JOURNEY OF THE DOOMED (1985) review

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Cha Chuen Yee’s Journey of the Doomed opens on the image of a setting sun, and ends in the complete destruction of desolate period sets. Fitting bookends to what is actually the last martial arts film produced by the Shaw Brothers Studio before it switched completely to TV production. Movie bootlegging and overwhelming competition from rival studio Golden Harvest had led to diminishing returns in the beginning of the eighties, and the legendary studio, after producing close to a thousand feature films,was cutting its losses and would not return to the big screen before 2009. These facts do not lend Journey of the Doomed any crepuscular dimension however, as it is more akin to the kind of cake your parents would make to empty the fridge before going on holidays. The plot is an unappealing combination of convoluted and unfocused : it follows Shui Erh (Fu Yin Yu), a young woman who leads a simple life as a maid in a whorehouse, unaware that she’s actually the love child of the current emperor. The only one who knows that fact is her guardian (Tam Wai-Mei), and at the behest of her lover, she reveals the truth to the crown prince (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who despatches a trio of warriors (Candice Yu, Max Mok and Goo Goon Chung) with the mission to bring Shui Erh to the Imperial Palace. But the prince’s brother hears of this through one of the warriors’ lover (Alex Man) and sends his own henchmen (well, henchwomen : Kara Hui and Margaret Lee) to kill the soon-to-be princess. This leads to the massacre of the entire whorehouse, from which Shui Erh narrowly escapes with the help of a fisherman (Tung Wei). On the run from two separate teams of warriors, the fisherman and the illegitimate princess fall in love.

This could have been a perfectly dynamic narrative, if it hadn’t been constantly side-stepped through subplots whose only purpose is to tick various generic boxes, in an obvious attempt to give the film as wide an appeal as possible. One subplot involves Shui Erh’s little sister being sold into sex slavery, which brings nothing to the narrative but allows for some gratuitous and exploitatively filmed sexual violence. Another subplot has Shui Erh’s guardian consorting with her boyfriend, a shoddy excuse for a non-sequitur softcore sex scene. Yet another has the fisherman and Shui Erh seeking shelter in a derelict house belonging to a deaf-mute girl (Regina Kent), which sparks a soapy, underdeveloped love triangle. Equally strained and puzzling is the introduction – for one scene only – of powers of hypnosis (illustrated with expectedly shoddy visual effects) for Alex Man’s character, or the fact that Kara Hui is actually the fisherman’s sister. It all adds up to a disjointed and frustrating experience, with characters shifting randomly in and out of narrative focus and the more compelling actors in the cast (namely Kara Hui and Tony Leung Ka Fai) getting only extended cameos. Fighting is relatively sparse and often awkwardly staged and while the film spares us any cringe-worthy bouts of comedy, it is a rather measly epitaph to the Shaw Brothers’ impressive run.

Long Story Short : With the cheap, unfocused and disjointed Journey of the Doomed, the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio ended its big screen output with a whimper. *1/2

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