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  Well of Doom Hole lot of trouble
Year: 1974
Director: Ting Shan-Si
Stars: Wang Ping, Wang Yong, Chang Chi-Yu, Sally Chen, Hsueh Han, Wang Yu, Pao Chin, Shan Mao, Chiang Yang, Yuan Shen, Tung Chin-Hu
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Martial Arts, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Er Niu (Chang Chi-Yu), her rebellious middle sister San Niu (Wang Ping) and their childlike simple-minded youngest sister Da Niu (Sally Chen) live with their elderly father (Wang Yu) in a remote shack high up in the mountains, somewhere in Taiwan. Even though Da Niu needs medical care and San Niu longs desperately to find a man to marry, the old man refuses to leave their isolated home. All because the monk that formerly owned the place promised him a reward upon his return. That was six years ago. One day when the old man visits the local village to pick up supplies he happens across a trio of deadly bandits: bullying bearded bandit chief Copper Head Eight (Hsueh Han), brooding Charles Bronson-esque Iron Gun Six (Wang Yong) and inexperienced noob One Hundred (Pao Chin). After this violent encounter the bandits take refuge at the Niu sisters' house, posing as friends of their father. A nervous and guilt-ridden One Hundred soon rouses the suspicion of Er Niu. However Da Niu sets her cap on the broodingly handsome Six. When the truth inevitably comes to light, Er Niu seeks to trap the interlopers at the bottom of the family’s deep and dangerous well. But her sister is determined to stand by her man.

Think you know where this story is heading? You are wrong. Yet, in a weird odd way, also probably right. Such is the quixotic nature of Well of Doom. Taiwanese filmmaker Ting Shan-Si repeatedly confounds viewer expectations only to backtrack towards a predictable and heavy-handed moral message. Among the more obscure Shaw Brothers martial arts films (despite confining its action scenes largely to its third act), this flirts with a kung fu spin on Last House on the Left (1972), itself an exploitation variant on Ingmar Bergman's more lyrical The Virgin Spring (1960). Yet the bulk of its run-time proves equal parts psychological thriller and melodramatic morality play. Heck at one point the film even briefly becomes a musical! San Niu bursts into song watching Iron Gun Six bathe himself in the river ("My man, my man, you’re here at the right moment!") as if she were a stray cast member from Shaw’s earlier The Shepherd Girl (1963).

At a point when much of Shaw's output was characterized by macho typically Chang Cheh-directed martial arts actioners shot on studio sets, Well of Doom is uniquely different. It is a female-centric, psychologically driven drama filmed on atmospheric outdoor locations. Stripped of its action scenes and ancient Taiwanese setting it could almost be a pastoral Bergman drama, albeit broadly played with zoom-happy camera-work underscoring its fundamentally melodramatic nature. Nevertheless Shan-Si pulls off some subtler drama with tense and unnerving moments. In some ways Well of Doom also evokes Kaneto Shindo's Japanese ghost story Onibaba (1964), dealing as it does with deceit, greed, self-delusion and sexual frustration leading to madness. Whereas Er Niu embodies traditional filial loyalty in her steadfast thirst for revenge, Da Niu seems willing to overlook her family tragedy given Iron Gun Six represents an escape from the sheltered life she never wanted. For his part Iron Gun Six, who laughs uproariously at her post-coital discovery of his crime, scarcely seems worthy of such devotion. Conversely, in a quirkily humane character touch, Copper Head Eight, the most brutal and amoral of the group, is motivated by the fear he is getting too old and fat to be top dog for much longer. He wants to settle down with some loot and a nice girl and, in an absurd twist underlining either his self-delusion or flagrant insensitivity, reckons Er Niu will do nicely.

While the plot’s constant flip-flopping keeps the audience on their toes it proves equally frustrating. Characters wind up trapped down the titular well only to connive their way out then back again. Such is the cycle of repetition that it is tempting to view Well of Doom as a black comedy. How else could one rationalize the film's third act twist? It flirts with a humane ending stressing compassion and forgiveness only to take it all back with a nihilistic free-for-all. Only to contradict that ending with yet another plea for tolerance, by which time one suspects Ting Shan-Si lost track of whatever message he intended to convey.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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