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Legend of the Bat

When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.

Ti Lung is on hand to reprise the role of Chu Liu-hsiang, the cool-as-ice, sexy-as-all-get-out swordsman who can beat any man, woo any woman, and lives in a floating boat-palace where his every need is attended to by three hot female assistants. Once again, it’d be remiss of me as both an espionage and martial arts film fan if I didn’t note just how similar Chu is to American super-spy and all-around Renaissance man of mystery, Derek Flint. Both of them are tended to by a bevy of beauties who not only look good, but can also kick your ass or get taken hostage if the need ever arises. Both of them live in high-tech (for their respective times) ultra-cool bachelor pads. And of course, they can both out-fight, out-think, and just plain out-cool any villain who gets in their way.

Also returning for another dose of wu xia action is Chu’s mysterious and not altogether righteous sidekick, the killer for hire Li Tien-hung, played once again by the steely-eyed and grim Ling Yun. Our two heroes, or rather our hero and that really pissed off guy who hangs out with him and stabs people, are once again drawn into a winding, twisting plot when they investigate a gathering of martial arts clans and find everyone dead save for one lone man in white who has no memory.

They soon meet up with a kungfu couple in search of a potion that will cure the wife’s terminal illness, and they also discover that someone has put a price on the head of Chu Liu-hsiang. All roads lead to a mysterious masked man known only as The Bat, who lives on a secret island in a cave-palace filled with elaborate and outlandish booby traps. The Bat is in the business of granting wishes – some noble, most diabolical. Chu and Li must first brave a ship full of “people who are not what they seem to be” where they will make a variety of enemies and allies. Then they must traverse the truly mind-blowing caverns of Bat Island in search of the man who seems to be the root of much of the evil plaguing that ever-plagued-with-trouble Martial World.

The sequence on the ship feels like it’s Agatha Christie meets Shaw Bros. swordsman action. For the first half of the film, we meet one character after another who is not what they seem, and then in many cases after that character’s secret is revealed, we find out later that they’re still not what they seem and have a whole new set of secrets to reveal that will once again realign them in the plot. It’s classic Chor Yuen – Lung Ku storytelling, and once again, while it might not always make sense, and while it sometimes seems to be twisting the plot just for the hell of it, it’s a wonderfully enjoyable ride that is much more interesting than just sitting down to a movie starring Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Wang Lung-wei where you have to guess which character will eventually be exposed as evil, given the fact that Wang Lung-wei has eventually been exposed as evil (or simply started out evil and stayed that way) in roughly 99% of the movies in which he ever starred. For all the convolution that gets thrown onto the screen, Legend of the Bat truly keeps you guessing as to the motives of most of the characters involved. Only Chu himself is a certainty. We know he’s a stand-up guy. Everyone else, even his sidekick Li, keep their motives up in the air for the first half of the film. It’s fun stuff.

By the time we arrive on Bat Island, most of the loyalties of the main characters have been sorted out. There are still plenty of ancillary characters to show up during the finale and throw things for a loop, but at least we know who our core group of heroes will be as they begin to challenge the labyrinth of mazes and pitfalls that comprise the island’s defenses. It’s here that Chor Yuen really goes all-out with the stylized set design and turns the surrealism up to eleven. The caverns are awash in Mario Bava-esque multi-colored lighting and mists, with rocks and waters glowing green, purple, blue, red, and yellow. It all looks very much like some of the sets from Hercules in the Haunted World. The Bat’s henchmen wear outlandish “wild man” uniforms, and before they manage to reach the inner sanctum of his compound, our heroes must escape from a cage suspended over a pit of bubbling acid, traverse a raging pool of fire, and overcome a room full of icy glaciers all while fending off spear-wielding goons.

I’ve always wondered where villains go to hire construction crews to build their fabulously ornate and intricately booby-trapped lairs. Can you get union workers to build a lake of fire, or do you have to sneak off and hire the Mexican guys hanging out on the corner looking for work? Is there a firm that specializes in converting networks of caves and volcanoes into lavishly-lit secret compounds? And who sews the zany costumes for all the villain’s henchmen? Where can you buy silver foil jumpsuits, or in the case of this movie weird wildman duds, by the gross? Legend of the Bat finally gives us a glimpse, albeit superficially, into the logistics of constructing ridiculously complex evil lairs when the original architect of the Bat Island caves shows up for part of the action.

He is, of course, a brilliant man who let his fascination with fashioning fire pits and acid pools blind him to the fact that the strange masked man who placed the order might end up using them for evil purposes. I guess guys who build hollowed-out volcano bases and caves of death are sort of like all those guys on the Manhattan Project who were so happy to be working on crazy scientific and mathematical quandaries that they didn’t realize until too late that they’d just created the most devastating weapon in the history of the world and would thus have to come up with some sort of prophetic and deep thing to say upon witnessing the fiery fruition of their labors. By my reckoning, if we hadn’t kept Oppenheimer and the others busy with inventing the atom bomb, they would have probably just gone off and outfitted Hitler’s bunker with an acid pit and one of those rooms where spikes pop out of the wall and close in on you.

Today, would be designers of evil lairs spend most of their time drawing little dungeon maps so elaborate that they have to use that scientific graph paper instead of the regular stuff. Imagine how much weirder the conflict in Afghanistan would have been if the first time we got reports from inside one of Osama bin-Laden’s cave hide-outs, the soldiers had said, “Well, the lake of fire with the giant snake in it was rough, but we were able to throw Geraldo Rivera in to distract the monster. Still, it was rough going once we got to room that filled with molten lead and the tunnel that was illuminated by strobe lights and lava lamps.” That was always bin-Laden’s big problem. He spent all his money on that Al Quaeda gymboree we saw those guys practicing on whenever they replayed that “Al Quaeda training video,” apparently concerned that international terrorists may have to negotiate monkey bars and track hurdles when performing their evil deeds. As far as evil masterminds go, his cave lairs were a disgrace. Compare them to our own secret underground city where we plan to send our leaders in the event of an emergency. Now that’s an underground lair fit for a Bond villain.

As far as lairs go, The Bat’s pad is pretty sharp. Of course, in a Chor Yuen film almost everyone lives in luxurious digs. Even peasant dwellings look surreal and beautiful. This movie gives us not one, but three boat-palaces. You have Chu’s place, which is quite nice, and you have the transport ship, which looks like it was inspired by all the intrigue on board the Orient Express of old. And then you have the yacht that comes by to pick up our heroes after a big battle, and that one’s just as ornate as Chu’s place. None of them reminded me in the least of my grandpa’s bass boat, and at the time I always considered that to be one hell of a vehicle. The Bat’s lair not only has all those booby trapped chambers and places where the architect seemed to be able to manipulate the powers of geology itself to form ice mountains and rivers, but he has a cool misty throne room full of wild lighting, various treasure chambers, and other alcoves and nooks where strange and beautiful things are placed.

As with Clans of Intrigue, every scene takes place on a Shaw Bros. studio set, allowing Chor Yuen total control of every aspect of the appearance of his film. And once again he drapes each frame in flower blossoms, flowing silks, lattice work, secret chambers, and grand banquet halls. Every inch is meticulously designed and detailed in the extreme. At no point does Yuen skimp on a set simply because we’re not there for very long. He’s never happy to go with the simpler, faster sets that many directors settled for. Even in the most inconsequential of places, Yuen goes to extravagant lengths to create overwhelming eye-candy.

But you can’t build a movie on eye candy sets and a cool villain’s lair alone. As with the first film, Legend of the Bat is carried by the complexity of the plot and the charisma of the leads. Ti Lung is grand as always, though in all honestly, he almost seems to be along for the ride this time around, content to simply hang around while all the other characters indulge in machinations and Machiavellian schemes. When the time is right, he steps up and doles out some sword-swinging justice, but since his character is the only one free of hidden agendas, he is in some ways the least interesting of the bunch. Clans of Intrigue had the same phenomenon – and I hesitate to call it a “problem” since the actions of all the other characters are so thoroughly engrossing. Chu’s job is to cruise along, smirk, and do some killing when the time is right.

The rest of the characters are a wild bunch. Once again, we have the filial daughter out to save or avenge her father. We have the kungfu couple with noble hearts driven to commit evil deeds by the desperation of their situation. We have the unkempt guy who could be a vile thief or a noble hero. There’s the mute guy, the amnesiac, a bunch of kungfu masters and clan leaders with dubious intentions, the mysterious Bat, and a glorious gang of butt-naked female assassins. With all those people running around and flying through the air, it’s no surprise that our hero Chu is satisfied with just sitting back and watching it all unfold, allowing himself to get lost in all the insanity. We also have Derek Yee on hand, the good-looking younger brother of Ti Lung’s frequent co-star David Chiang. Yee would go on to a lead role in Chor Yuen’s Death Duel a few years later, as well as a starring role in the phenomenally bizarre Buddha’s Palm, beore settling down to become a director of some acclaim with movies like Viva Erotica and C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri to his name. Yueh Wah returns from the first film as a different character, this time as one half of the doomed kungfu couple opposite Ching Li, also returning as a different character.

Unlike Clans of Intrigue, messing around with gender roles isn’t a key ingredient. There are plenty of interesting female characters, but none as complex or engrossing as Betty Tei Pi from the first film. Ching Li is on hand to play the “pure” female hero (one of two, actually), though she’s less active and entertaining than her more fight-active character Black Pearl from the first film. Still, she’s one of my favorite Shaw leading ladies, so it’s always a pleasure to see her in action. With Chor Yuen, we usually get multiple female leads, at least one “ice queen” villain and one “pure” heroine. The ice queen, of course, is the one most likely to shimmy out of her robes and give the fellers a show, while the pure heroine, conversely, keeps her clothes on and fights sometimes for justice, but usually out of a filial obligation to right some injustice done to her family. While Legend of the Bat has its fair share of women with questionable motives, it lacks any real, strong female antagonist. The female protagonists, on the other hand, are in abundance but not quite as complex or disturbed as heroines from other films. Not a bad thing, necessarily. I know Chu Liu-hsiang was probably tired of female heroes who spent the first half of the film trying to kill him (they only try to kill him a few times), and the women on hand are hardly poorly realized characters. The lack of any dynamically complex female characters on par with Betty Tei Pi’s tragic queen of the martial underworld, Princess Yin-Chi, does keep this one just a notch below Clans of Intrigue in terms of characterization.

The story, however, is just as confusing and twisted as the first film. Characters pop up and disappear with frightening frequency, a carry-over trait from many works of Chinese literature where we not only got dozens of main characters, but also had many of them come and go with little or no warning. Ultimately, it’s a more realistic portrayal of how people drift in and out of events and lives, often without fanfare or resolution to whatever conflicts involved them. On the minus side of things, however, you need a flow chart to keep track of who showed up when and jumped out of which window only to show up again at the very end with some grand revelation. The question is never who has something to hand or who will unveil an aforementioned grand revelation – everyone but Chu has at least a couple, even the seemingly minor characters. The question is always what the revelation will be, and just how zany is it? While the mysteries at the core of Lung Ku’s stories – which are essentially detective novels dressed up in a swordsman’s flowing robes – may lack focus, they certainly don’t lack for entertainment value. Legend of the Bat is, like its predecessor a wonderfully written, if not totally believable, mystery-adventure. But then, are you going to worry about it being illogical for Character A to turn out Way C in a movie where old guys can chop their own arm off and then carry on a conversation as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened to them?

The martial arts action, which is after all what draws many people to these movies, is on par with that from Chor Yuen’s other accomplished films, though as with those, it is also not the central focus of the movie. We are, once again, set in the Martial World, which is always plagues with tumult. Some reviewers have commented that the concept of the Martial World, this bizarre intangible association of boxers and swordsmen, heroes and rakehells, is what keeps the films of Chor Yuen more inaccessible to Western audiences than those of Chang Cheh, where most of the plots involved revolting against evil government officials or avenging someone’s death – stuff to which everyone can relate, or at least stuff everyone can understand. The Martial World, on the other hand, with all its secret societies and esoteric kungfu styles, is a concept more difficult to grasp.

I don’t entirely agree. While it’s true that there’s nothing quite like the concept of the Martial World with its blend of intrigue and supernatural powers, it’s also not entirely unlike the equally esoteric secret societies that comprise the Mafia underworld. And Mafia films are, needless to say, hugely popular and very well understood in the West. As with the Martial World, the underworld is full of sects and clans and families fighting each other for dominion over things that entirely understandable to the outside world, such as extortion turf and linen service rights. Like the heroes and villains of the Martial World, the underworld is full of tricky characters, double-crosses, and violent battles. The concept of the Martial World, then, is not so foreign as some might make it seem. The only real difference is that there was always a very low probability than Don Corlione would leap up from his leather chair, fly across the room, and blast some low level Mafioso with energy beams flowing from his palms. But he did have a pretty keen lair.

Chor Yuen’s film usually focus on swordsman action, drawing as they do their inspiration from the classic wu xia films of the 1960s. The martial arts on display in Legend of the Bat are a wild and wonderful mixture of sword fights and kungfu clashes with plenty of supernatural abilities on display. People can punch through walls, jump over buildings, fight off dozens of attackers, and chop off their arm without giving it a second thought. Chu can walk without making any noise, and there’s a blind character who can see and fight in the dark as well as his sight-gifted adversaries can in the light. There’s nothing entirely over-the-top. No one shoots laser beams out of their eyes, and no one can really fly, but if you’re looking for authentic, realistic martial arts action, a Chor Yuen film as about the last place you should be snooping around. His action pieces are as artfully crafted and highly stylized as his sets, and they are more things of grace and beauty than knock-down, drag-out acts of pugilism. Even with that said, the final duel is pretty brutal, and there are some wonderful, no-nonsense sword fights, particularly the one between Ti Lung and a whole gang of masked assailants.

If you liked Clans of Intrigue, or if you like any of Chor Yuen’s mid/late 1970s swordsman films, then you’re not going to be disappointed by Legend of the Bat. Byzantine plots, swordfights galore, beautiful women, handsome men, and exquisite sets make for another mind-blowing martial arts mystery. Ti Lung is wonderful, and he’s the least interesting thing about the movie. It’s a worthy follow-up to the first film, and it’s a thoroughly pleasing slice of clever martial arts mayhem.