Sanda Wong (Gerardo de Leon, 1955)
The film opens in pageantry, with a parade of onlookers welcoming Lan Ying (Lola Young) into the house of her new husband, Liu Chien (Danilo Montes), a wealthy landowner who is about to discover the strange inheritance, including a magical ring that allows its bearer to control snakes. Bandit leader Sanda Wong (Jose Padilla, Jr.), who is also targeting the abundant wealth of Liu Chien, has sent his lady partner, Yuen Fei (Lilia Dizon), a trained dancer, to put up a diversion, as he attempts to rob the newlyweds of their riches. Koh Loo (Gil de Leon), the captain of the garrison, is also interested in Liu Chien’s wealth, and devises a plan to take both Liu Chien’s loot and lady for himself.
Within that same evening when Liu Chien becomes aware of what his father left him, Koh Loo confronts Sanda Wong, which leads to Liu Chien saving both Sanda Wong and Yuen Fei, who falls in love with her recently married saviour, from Koh Loo and his minions, by taking them inside his house. In gratitude, Sanda Wong makes Liu Chien his blood brother, a relationship which is tested when Liu Chien’s quest for vengeance and the love of a woman seem to force them apart.
The film, although brimming with action and adventure, is actually fuelled by romance. Liu Chien and Lan Ying’s love, doomed by lust and greed, is depicted with alluring extravagance, enunciating the emotions that would inhabit Liu Chien when he discovers his wife raped and desperate to die. Montes, who first appears as a naive young man, too enamored by feelings of the heart to be intertwined in the more base motivations of both Koh Loo and Sanda Wong, portrays Liu Chien exquisitely, transforming believably into a revenge-addicted widower and bandit.
Yuen Fei, as the third party to Liu Chien and Lan Ying’s romance, adds complexion to the affair, luring stoic and brash Sanda Wong, whose relationship with Yuen Fei seems to be grounded on attraction, into the fray of unrequited emotions. The result is a story of brotherhood and honor, betrayed by passion and jealousy, but ultimately redeemed. There are scenes in Sanda Wong, such as when the bandit leader leaves a pleading Liu Chien to die in a quicksand or when he forces Yuen Fei to sensually dance in front of Liu Chien which would eventually reveal romantic affiliations, that complicate characters, turning them from stereotypes into actual living, breathing, and relatable personalities.
De Leon’s direction, as always, is sublime. There are scenes that are simply astounding to look at, such as when Sanda Wong’s army of bandits was ambushed by Koh Loo’s men. Shot against the light, De Leon captures the brutality of the ambush through the shadows of men either fighting or falling in battle. Armed with exquisite production design by Jose de los Reyes, effective cinematography by Emmanuel Rojas, and the near-perfect performances of the entire ensemble, De Leon was able to concoct a fantasy that both enchants with its spectacular scenarios and disarms with its emotional weight.
More than half a century after its release, Sanda Wong remains to be an absolute delight, a sterling example of a commercially-motivated production that does not see itself as a mere peddler mere temporary and empty visual marvels. It is an actual film that has a story that is simple but fascinating, characters that are palpable and believable, and real talents both behind and in front of the camera who tie everything together with indisputably brilliant results.
Film historian Teddy Co, who had a major part in both the discovery and restoration of the film, states that the present copy is in Cantonese, not in Hokkien as previously stated in my article. The last two prints, one in Cantonese and one in Mandarin (which is still in Hong Kong), of the film were found by Co in Hong Kong twenty five years ago. The English subtitles were introduced by Teddy Co to the Cantonese version of the film with the help of a Cantonese speaking resident of Hong Kong. He also corrects that the production design was done by Vicente Bonus and not De Los Reyes. Co compares De Leon's distinctive style with that of Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles', particularly in the scene where the grieving Liu Chien buries his wife in the sea, with both Sanda Wong and Yuen Fei looking from a short distance.
(Cross-published in Lagarista.)