“Sons of Good Earth” is a re-release of the 1964 Shaw Brothers film, notable for marking the debut of legendary director King Hu. Although he had previously worked on “The Story of Sue San” with Li Han-hsiang (himself an important Chinese director, having made no less than 70 films, including “Enchanting Shadow”), “Sons of Good Earth” is generally regarded as being Hu’s first, probably since he not only directed, but wrote and co-starred in it.
Hu, who died in 1997, is certainly a director who deserves to be better known in the West, with a talent comparable with that of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Although he only made 17 films in a career spanning more than 30 years, Hu was responsible for such classics as “A Touch of Zen”, the original “Dragon Gate Inn” and “Come Drink with Me”, which was the inspiration behind Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
With “Sons of Good Earth”, Hu tackles the Sino-Japanese war from the perspective of the inhabitants of a small town in the Northeast. The film begins as He Hua (Le Di, also in “The Love Eterne”), a young girl who has been sold to a brothel, tries to escape and is helped by two painters, Yu Rui (Chen Hou) and Guan Sansheng (Li Kun). After the police close the place down, He Hua and Yu Rui get married and settle into a good, honest life. Their peace is soon shattered by the invasion of the Japanese and the brutal regime which follows. Making matters worse, the owners of the brothel are released from jail and become collaborators with the oppressors, using their position to get revenge on the couple. Eventually, Yu Rui escapes and joins a local band of guerrilla fighters led by the former police chief, who struggle to liberate the province from the invaders.
The first part “Sons of Good Earth” is played mainly for laughs, with comic misunderstandings and He Hua being rescued from the wicked brothel owners. It is these scenes which are arguably the film’s most effective, and although the tone does take a more serious turn after the Japanese invades, the film retains a strangely light-hearted touch which prevents it from being as moving or stirring as it perhaps could have been.
In addition to this, the narrative is quite shoddy, containing multiple historical inaccuracies and rushing through some of the film’s more dramatic elements without fully developing them. Perhaps the greatest flaw comes in the fact that there is no indication of the passage of time, despite “Sons of Good Earth’s” story covering a period of 7 years, and as a result, the end comes as a rather abrupt surprise. As such, the film simplifies a number of issues which would have allowed it to be taken far more seriously.
Fortunately the story of “Sons of Good Earth” is strong enough for these flaws to be overlooked, being a genuine tale of heroism in the face of awful tyranny. The characters are all likeable enough, and it is hard not to feel for them as they suffer, or to cheer for them as they fight back. The last third of the film has a fair amount of bloody action, with some rousing gun battles as the rebels take back the city.
Probably the strangest thing about the film is the fact that it was made on the same old Shaw Brothers sets, which gives the constant expectation that a noble hero will suddenly jump out and defeat the Japanese with mystical kung fu skills. Although this obviously never happens, the historical events could have used a more serious treatment, though “Sons of Good Earth” is certainly entertaining and moving enough on its own way.
King Hu (director) / King Hu (screenplay)
CAST: Betty Loh Tih …. Lotus
Julia Hsia …. Mrs. Li Meng-shih
Chen Yen-yen …. Mrs. Tien