There are people who might criticize Chang Cheh’s, wu-xia epic, THE BRAVE ARCHER because it doesn’t have any archery. But complaining about THE BRAVE ARCHER’S lack of archery is kind of like complaining that Breakfast at Tiffany’s doesn’t have enough breakfast. THE BRAVE ARCHER is so densely packed with all the tropes that make kung-fu-films awesome, only a philistine would nitpick over a technicality like the complete omission of bows and arrows.
BRAVE ARCHER isn’t a film about archery. At all. What BRAVE ARCHER is, however, is a sort of wu-xia FORREST GUMP: a sprawling story of a dim young man whose travels lead him to interact with all sorts of magnificent characters. These characters teach him valuable life lessons along the way, life lessons like how to explode a tree-trunk with his bare hands or the value of being kind to beggars who are very obviously beautiful women dressed in drag or drunken, 9-fingered kung-fu masters.
Like Forrest Gump, BRAVE ARCHER’s protagonist, Kuo Feng, is a dimwit. In the film, other character’s are always make reference to Kuo’s lack of mental acumen, and not just in that condescending way kung fu masters always denigrate their disciples. The kid really is slow and even he knows it. His first victory in battle is pure dumb luck, and when he tries to learn the 18 Dragon palms, he only gets about 15 of them right. That’s a solid B in our world, but in the world of Shaw Bros. Wu-Xia, you should not only be learning all 18 palms in one montage, but you better be inventing 2 or 3 more dragon palms while you’re at if you want to keep up to speed.
Since Kuo-Feng is not the unshakably virtuous, instantly proficient type of hero that Chang usually gravitates to, he becomes a character the viewer can really relate to, the viewer’s anchor in a world filled with guys with names like “Western Poison” and “Copper Corpse”. Played by Alexander Fu-Sheng, Kuo-Feng is a creature of vacant looks, heavy lidded eyes, and blank stares. The audience never has any doubt that Kuo is definitely not the sharpest flying dart in the belt pouch, but this dimness is never exploited for cheap laughs. Kuo’s doofy naïveté, instead gives the audience someone to relate to. Kuo’s most endearing quality is that he’s a character breezing through a world much, much bigger than himself.
Like Chang’s other epic THE WATER MARGIN, there are so many characters in THE BRAVE ARCHER, the film has to give you a how-to guide to all the players during the opening credits (they even point out one guy, “The Pope”, who is dead before the story starts, sort of the Shaw Bros. equivalent of “Sir not appearing in this film”…). When the plot gets rolling you are definitely going to have trouble keeping the Weird Seven differentiated from The Disciples of Peach island, and sorting out who is related to who, and who wants revenge on what dynasty is nigh impossible. But Kuo is our doofy-looking anchor in it all, the bumbling, perplexed everyman along for the ride just like the rest of us.
Things like narrative clarity, and a clearly delineated central conflict aren’t that important in a film like THE BRAVE ARCHER. This is the world of fantasy. In THE BRAVE ARCHER it doesn’t matter that you don’t know whether “Eastern Evil” is a bad guy or a good guy, or what his exact relationship to the 9-fingerd beggar is because, its awesome enough that his name is “eastern Evil” and he has a magic flute that can control peoples minds and a magical garden that traps the unwary with Taoist magic.
You’ve probably got the picture by now. Sometimes THE BRAVE ARCHER doesn’t seem to make a lick of sense. Watching it for the first time is very much like picking up a really awesome comic book right in the middle of a complicated story arc. You are likely to be completely lost, but you won’t care. That’s because BRAVE ARCHER keeps the good stuff coming: Its got a revenge-bent widows puncturing skulls with eagle-claw Kung Fu, magical snake-blood drinking, a Taoist iron-leg monk and, since this is Chang Cheh joint, occasionally someone will stab themselves just to keep things spicy.
Director Chang’s style may also be a sticking point for some viewers. There is very little connective tissue to ease viewers from scene to scene, subplot to subplot. Delivering a smoothly transitioned narrative with this convocation of wacked out characters and storylines would be an exercise in futility, so Cheh doesn’t even bother to try. It’s the right choice in this case, because it gives the film more time for wild kung-fu antics, even if the end result is a film that is a little less than elegant.
Chang’s fight choreography is also a sticking point for some too. Like Chang’s THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS and THE WATER MARGIN, THE BRAVE ARCHER features a highly stylized, almost posed variety of choreography. The intention of this rigid style is to formally display and accentuate the individual stances of each technique and display the performers’ mastery of forms. It’s less cinematic than what viewers brought up on Jackie Chan or Yuen Woo-Ping might expect, but the technique has its virtues. The choreography heightens the fantasy element of the film and, on top of all that makes room for a guy to fight using Bull Frog Style, so you shouldn’t whine about a few moments of artifice.
Don’t go into THE BRAVE ARCHER looking for archery. Go in looking for an unhinged cinematic encyclopedia of wild-ass Kung-Fu/Wu-Xia conventions. It’s not entirely lucid, but its collision of larger than life masters, monks, and magicians, all with ludicrous fighting styles, all committing wacky acts of stylized violence, assures that THE BRAVE ARCHER’s kung fu although unorthodox, is quite effective.