It was a chaotic time during the Ming Dynasty, when the coastal provinces were like the Gulf of Aden. Japanese ronin were the Somali pirates of their day, raping and pillaging with impunity, thanks to the corruption of local officials. However, there is a new sheriff in town and he brought two spectacularly skilled deputies. They will take the fight directly to the pirates in King Hu’s The Valiant Ones, which screens during BAM Cinématek’s retrospective, All Hail the King: the Films of King Hu.
Frankly, many in court are hoping Yu Da-you will fail in his imperial assignment to subdue the pirates terrorizing coastal villages. After all, he has a reputation for integrity, just like his inconvenient father. He also has Wu Ji-yuan, a master swordsman, and his wife Wu Re-shi, who happens to be a particularly lethal archer. The bad guys will launch a preemptive attack on Yu, but they are no match for the Wus’ chops. With the reluctant help of a crooked prosecutor busted dead to rights, Yu’s lieutenants will infiltrate the pirates’ lair, posing as mercenaries looking to sign on. Their talents will impress, in more ways than one.
In terms of narrative structure, Valiant is pretty straight forward, marching from point to point in an orderly fashion. However, Hu’s striking seascape vistas give it an epic, widescreen vibe. He also lays down some incredible action sequences choreographed by the then little known Sammo Hung. Arguably, the climatic showdown is a true wuxia landmark, distinguished by feats that defy gravity and evoke classical tragedy.
Granted, Bai Ying and Hsu Feng do not cover an especially wide dramatic range as Wu Ji-yuan and Re-shi, respectively, but they have the moves and the presence. Roy Chiao has a steely Picard-ish air of command as the upright Yu, but Hung’s flamboyant turn as the pirate chieftain, Hakatatsu, seems to be looking for ways to be problematic. Nevertheless, his fight direction is terrifically stylish and camera-friendly.