In the early 1900s, with China overrun by corrupt warlords, circus acrobat turned masked bandit Xiao Pao (Yueh Hua) robs from the rich to feed the poor. His latest escapade finds him infiltrating a lavish banquet held by Chief Inspector Ma (Lee Ying), whose slimy son Qian-Li (Chen Hung-Lieh) wants to marry nice peasant girl Wang Dan-Ping (Ching Li). But Dan-Ping is in love with David Li (Ho Fan), a nice young doctor who runs a clinic in the country. Disguised as a stage magician, Xiao Pao evades the trap set for him and steals a fortune in jewels from right under the nose of his archenemy Commander Zheng Quan Xi (Cheng Miu), but takes a bullet in the leg. He receives treatment at David’s clinic then makes a quick getaway so the young couple will come to no harm. However, Qian-Li frames David for robbery. While David is tortured in prison, Qian-Li convinces Dan-Ping he has committed suicide out of remorse, driving David’s mother (Ou-Yang Sha-Fei) to throw herself off a cliff. Whereupon Xiao Pao grabs his disguise kit and enacts a fitting revenge.
This fast-paced Shaw Brothers romp is much like an old-fashioned matinee serial with its allusions to Zorro and Robin Hood. Cheap and cheerful compared to the lush kung fu spectaculars the studio would soon be famed for, its primary concern is delivering breakneck thrills and forgoes such niceties as depth, nuance and context. Sweet is Revenge grabs the sympathies of its target working class audience with an early scene where a gaggle of snooty women brag about their expensive jewellery. Unlike, say, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), the film tells us little about the politics or morality of the ruling class other than that these are “the haves” and viewers need only concern themselves with watching Xiao Pao redress the balance. This he does in several wittily suspenseful scenes, but the non-stop chases, captures and escapes leave little dramatic meat in-between.
Many of the more amusing scenes involve the ingenious disguises donned by Xiao Pao and his sidekick, Xiao Zhong, played by the film’s director Wu Chia-hsiang. Born into a wealthy family, Wu discovered his passion for the arts while serving in the Sino-Japanese war. After starting as an actor and appearing in several major Chinese films, he made his debut with the acclaimed Fathers and Sons (1963) and dabbled in a variety of genres throughout his tenure at Shaw Brothers.
For Sweet is Revenge, Wu assembled quite a starry cast whom, despite their one-dimensional roles, play every emotion to the hilt. Li Ching, the studio’s celebrated “Baby Queen”, who won the Golden Horse Best Actress award for The Mermaid (1964) at age seventeen; Ho Fan, the matinee idol and award-winning “erotic photographer” who later branched out into directing Shaw’s sex comedies such as Girl with the Long Hair (1975); and not least Yueh Hua, one of the studio’s most talented and versatile leading men. However, Angela Yu Chien is wasted in a throwaway role as Zheng’s wife, which is strange given she had just won best supporting actress for her role in Doe Chin’s The Blue and the Black (1966).
For such a light-hearted affair, the film has a rather sadistic edge. Characters are lashed, tortured, and left bloodied and insane. At one point Xiao Pao horsewhips Zheng in front of his sobbing wife and has to punch a hysterical David unconscious to smuggle him out of jail. The lengthy third act finds Xiao Pao disguised as a wealthy relative and deals a fitting comeuppance to the villains, but few are likely to rank this among Shaw’s most memorable output. The studio more or less remade Sweet is Revenge, with a few tweaks, as Chu Yuan’s mildly superior The Lizard (1971) wherein Yueh Hua reprised his role as the masked bandit.