If “What Price Survival” proves anything, it’s that the Chinese, and most Asians in general, consider melodrama as essential as breathing air or having a bowl of rice for dinner. I’m not being facetious or even over exaggerating. Chinese plays, and now Chinese films, is notorious for laying the melodrama on so thick you’ll be hardpressed to see any actual “reality” within them. The South Koreans, the Japanese, and the Thais show the same penchant in their films. The motto seems to be, “Misery is good. More misery is even better. And a film all about suffering and misery is greatest!”
“What Price Survival” is most notable for bringing one of my favorite “old time” Hong Kong kung fu movie stars of the ’70s, David Chiang, back to the forefront — or at least in a role that requires more acting than standing in the background. Chiang plays Pai Fukuo, the leader of some sort of martial arts school in a Chinese countryside. (Don’t ask, the film never elaborates.) Fukuo’s biggest rival is the obsessive Ching-kuo (Norman Chu), who doesn’t go to sleep not thinking about killing Fukuo for whatever reason. (Again, don’t ask, the film never elaborates.)
Since Ching-kuo is the conniving type, he cheats during a duel with Fukuo and manages to (get this) wrangle Fukuo’s infant son away from him as a reward for “winning”! And even though Ching-kuo obviously cheated, thus breaking every “martial arts code” that the movie is only too willing to depart to us, Fukuo lets him waltz off with his kid! Fast forward to 30 years or so later, and Fukuo’s kid is all grown up and has been programmed to kill his father by Ching-kuo. Fukuo’s son, Ning (Hsing-kuo Wu), has been told that Fukuo was responsible for killing his parents, and he must avenge them.
With the music cued to slam home the melodrama in all its melodramatic glory, Ning succeeds in killing dad in a duel, but only because dad allowed him to. Now, you may ask, why didn’t dad just tell sonny that he was sonny’s dad, and that Ching-kuo is a no-good liar? Why, then Fukuo’s death wouldn’t be melodramatic, of course! (Before the duel, Fukuo had met Ning earlier on the road, and Ning had stated that he intends to kill Fukuo for killing his parents. Thus, Fukuo knew very early on whom Ning was, and yet said nothing.)
“What Price Survival” has a number of nagging problems, but is saved (somewhat) by the fact that it declares its intent to douse the whole affair in heavy melodrama from the very first scene. Nothing beyond this point should be taken seriously, because the film is so grossly exaggerating in the human nature department that the characters don’t represent real people, just characters in an overly dramatic Chinese theater play. Besides that, there’s a weak attempt to age the Ching-kuo character, who looks exactly the same 30 years later, with only some added grays in his hair. Hsing-kuo Wu’s Ning, as well, is supposed to be David Chiang’s son, but looks only a few years younger.
If nothing else, the movie does look very good. With first-time director Daniel Lee (“Black Mask”) at the helm, the film’s frame compositions are outstanding, and the use of snow and character wardrobe really gives the movie some nice visuals. Although the action sequences in the film’s first 30 minutes is badly hindered by the use of a camera trick that makes everything onscreen blurry, jagged, and generally indistinguishable, the film does manage to straight itself out after this point. The action looks better, is more “real” to the eye, but the whole blurry gimmick does come back in the final action scene, unfortunately.
There were a couple of points about the film that continued to bug me. For one, why does everyone carry around swords in 20th century China? Isn’t that illegal? Apparently not, because people in the movie carry around swords the way Americans in the early 20th century wear fedoras. I mean, everyone has a sword. Also, what exactly are the two schools fighting about? Is it a matter of, “My school is better than yours”? If so, why would Ching-kuo hatch such a lengthy plot? It took over 30 years to train and program Ning to kill his father. That’s some patience, I’ll tell you.
“What Price Survival” is all about swordfighting — or at least, it’s supposed to be. There’s a lot of scenes with people doing things with a sword that doesn’t really seem coherent, but is supposed to represent “fighting” by the loud clash and clangs in the foley. Characterization in the first 30 minutes is done with such broad strokes that it’s laughable. And yet, the film does look very good. That is, until people start leaping at each other and slashing at the air and stuff. And if the whole “blurry fighting” camera gimmick doesn’t return again in my lifetime, I’ll be a happy moviegoer.
FYI: If you were wondering why the movie has an alternate English title of “One-Armed Swordsman”, you’ll find out in the end. It’s one of those scenes that has to be seen to be believed.
Daniel Lee (director)
CAST: David Chiang …. Pai Fu-Kuo
Norman Chu …. Wang Ching-Kuo
Jack Kao …. Jie