In Sung dynasty China, circa 975 A.D, Prince Li Hou Zhou (Eric Chan Ga-Kei) has been stripped of his kingdom and now lives in exile alongside his beautiful wife and faithful warrior Li Lang (Liu Yung). Both men are forced to watch when the dastardly Crown Prince Jin Guang Yi (Chiu Gwok) rapes the emperor’s wife (while servants lift them both in mid-air!), then commands his painter to draw the ordeal. Prince Li and his wife commit suicide, but Li Lang swears vengeance. The painting is then stolen by pretty, purple-clad ninja Xiang Ling (Leanne Lau Suet-Wa). Her mighty martial arts master Chen Bo (Lung Tien-Hsiang) delivers it to Prince De Zhao (Max Mok) who, desiring the imperial throne, uses the painting convince his uncle the Emperor (Wong Yung) to disinherit Guang Yi. The crown prince swiftly turns the tables by plotting to assassinate Prince Zhao.
Following a failed attempt on Guang Yi’s life, Li Lang is rescued by a smitten Xiang Ling. Together with Chen Bo they convince a band of forest-dwelling merry men led by jovial peasant hero Golden Tiger (Chung Wong) to shelter Prince Zhao in their friendly village. But Crown Prince Jin Guang Yi hatches a fiendish scheme to seize the throne, after which the ever-pragmatic Chen Bo switches sides.
Shaw Brothers bring you another sumptuous tale of skulduggery at the imperial court, albeit a thinly disguised remake of The Lady Assassin (1982). Whilst the overabundance of scheming characters pull the plot in different directions, Usurpers of Emperor’s Power (the original Chinese title translates poetically as Mystery by Candlelight) rattles along through an agreeable array of fiendish twists and eye-catching action sequences, and makes for an interesting contrast with the earlier, superior production. Whereas that film cast Liu Yung, star of Shaw’s popular Emperor Chien Lung (1976) film series, as the power-crazed emperor here he plays the dashing young hero, although Max Mok essays the same role as before.
As indeed does lovely Leanne Lau Suet-Wa, looking very chic in her lavender miniskirt with matching headband. Having risen to popularity in mainland China with critically lauded thrillers Affairs (1979) and Innocence (1980) as well as the schlocky but likeable White Haired Devil Lady (1980), Leanne signed with Shaw Brothers and graced studio hits such as Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983), Bastard Swordsman (1984), Little Dragon Maiden (1983) and the comedy Hong Kong Playboys (1983). In later years she drew great acclaim on television as the Empress Dowager and a run of period dramas scripted especially for her by respected Taiwanese novelist Qiong Yau. Usurpers… finds Leanne essaying a cheerfully flirtatious yet gutsy young heroine similar to the one she played in Lady Assassin. Once again, the brave hero falters and it comes down to her to strike for vengeance, only this time the outcome is considerably bleaker.
For Usurpers… weaves a relentlessly downbeat, disheartening story. The heroes are as courageous and resourceful as in the earlier movie, but outmanoeuvred by evil and unable to prevent the betrayal, rape and slaughter of innocent people. Chan Bo’s transformation into the villain of the piece is a little confusing given his devotion to Xiang Ling and his other students. “One must sacrifice for the greater good”, he remarks as justification, an argument put more persuasively in Hero (2003).
The film is beautifully shot by the versatile Hua Shan. A protégé of the influential Japanese cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto, Shan made Shaw’s cult superhero movie Super Infra-Man (1975) but would have rather been remembered for co-directing the true crime movie The Criminals (1976) and its successful sequels with horror specialist Kuei Chi-hung. Yet beneath the fanciful surface, Usurpers… is an angry, bleak film, in line with other late period Shaw Brothers movies like the more celebrated Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984). Unintentional humour does lighten the mood every time Prince Yi slaps his bungling assassins.