Cocky young martial arts hero Xin Shuan (Wong Yu) - whose name literally means "miserable" - uses his cool killer umbrella (really) to slay the fearsome Four Killers. Impressed by Shuan's skills, Prince Yan Yikang (Ku Feng) entrusts him to deliver a mysterious box from Guandong to Xian in a journey of thirty-three days. Under no circumstances is Shuan permitted to sneak a peek inside the box - on penalty of death! On the road Shuan meets famous but snooty hero Golden Rod Gu Fei Tan (Chen Kuan-Tai) and a wacky beggar called Yang Feng (a scene-stealing Lo Lieh, well into the "ugly old eccentric" phase of his career), both of whom prove helpful as he faces down scores of hired killers, evil clans and martial arts masters determined to grab that box. Later, he encounters beautiful sword maiden Shui Xian Hua (Lam Sau-Kwan) who offers him money, status and even sex if he will give her the mystery box. Realizing Xian Hua and her grey-bearded mentor Master Huo (onetime Sixties super-spy star Tang Ching) are good people, Shuan starts to question his mission. But never mind that - what's in the damn box?!
Two common misconceptions about martial arts movies. One: their plots are simplistic. Two: they deal in moral absolutes of good and evil. While this may be true of your basic two-fisted kung fu flick popularized by Bruce Lee such was rarely the case with the more ambitious wu xia swordplay movies. In keeping with the grim, fatalistic outlook prevalent in the output of Shaw Brothers stalwart Sun Chung, Rendezvous with Death spins a taut, unsettling suspense yarn wherein no-one is to be trusted and nothing is as it seems. Given Sun liked to fuse period kung fu action with the thriller genre it is perhaps no surprise the plot hangs on a Macguffin worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. What is in the box proves ultimately less important than what people are prepared to do to get it. Sun takes the central theme of "trust no-one" to outrageous extremes. An old woman Shuan meets on the road grieving by her son's coffin turns out to be part of a gang laying an ambush. The deceased (a young Yuen Wah) is only playing dead. Two brothers claiming to be emissaries for the Prince are actually scheming assassins. Later, in a suspenseful scene, Yang Feng dallies with a prostitute unaware a killer lurks behind him.
At one point a character ponders what is the difference between good and evil in this duplicitous world? For as things play out ostensible hero Xin Shuan unwittingly serves the enemy while self-righteous Gu Fei Tan proves nowhere as pure as his reputation and all white garb suggests. Shaw Brothers made a handful of films that featured iconic superstar Chen Kuan-Tai mentoring a callow youth played by Wong Yu, but Rendezvous with Death flips their stock relationship in an intriguing fresh direction. Not to be confused with the more famous Jimmy Wang Yu, whom he slightly resembles, Wong Yu was groomed for stardom by the studio at an early age in teen melodramas Thirteen (1973) and Young Passion (1974). He appeared in some notable films including Spiritual Boxer (1975), 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Dirty Ho (1979) and The Battle for the Republic of China (1981) yet somehow never really broke out as a major star. Nonetheless he gives a broody performance here matching the film's ominous tone.
Multiple side characters bring their own sub-plots to an overstocked case but this is par for the course with the wu xia mystery genre. One area where the film could have lightened the load is the seemingly affable relationship that develops between Xin Shuan and Yang Feng. At first it appears to counterbalance the film's central paranoid message celebrating a friendship that transcends prejudice in a manner evoking the parable of the good Samaritan. However, Chung springs a predictably cynical twist that feels like overkill. Elsewhere his fluid camerawork and gorgeous lighting bring a dreamlike tone to some breakneck set-pieces. Cool killer gadgets and creative use of slow-motion impart an otherworldly quality to the visceral action choreographed by the great Tang Chia who made his directorial debut a few years later with the lively Shaolin Prince (1982). Oh, and in keeping with his name when Xin Shuan finds out what is in the box he is less than happy.