GOLD MEDALLIONS (1971)
Master Yangtang (Wong Chung Shun) is a superhumanly powerful martial arts master, who bequeaths his top student, Maio Lung (Yueh Hwa) with the unstoppable Wavering Sword technique, which allows his pupil to defy gravity. Maio Lung is also betrothed to Yangtang’s daughter, Jin Suo (Chin Ping). Unfortunately, a traitorous Prime Minister persuades the wise Master Yingtang to betray his people and join the cause of the Sung Dynasty. The Prime Minster grants Yangtang absolute power to do the bidding of the empire. The Prime Minister strikes back at the Chinese rebels by putting a bounty on the head of the good General Yue. The villainous Prime Minister then gives hidden commands to General Yue to stop fighting in the form of twelve golden medallions. Meanwhile, the rebel patriots plan to stop this grand betrayal from happening by hunting down the 12 messengers (who all happen to be lethal assassins). When Jin Suo discovers her father has joined forces with the oppressive regime, she immediately rebels against him. Besides Maio Lung, she was trained by her father since birth so she is quite the martial artist. Maio Lung goes to face Master Yangtang and reveals that he can be his student no longer. Though he respects Yangtang and loves his daughter, his duty lies with the liberation of his country. In order to win her favor, Yangtang tells his daughter that Maio Lung has broken off their engagement for another woman. Maio Lung and Jin Suo reluctantly join forces with and the patriots to fight the forces of Yangtang. Even these united individuals cannot overcome the might of Master Yangtang himself. If they are to recover the 12 gold medallions, they must recruit Master Meng (Cheng Miu), whose Green Bamboo Cane style counters the power of Yangtang’s Buddha’s Palm.
TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS is of interest because of the superior plotting, the acting/characterizations, and the tight direction. The script, written by Ching Gong himself, holds the film together through out its running time and ensures that the intrigue matches the intense performances on screen. Except for some elaborate choreography scenes, Ching Gong paces TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS a bit slower, much like the realistic tone and more suspenseful situations of a Japanese Chambara picture. One brilliant aspect of the film is that each messenger that carries a medallion is actually an assassin, either trained in some obscure form of martial arts, or carrying an ancient weapon out of Chinese folklore. For instance, one villain uses a steel-edged fan to great effect, swirling it around like a flying guillotine. Each of these bad guys has a unique name and sinister purpose like when the Smiling Fox (Yeung Chi Hing) uses his cunning and deception to smuggle a medallion past Yueh Hwa and the patriots. Thanks to the director’s filmmaking background, TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS is very natural, tense, and dramatic in the unraveling of the narrative. However there are some situations that defy logic and the physics can only be explained in the world of the Chinese Wuxia. There is a phenomenal amount of wirework the film, especially considering the 1970 vintage of TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS. Several characters exhibit superhuman abilities that might not appeal to those who prefer their martial arts battles au naturele.
Despite some of the more fantastical elements, TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS is made plausible by the performances of the four leads who ground the narrative to reality. Yueh Hwa delivers another solid performance as the heroic lead patriot whose duty to his country rises above the longings of his own heart. When his master shows signs of abandoning the path of righteousness, Yueh Hwa is quick to abandon him and his family, painful as though it may be. Chin Ping is the feisty, semi-spoiled daughter of Master Yangtang who rebels against her father. Her father lies and tells her that Yueh Hwa’s character is sleeping with another woman, and this drives Chin Pa over the edge. We feel her anger, we feel her frustration. Initially, she pledges to kill her former fiancé for this betrayal of trust. When the two are eventually cast together for the good of the people, Chin Ping reluctantly cooperates with her ex-lover, but not without showing her disdain for the situation. When Yueh Hwa shows her kindness and compassion, her reaction is pure annoyance. Her treacherous father is played by Wong Chung Shun, an elder character actor who excels in these roles. He commands respect as the superhuman martial arts master turned corrupt Warlord. However, the rebel forces remain a thorn in his side, especially his own daughter, who pledges to bring down her fathers corrupt regime. It is essentially the dysfunctional relationship between these three characters which drives the narrative. Cheng Miu appears half-way throughout the film as a possible solution to the conflict in TWELVE DEADLY COINS. His enlightened character is Yangtang’s physical equal, and provides the perfect foil for the antics of Wong Chung Shun’s contaminated morality.
Celestial presents TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS in the original 2.35.1 Shawscope ratio, with no 16x9 enhancement. Keeping in mind the 1970 vintage of the movie, this is outstanding work from Celestial. The restoration efforts are nothing short of spectacular. The image delineates all the picture information without any loss of film-like quality. Ching Gong, while not as visually stylish as Chor Yuen, makes excellent use of interior soundstage shots and expansive exterior filming. He also incorporates shadows and darkness into the mix, for which the transfer is a perfectly balanced rendering of brilliant colors and contrasting blacks and browns. Sammo Hung’s precise choreography is blended with some superhuman touches, but its all captured brilliantly in the cinematography. Whether its sparring swordplay, flying fans, spinning daggers, or other bizarre weaponry, the transfer exhibits the action and mayhem with much detail, including the bloody aftermath. Yes, Ching Gong packed TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS with violence and death and its all presented with disturbing vividness. The easy-to-read subtitles are presented below the black letterboxed area. Outside of some film grain, this is another fine effort from Celestial. The only way it could be better is if they had incorporated 16x9 enhancement (which I understand is in the works on future titles).
Celestial has forsaken the original mono soundtrack in favor of a souped up Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Yes, this is going to piss a lot of folks off, but viewing these old classics in an all-encompassing sound field with true stereo separation is truly a pleasing acoustic experience. The soundfield for TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS brims with the sound of real and mythical weapons such as clanging swords, thrusting canes, zooming daggers, and more. Also heard are ambient noises like chirping crickets, galloping horses, and rushing winds. The disc includes the original Mandarin dubbed dialog track, which is crystal clear fidelity. The score is by Shaw Brothers composer, Wang Fu Ling, who composes some haunting melodies that enhance the suspense of TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS. So while its disappointing that the original mono track is missing, and there’s no English language option, the sound field is nothing short of outstanding. Just next time Celestial, be sure to include the original optional mono soundtrack
From the Special Features menu, you can view the original Chinese theatrical poster and the access a gallery of Photo Stills. Don’t forget the Production Notes and short Bios for Ching Gong, Yueh Hwa, Chin Ping, Chaio Chaio, and Wang Hsia (in English yet!). Also included are remastered, original language widescreen trailers for these recent Celestial DVD releases: TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS (2), THE BASTARD, STARLETS FOR SALE, FAMILY LIGHT AFFAIR, and KILLER SNAKES. Interviews are usually the highlight of these DVDs, and only occasionally does Celestial even involve the participants of the actual film (the exception being a lengthy David Chiang interview on their ANONYMOUS HEROES disc). Anyway, there is an interview here with noted Hong Kong cinematographer Arthur Wong (who didn’t even work on TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS). Wong comments about the techniques of Ghing Gong. There is also a better interview with actress Chaio Chaio, who actually has a role in the film as Chin Ping’s ill-fated sister. She talks about her memories of Cheng Cheh and her subsequent career as a dubber for the Shaw Brothers studio.
TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS is an extremely underrated martial arts swordplay film, that matches the violent intensity of a Chang Cheh masterpiece. Ching Gong is actually a little better in presenting the dramatic elements than the great one and the ending is not as downbeat, but this film is truly an equal effort. The performances are top notch and the appearances of supporting actors, (like Fan Mei Sheng as an assassin) are amusing. The restoration work for this 1970 classic is amazing and surely can’t get much better. The disc offers the usual Celestial extras, and at least one of the interviewees (Chaio Chaio) was actually in the film and there during production. If you like violent swordplay sagas, with a definite Chambara appeal, check out TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS on DVD.
-- Tony Mustafa