Sword Stained with Royal Blood (1982)
Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Chang Cheh
Starring: Philip Kwok, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, and Candy Wen

The Plot: Our story begins with the exile of a young boy named Yuan Chengzhi (Philip Kwok) who moves to the mountains in order to be trained by the great master of the Lung Yau school of martial arts. Growing up in this situation, the young man learns great courage and is truly one of the best martial artists in all of the land. Soon, Yuan sets out to find his own path in life. When he does this, he discovers a hidden cave that was once the hideout of a brilliant martial arts master named Golden Snake. While dodging numerous boobytraps, Yuan learns that the Golden Snake has passed away and has left his martial arts manual and sword for whoever manages to find them. With these awesome gifts, he also discovers a lost treasure map and instructions to deliver a portion of the treasure to a certain woman. Yuan, being the righteous man that he is, sets out to find the woman and in the process he meets a spoiled and not-so-cleverly disguised young woman posing as a man named Wen Qingqing (Candy Wen). This awful costume somehow fools Yuan, and he becomes fast friends with Wen after she takes a liking to him. She brings him home, and it soon turns out that her family may have been involved in a battle with Golden Snake in the past. Also, could it be that the woman who Golden Snake left the gold for is actually in this very home?

The Review
There is no question about my devotion to both Chang Cheh and his glorious venom clan. If you’ve read the reviews on this website for any considerable amount of time, you’ll know that when it comes to Chang Cheh’s output, I am a big fan of his work from the late seventies and early eighties. I have numerous friends who disagree with my position, but I can’t help but love the machismo and amazing ensemble casts that he put together during this era. There are noticeable weaknesses within many of these films, but I generally find it easy to look over the bad prospects to find the really good stuff. Chang Cheh was great with an ensemble cast, but I would never say that he was great in keeping a focused script when it came time to deal with an exceedingly large cast. Even with films like Ten Tigers From Kuangtung, I found that his approach to his characters was certainly lacking in many ways. His plot strands were often all over the place, but the action was always excellent. Sword Stained with Royal Blood is a early eighties action epic that follows the plot of a very popular Chinese novel, and due to this literary background it seems to stay very centered in its focus. This marks one of Cheh’s most concise films from this era, and appears to be one of the better films from his late-era.

A bit of a lost entry into the lineage of both Chang Cheh and the venom clan, Sword Stained with Royal Blood is not a “venoms” film by definition. Featuring only three of the main cast members from the venom era, it is a hybrid title of sorts. However, what makes it interesting has nothing to do with great heritage of Venom films. Instead, the fact that Phillip Kwok is ultimately given a movie that can rightfully be claimed as his own unique toy, this is what separates Sword Stained with Royal Blood. Made during the early eighties, it is also a relatively late Shaw Bros. title, as the studio was heading towards its inevitable close. Made around the same period as other great such as Opium and the Kung Fu Master, amongst other daring works, it stands out as a much more dramatically focused piece of Kung Fu cinema. Based upon the wuxia novel of the same name by Dr. Louis Cha (known under the pen-name Jin Yong), the story appears to be quite beloved. So, knowing this, it seems quite fitting that Chang Cheh would be at his most astute when dealing with the plot.

Similar to some of Chang Cheh’s other more focused works, Sword Stained with Royal Blood tries to be a kung fu mystery of sorts. The movie begins by inspiring a really solid atmosphere of adventure and mystery. As we watch Philip Kwok set out on his journey to find a mysterious kung fu book, the story detours into some interesting areas by throwing a treasure map into his hands. Sure, a mysterious treasure might seem like a rather repetitive device, within the world of kung fu cinema such devices can lead to some very interesting developments. These early scenes play out with the same atmosphere that made titles like Five Deadly Venoms so successful. Chang Cheh genuinely grabs the attention of his audience, not by his use of violence or through expert fight choreography, but through simple plot devices and some nifty gimmicks. The treasure map, the booby traps found at the site of the map, and the clever twists within this introduction are all part of the innovative atmosphere found in the early half of this movie. Once you start, the movie is so creative that it becomes hard to sit it aside. The craftiness of the plot, I imagine, may not prove to be enough for some viewers. However, if you look for more than just awesome fight choreography in these movies, you may be left feeling quite pleased.

I must admit, there is a certifiable lack of action in Sword Stained with Royal Blood. For a movie that features blood in the title, one might actually expect to find more swords actually being stained with blood. However, the violence is served in minimal doses this time around. Indeed, it seems to take roughly twenty minutes before we actually have our first confrontation within the film. Even after the fight fight sequence, many of the following fight scenes are played for a fun or “cute” effect. Essentially, these fight scenes act as demonstrations rather than fierce life or death battles. These scenes are obviously attempts to satiate the action-loving audience while also servicing the plot, with little or no emphasis on racking up a bodycount until the very end of the movie. It takes all kinds, however, and I believe that this particular style services the film very well. The point here isn’t so much to craft a massive action spectacle, but instead to deliver a very wry and witty period film that intended to catapult Phillip Kwok into the spotlight unlike anything else I have ever seen from him before. For the first hour of this movie, he is entirely alone in his escapades. A leading man who often lead a team during the majority of his work with Chang Cheh, he does a great job in this role and it seems so unfortunate that he was never a huge face within the world of martial arts cinema.

The movie does not deviate entirely from genre conventions, unfortunately. The treasure map subplot and hidden mystery can be seen as something that is expected within the genre, but such conventions at least offer opportunity for deviation when done correctly. In that regard, the plot within Sword Stained with Royal Blood certainly presents an original atmosphere. It also features a great deal of genre conventions that audiences will be very used to. The invincible hero is in full effect within this title, and the hidden kung fu style that conquers all others. Yet, it also features one of my least favorite conventions of the genre. The movie pulls the “girl dressed up like a boy” trick on its audience, and although it isn’t entirely annoying – I can’t help but feel disappointed to find yet another movie that uses this same convention. For those unfamiliar, there’s a standing convention in martial arts films where women are often seen dressing up like men and convincing all male characters that they are of the same sex. However, this is rarely ever pulled off in a convincing fashion. In the case of Sword Stained with Royal Blood, it may mark one of the least convincing uses of this convention that I have seen. Wen Hsueh-erh, who plays the character of Wen, is perhaps the most feminine looking man ever seen. In fact, they go through great pains to make her actually look attractive, which completely destroys any sort of attempts to actually pull the wool over the audience’s eyes. This hindered my viewing of the film, because I continually found myself questioning whether or not she was actually supposed to be fooling the rest of the cast – or if she was open about being a woman. The movie uses many ambiguous terms throughout when dealing with her, and it becomes easy to find yourself confused while watching.

The Conclusion
Although the movie certainly has some issues, I found myself absorbed throughout every minute. Easily one of the most fun films of Chang Cheh’s later-period, and also one of his most concise efforts. There was a temptation to give it our highest rating, but I do not want to oversell the movie. I think it earns a four out of five rating, and it earns it with gusto. Certainly give this one a look if you are interested in the Venoms or Chang Cheh.