The Ghost Hill (1971)

Written & directed by: Ting Shan-Hsi
Cheung Tiu-Yin & Ha Ng Leung-Fong
Polly Kwan, Tien Peng, David Tang, Han Hsiang-Chin, Hsueh Han, Chen Bao-Liang, Shan Mao

Rival swordsmen Tsai (Tien Peng) and Jun Fung (David Tong) are forced to unite against common enemy King Gold who has stolen the Purple Light Sword Tsai won in a duel against Jun Fung. King Gold tries to get the men to turn against each other to no avail and they are eventually joined by Yen (Polly Kwan) and head to Gold Mountain to try and conquer the multiple obstacles waiting...

The usual genre staples of supremacy in the martial world are evident, as are a plethora of characters but director Ting Shan-Hsi (Whiplash, Everlasting Glory, The Beheaded 1000) does in the end choose a very simple story template because he's instead busy stylistically. A terrific choice. Teasing early that he's on top of his game as one character (like a sportscaster almost) dissects a fight Jun Fung lost, The Ghost Hill then tenfold displays the cinematic possibilities when depicting the fantastical. Filled with colourful inclusions such as poisonous plants, an ice prison, fire pits, a beheading for the ages and creative, violent traps, it's thoroughly delightful and entertaining to follow this unpredictable amusement park ride. 

To see Taiwanese Wuxia step up was rare, despite King Hu showing everyone how to do it but his tone was elegant, he favored tension, bursts of otherwordly abilities and clearly there were makers around in 1971 thinking about how to make these movies more wild. Ting Shan-Hsi being one of them, with stylish instincts of his own to boot. For sure Union Film are doing the Wuxia film on a budget but locations such as the opening beach fight, villages and indoor sets really do come quite close to matching the majesty of Shaw Brothers. However, it’s obviously Gold Mountain and its content that triggers the most inspiration in the film’s designers. As Ting Shan-Hsi throws in story tropes about obsessing over being the top swordsman in the martial world, action director Chen Shih-Wei also showcases that he can go beyond the swordplay action standards of 1971. For sure some of the staging is a little stiff and slow, an experiment in undercranking goes horribly wrong but he gets his performers to achieve power by doing the simple thing of following through with slashes as well as with punches and kicks. Saving the acrobatic feats and wire work for select moments, we can also keep track of characters via what sounds like a lazy, insecure choice: Color coordinating. Yes, our lead characters all receive their own tint essentially, creating standout presences in standout environments (especially when colors are cranked, making The Ghost Hill look like a Mario Bava movie in the vein of Eric The Conqueror or Hercules In The Haunted World). Inner chi is also displayed in the areas of slicing melons so Ting Shan-Hsi makes sure The Ghost Hill is playtime too. 

With a superb villain in the form of King Lion (who bathes in hot oil, something only he could survive), The Ghost Hill is elite and shows that you could still elevate your local cinema with the right skill (even if you're not named King Hu) and that means the environments of Gold Mountain really doesn’t need extensive trinkets in design but distinction. Whether talking colors, said caverns of poisonous plants, the ice prison and the film simply pulls off the delightful fun that the Wuxia film can be. Not to say the film isn’t violent or primal and certainly bodies pierced by swords, a beheading that takes an unexpected turn and blood squirting onto the camera lens twice means there’s some stakes here as the excellent momentum continues when characters pass each cavern of challenges. There were makers here who knew of and saw a wilder side to local films being possible. Not the deliberately slow and majestic, tense side of King Hu but saw a genre that could translate to lively, like a circus but that meant you had to show up technically. To make a world.