble is nowhere close to being one of Chang Cheh’s best works as a director nor is it close to being one of the best Venom films. However, it is a solid kung fu title and will entertain far more than your average no-budget Taiwan effort. I give the movie a three out of five. While I wish it were better, I don’t think it deserves much less than a three. At the end of the day it is still slightly better than being generic and the second half really comes to the rescue.

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