Nope, that’s not a typo. This Hong Kong wu xia (“swordplay”) fantasy really is titled Deadful Melody. Dodgy English aside, the movie is far from dreadful and actually quite an unsung gem. Our story unfolds amidst that most archetypal wu xia setting, the semi-mythical Martial World where rival clans of flying swordsmen, kung fu overlords and whip-wielding witches seek a particular martial arts Macguffin: in this instance, a magical lyre that blasts energy beams that explode enemies into plumes of bright coloured smoke.
Wielder of this legendary super-weapon is Snow (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), a beautiful, mysterious and all-powerful martial maiden, hell-bent on avenging the senseless slaughter of her family by those seeking the lyre for their own evil ends. In flashback we see the young Snow narrowly escape an array of fantastical clan leaders: the willowy, pasty-faced Ghost Master (Lam Wai), Fire Master (Wu Ma) with flaming red skin, slippery Six Fingers, scheming Hon Suen (Chung Faat), the splendidly-monikered Cold-Hearted Seductress Ha Ching Fa (Siu Wing-Sang), and musically-inclined, forest-dwelling hermit Tung Fong Pak (Elvis Tsui).
Appearing in secret at the Flying Tiger Security Agency, Snow hires eager young swordsman Lui Lun (Yuen Biao) to deliver the lyre to Hon Suen. But this is really a ruse to draw her enemies into the open. Snow shadows Lun on every step of his perilous quest, slaying bad guys one by one and saving his life while unwittingly implicating him in a string of murders. Meanwhile, Fire Master’s cocky prized pupil, Tam Yuet Wah (Carina Lau) tries to retrieve the lyre for her clan, only to fall hopelessly in love with Lun. Things are further complicated when Snow learns Lun is really her long-lost brother.
From child actress to screen goddess, Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia was arguably the biggest star in the history of Hong Kong cinema. After her astonishing, instantly iconic turn in mega-blockbuster Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992), she was repeatedly cast as godlike yet morally ambiguous warrior women in a string of fantasy films before ending her career with Wong Kar-Wai’s excellent Chungking Express (1995). As the actress herself put it: “I seem to fulfil some fantasy the audience has about a beautiful girl performing violent acts.”
Martial arts fantasies centred around musical weapons are usually bonkers - see also Demon of the Lute (1983) - but no matter how outlandish things get, Lin Ching-Hsia performs with such stoic conviction and emotes so intensely, she makes us believe wholeheartedly in this zany alternate reality. Deadful Melody is one of her best late vehicles and weaves a complex plot fraught with tragic relationships, with musings on chivalry and morality, and some interestingly ambiguous shadings. Snow treads the line between righteous avenger and crazed murderess, Lun is so hot-tempered he acts without thinking and alienates both his sister and the woman who loves him. We may think we’ve pegged our villains, but late in the game one of them maintains his desire is to save the world from the menacing lyre. Just who poses the greater threat? Although the Ghost Master undoubtedly wears a black hat (he later dismisses the deaths of his sons with a contemptuous rant), each of Snow’s other enemies think of themselves as heroes.
A sub-plot woven into the film involves tension between idealistic, if impetuous youth and the pragmatic, yet conniving seniors, including Fire Master who sacrifices his otherwise warmly paternal relationship with Yuet Wah by forcing her to marry Tung Fong Pak. The film also includes a welcome amount of comedy, often centred around the sparky battle of the sexes between Lun and Yuet Wah, and the amusing antics of Master Late - so-called because he always arrives just after tragedy unfolds. He also has a fetish for “Stinky Tofu”, a notoriously awful Chinese delicacy best left alone. Believe me.
This was one of only a handful of films directed by actor/fight choreographer Ng Min-keng, although co-star Wu Ma (an experienced filmmaker in his own right) and Shaw Brothers veteran Meng Hoi also lent a hand. Production values and cinematography are excellent, eulogising some sumptuous Taiwanese locations and a lovely leading lady who resembles a classical painting of a Chinese sword heroine come to life. The action is also superb: a whirlwind of wire fu, lightning-fast editing and amazing camera acrobatics.
At its best wu xia cinema offers great roles for women. As well as Lin Ching-Hsia’s highly charged performance, Siu Wing-Sang is memorably as a sexy whip-wielding seductress and Carina Lau steals scenes as feisty Tam Yuet-Wah. Although Yuen Biao holds his own with a breezy, humorous performance, the film provides scant opportunity for him to demonstrate his famed acrobatic prowess. Nevertheless viewers are unlikely to feel short-changed.
Features the classic line: “So you are the notorious slut of the kung fu world.” Possibly the worst wu xia chat-up line ever.