Golden Swallow
Hong Kong 1987
Directed by O Sing Pui.

A scholar comes across a small bird which turns out to be a demon. They fall in love, and the movie comes to a screeching halt, only to start back up again at the desperately awaited end.

Sometimes when I watch a movie, I can only just sit there and ask myself, "What the hell were they thinking?" This is not one of those times -- I knew exactly what they were thinking: "Let's make some money off of A Chinese Ghost Story - and fast." And so Golden Swallow was born.

To be fair, Golden Swallow does have its moments. The direction is fine, the sets are crisp and detailed. I quite liked the ghostly ambience the film gave off. If only it wasn't accompanied by such a foul smell.

Golden Swallow starts out promising enough. A warrior (Norman Chu) leaps out of the ocean and into a boat being propelled toward the evil Black Mountain. He dispatches the boatman with grim efficiency, then arrives in the dark mountain forest. There, he does what I learn must be his trademark -- he stares, emotionlessly but firmly, off into the distance until the villain shows up. And our villain? Lifted right out of A Chinese Ghost Story, but stripped of the Tree Demon's ambiguous sexual nature, she's a Snow Queen/Tree Demoness type evil person, complete with two daughters who hunt for food for her. She's on a modified version of the Atkin's diet, where she avoids carbohydrate heavy food and focuses on meat for each meal, in her case human flesh. I hope she's taking vitamin supplements with that. Her duel with the swordsman ends in a draw, he disappears, and we are introduced to the star of our tale, Lao Chih-chiu, played by Wong Yiu-Ming, who does his best Leslie Cheung impersonation. Unfortunately, he is a singularly uninspiring, weak actor who brings with him not an ounce of charm, something we so desperately need to get us through the long hours ahead.

He's a young scholar, following behind some silk merchants, traveling to Black Mountain. He saves a little sparrow from a group of boys, which turns out to be demoness Hsiao-Hsueh (Cherie Cheung), doing her best to be Joey Wong. Inexplicably, she falls in love with him. On one of her hunting expeditions for her mother, they find each other again, and romance blooms while mom sucks all the life energy from about twenty people, who die in agony.

The most fun in this film comes with the arrival of two Taoist Warriors -- Hsiang Tao ('Left Sword,' Eric Tsang) and Hsiang Yu ('Right Sword,' Richard Ng). After ripping off a few more scenes from A Chinese Ghost Story, (figuring as the filmmakers did that TWO Taoist Warriors are better than one), they fall into a kind of constantly ongoing vaudeville routine. The two warriors have to constantly challenge each other -- their fighting skills, their counting abilities, even their ability to quote the most profound sayings. They are just plain wacky, and though a little distracting at first (after all, I was looking for a ghost story, not for wacky), by the end I realized that they were the only entertainment that kept me watching.

Where did the film go wrong? After all, it seems like it should be a fun, exciting movie. Well, it went wrong in the story department. What happens is this: we get the ghost-human romance cooking in the mountains, we have bandits and Taoists chopping each other up and running around, we have an evil Demoness sucking everyone's life essence. Then -- the gig is up, and the Demoness discovers Hsiao-Hsueh with the scholar. Instead of this leading to more fighting, more danger, more...I don't know, more special effects, it leads to a dead stop. Hsiao-Hsueh convinces her mother to let him go, with a vow that if he ever mentions what he saw on the mountain, Hsiao-Hsueh will kill him herself. Mom agrees, and lets him go.

Then, we get to watch him, despondent, go back to his village, where he makes a living as a lantern seller. Then, we see Hsiao-Hsueh, who has sneaked off the mountain, and disguised herself as a human, contrive to meet with him. She moves in with him, and they are happy together. But he doesn't know that she is who she is. So we get to watch him fall in love, have a relationship, etc. AGAIN. Personally, once per couple is my limit.

When Golden Swallow finally gets back on track, the scholar enlists warrior Feng Chieng-tien (Norman Chu, from the beginning) to fight the Demoness again. He agrees, and after another round of lengthy staring, they fight, on the worst set of the film. Maybe they didn't quite have enough of a budget to complete it properly. And hey, since most people won't make it to the end, what difference does it make?

Golden Swallow does not appear to be based on a story from Pu Songling. Instead, it derives from an earlier Sung Dynasty tale called Dark Robe Land, though strongly overpowered by all the elements cribbed directly from A Chinese Ghost Story.

Dark Robe Land concerns a traveler, one Wang Hsieh, who is shipwrecked and arrives on an island, where he falls in love with a beautiful woman, who turns out to be a swallow. When at last they must part, because they are from different worlds, he is heartbroken. He exchanges a few last poems with her via other swallows, by tying notes to their legs. In the end, the whole tale is summed up by a popular T'ang Dynasty poem, which the writer claims proves the veracity of the tale:

By Scarlet Bird Bridge the wild flowers bloom in profusion;
Upon Dark Robe Lane the setting sun casts its rays
The swallows that once haunted the ornate hall of Wang Hsieh
May now be seen on the beams of ordinary dwellings

Of course there are many tales concerning bird-maidens in Chinese supernatural literature, perhaps another tale fits this film better. If anyone has heard of such a tale, please let me know. In the meantime, I continue my researches. As for Golden Swallow, I have been too harsh, I think. I hope that, if one approaches the film with expectations set as low as they can be after reading the above, you won't be put off by its poor script and overall blandness, personified in the actor Wong Yiu-Ming, who is such a non-entity that the camera seems to glide right off of him; and instead you can enjoy the staging, costumes, and occasional fun that the movie has to offer.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 02, 2004.


This movie was Asian Movie Queen Ivy Ling Po's swan song. She played the demoness. A fantastic performance, so unlike the variety of roles she has played in the past like scholar Liang Shan Po, lady general Hua Mu Lan, nightclub singer in Song Of Tomorrow, neglected concubine in Empress Dowager, murderess in A Cause To Kill, one-armed swordswoman in The Crimson Charm, faithful maid in Inside Forbidden City,a young prince in The Grand Substitution etc. No wonder she won The Most Versatile Talent award early in her career.

Posted by: Terence Lee at July 10, 2006 01:18 PM
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