Story: On a cold winter's day an old beggar steps into a tavern and tells the story of the official Hai Gangfeng,
who just received a big bribe and is now said to travel the country with his incredible wealth. This calls for some
thieves and murderers, who are now hot on Hai's trails. Of some of them Hai is saved by swordfighter Zha Xiaoyu (Tung Li).
Hai, his servants and Zha eventually find shelter at an odd tavern, whose owners seem to be cannibals. They also have
heard of the money Hai is supposed to carry with him, but it shows that Hai is actually the formidable and fearsome
Whipmaster Zheng Shoushan (Ku Feng), so that the tavern inhabitants lose their lives, in the end.
Aside from some other dubious characters, who heard the story about the gold, there is also the real Hai Gangfeng arriving at the inn. It seems that Zha has chosen the wrong side, as Zheng is like everyone else just a killer who is interested in the money of Hai. However, the information about Hai has been leaked by someone, who hopes to gather all villians of the martial world, in order to take them out once and for all. And thus, a last bloody battle commences...
Review: "The Black Tavern" is one of those Shaw-Brothers works, that were rather unknown until they reappeared
out of oblivion thanks to a remastered DVD. In fact, this martial arts flick can offer something that you won't come
across easily in the genre. Therefore, this movie might be a forgotten gem. For others, though, it may simply be
an abstract side phenomenon caused by the very popular Shaw-Brothers series of martial arts works. Nonetheless, it
doesn't matter which group you belong to, in the end "The Black Tavern" is interesting, no matter what else you might
think about it.
Still, what makes "The Black Tavern" so special and differ from the rest of the works of that time? Without a doubt the violence. Right from the start the film doesn't beautify the fights and shows us forthright that gruesome deaths can be the result of battles. In fact, some of the deaths are depicted so brutally, that you might get a bad feeling in your stomach. Nevertheless, the brutality is decreased by the fact, that we might see a whole lot of blood and cut off heads, yet never fall to the illusion that this might not be just some special effects. The blood is just too red... Intentional or unintentional, this is what's making for the actual appeal of the movie and gives it a certain cult style, which, however, might not hit the right notes in everyone.
Anyway, those who watch Shaw-flicks, certainly will find this kind of movies likeable, too, and "The Black Tavern", as stated, is truely a work, which might earn a special place in the hearts of the fans thanks to its peculiarities. The main mood of the film is somewhat dark, even if over and over again there are some scenes to be found, like the singing sequences by the beggar, portrayed by Dean Shek, which leave no doubt, that "The Black Tavern" first and foremost wants to entertain. Actually, everything on screen is oozing "entertainment", as the countless fighting sequences put one after another are proof of. Yet, this entertainment comes with an unusually bloody and gloomy aftertaste.
Furthermore, it's not always easy to find someone in the film, the viewer can sympathize with, as the different characters are never good, but ambivalent at best. This proves to be a problem, especially when it comes to the movie's hero Zha Xiaoyu, since the ruthlessness with which he strikes down his opponents oftentimes is terrifying. At the same time, though, this gives the film a special flair, as it lacks any archetypical hero in shining armor.
The villians on the other hand, aren't simply hateful neither, but also have different sides to them, as the small love intermezzo between one of whipmaster Zheng's female students and Zha shows. Yet, we watch with satisfaction when fate passes its just and inevitable judgment over the bad guys. Of course, as it should be in a Shaw-Brothers film, there are also quite some nice ideas and bizarre characters. Latter ones might have been in need of some more shape, but there are always some peculiarities to them, even if it's just the fact that some certain fellows of a group of villians behave like zombies. And this adds something colorful and extraordinary to the flick. The same goes for the weapons, as for example Zheng's whip, in which another whip is hidden. There are enough good ideas, only the story leaves a lot to be desired. Later on, there is a little twist, but actually it's foreseeable long before and nothing special anyway. So, there are some drawbacks on the story level and concerning the somewhat too merciless characters.
"The Black Tavern" all the way through shines with its atmosphere, which is naturally thanks to the great and gaudy sets of the Shaw-Brothers studios. The fight in the snow-covered yard will stick to you the most, but the tavern also becomes a place you will feel familiar at. Nevertheless, the countless battles become a bit too repititive with time. This isn't because of the choreography, as there is nothing to complain about here, but because of the fact that, except of the martial arts and the almost explorative violence, there isn't much the movie has to offer. A little bit more effort on the script or concerning the characters would have been desirable. Yet, as already said, the movie has something to it, that's not easy to pinpoint, and which makes it stand out from the rest. And that makes "The Black Tavern" something fans of the genre shouldn't miss.