Asoka is a pretty funny guy to know absolutely nothing about. In terms of ancient world history, he was a man the caliber of Julius Caesar or Ghengis Khan or Qin Shi-huang, the first emperor of China. And like these men who were more familiar to me, Asoka embodies all that is noble and ruthless, admirable and despicable, about men who live lives of epic scale. These complexities in great men — “great” referring to the scope of the accomplishments and the impact they had on the world around them more than being a description of their demeanor or potential as a drinking buddy — make for superb cinema if you are willing to deal with these complexities. Many times, a movie is not, and you get a rather shallow, white-washed impression of the man (Julius Caesar more so than any of the others, at least in the West).
1983 was an exceptionally big year for Hong Kong cinema. Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the Death, Tsui Hark’s Zu, and Project A featuring the first major on-screen teaming of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, all hit the screens during that year. So did Aces Go Places II, a sequel to the wildly popular Sam Hui-Karl Maka action comedy of the previous year. It was a good time to be the Hong Kong film industry. Things were up in the air to be sure, as they often are during a rebirth, but there was no getting around that this was a year of incredible, ground-breaking films.
Lost somewhere in the mix was a more modest offering called Bastard Swordsman from the Shaw Brothers Studio. By 1983, The Shaw Brothers studio that had ruled Hong Kong since the 1960s, was all but dead and buried. By the time they figured out their approach — both on-screen and off — was no longer viable, it was too late, and Golden Harvest had become the dominant player on the field, with Tsui Hark’s upstart Film Workshop providing an alternative outlet for film makers who had more ambitious artistic visions or, like Tsui Hark himself, simply couldn’t get along with other people.
Bastard Swordsman wasn’t a bad film. In fact, it was rather exceptionally fun. But it was also decidedly old-fashioned at a time when the New Wave was beginning to roar with full force. There were attempts to graft some of the look and feel of the New Wave onto the film, but while they may have succeeded in some spots (just as many New Wave films still had bits that looked old-fashioned, at least in terms of special effects), the overall result was a martial arts fantasy film that belonged to the previous decade. Despite the merits of the film, and perhaps because of longstanding legal wrangling over release of the Shaw Brothers library onto home video, Bastard Swordsman all but disappeared from the public consciousness while other films from the same year — especially those mentioned above — were revered as classics of Hong Kong action cinema.
A number of things conspired to bring the end of the Shaw Brothers studio, and once again in the spirit of drawing comparisons across genres and countries so as not to become exclusively focused on one aspect of film at the expense of seeing its connection to other aspects, it pays to compare the final days of the Shaw Bros to those of Hammer Films in England and, curiously enough, to the career of Elvis Presley.
With the glut of martial arts films that flooded the 1970s in the wake of Bruce Lee’s popularity, and with the increasingly slapdash production values of many of those films, it was inevitable that an eventual backlash against — or at the very least, complete boredom with — the genre would bubble to the surface. This began to happen at the end of the 1970s, and it was only through the innovations of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and action-comedy luminary Michael Hui, that the kungfu film found a new approach and continued to flourish. Unfortunately for the Shaws, all this flourishing was happening over at rival studios like Golden Harvest and Cinema City. Young, innovative film makers were unwilling to sign on to work with the creaking Shaw Brothers studio, opting for freedom and more artistic control rather than locking themselves into an outdated and oppressive studio system. With their old guard too old to deliver they way they used to, and no new guard lined up to inherit the mantle, the Shaw Brothers studio found itself floundering without direction or much hope for the future.
Hammer Studios, with whom the Shaw Brothers had collaborated in the past (on, among other things, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires starring Peter Cushing and David Chiang), had undergone almost the exact same crisis a decade before. When Hammer released a trio of horror films in the late 50s — Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy — they revolutionized and revitalized horror cinema almost over night. And while the studio produced a wide variety of movies, it was horror that defined them and became their bread and butter. When one mentions “Hammer films,” one invariably thinks of the horror films rather than their pirate or war movies. Hammer’s horror formula was so effective, however, that they never bothered to tinker with it, and as the 1960s wore on, Hammer found themselves suddenly losing ground. Where they had once been the controversial trendsetters, they were fast becoming the out-of-date fogies. They were unwilling to change the look or the formula, and rather than attempting to create new properties, they relied excessively on Frankenstein and Dracula and on their two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
By 1970, Hammer’s unwillingness to revise its way of doing business and presenting pictures was doing the company in more effectively than any stake through Christopher Lee’s heart. New audiences, wrapped up in the social turmoil and upheaval of the Vietnam era, saw Hammer films as nothing more than their parents’ square old movies. Hammer execs were, by and large, square and old, and their last-ditch attempts to make the studio relevant again met with all the success you would expect from sixty-year-old British guys trying to write hip, counter-culture lingo into a Dracula film. No one was buying it, and by the middle of the 1970s, Hammer was dead.
For the first few years of that decade, however, their desperate attempts to right the ship and remain afloat produced some of their best films, though very few people recognized them as such at the time. But Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Vampire Circus, Twins of Evil, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter — these are all, in my opinion anyway, exceptionally good films. Vampire Circus and, to an even greater extent, Captain Kronos, represent everything that was right and wrong with Hammer. In Captain Kronos, they found the new direction the studio was seeking. Boasting a more action-packed, swashbucking approach, with more wit and comedy courtesy of a writer who was best known at the time for the quirky British spy-fi series The Avengers, it’s entirely possible that Captain Kronos could have been the life preserver that kept Hammer from drowning.
Unfortunately, studio executives showed no faith in the potential of the film, and a sequel was never made. Instead, they returned to Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Dracula, preferring to sink on a familiar boat than risk an unfamiliar life raft. Their attempts to graft a hip, young face onto the hoary old Dracula franchise was met with indifference and derision from both critics and the young audiences so vital to the survival of horror films. And while Dracula A.D. 1972 has its entertaining aspects in retrospect, it’s hard not to imagine how laughable all the woefully out-of-date “cool” lingo would have been to young viewers at the time.
Ten years later, the Shaws were finding themselves in almost the exact same dire straights, and they handled it in exactly the same way. With more faith and more money, and with a willingness to give young film makers a freer artistic and business related reign, it’s possible that the studio could have found a new direction and continued, if not to thrive, than at least to exist. But they didn’t do this. They stuck to the same old system, and the same old formula. By this time, Chang Cheh films could practically write and direct themselves, and the venerable old master was hardly up to the challenge of trying to reinvent himself or his films this late in the game. If there was any hope for the studio, it was in the form of Chu Yuan and Liu Chia-liang, but both were increasingly uncomfortable within the confines of the Shaw system.
Still, as with Hammer, this dark period at the end of the Shaw saga resulted in some of the very best films they ever produced, particularly courtesy of Liu Chia-liang, whose frenetic choreography and more character-driven films provided the vital step between the old and new, between the Shaw and Golden Harvest style. Many of his films, especially those from the tumultuous 1980s, are regarded today as masterpieces of kungfu cinema. But it was too little too late, and although Liu was an exceptionally gifted film maker, the weight of the whole of the Shaw Brothers machine was too great for him to support on his own.
By 1985, it was all over. Runrun Shaw didn’t see any hope in sticking things out, and in the end, he was happier to see the ship go down than try any more reconstruction. Unable to support the lavish budgets that had been the calling card of past productions, the Shaw output started to look more and more like television productions — which was fitting, as studio head Runrun Shaw had himself all but given up on theatrical releases and was investing his money in TV production.
It would have been fitting, back in the 1970s, if the last film Hammer produced had been something like Captain Kronos or even Twins of Evil. Both of these films were quite good, and even if the end of the studio was unavoidable, at least people would be able to look back and say that Hammer went out with a good movie. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the case. Disregarding forays into comedy, the last horror film Hammer produced was the astoundingly dismal To the Devil, a Daughter, starring a completely uninterested Richard Widmark who kills the high priest of the Antichrist by throwing a rock at him. It was a sorry, sorry nail to be the final one in the coffin. Similarly, the Shaw Brothers could have ended on a high note if Return of the Bastard Swordsman had been their final film, because it retains all the charm and energy of the first film but packs in even more action and weirdness. And it feels a lot like a last film, with Lo Lieh and Chen Kuan-tai returning to play memorable roles alongside many other Shaw stars, including some of the Venoms (though Ti Lung and David Chiang are missing).
Unfortunately, release schedules conspired against the Shaws going out on a high note, and the last kungfu film released by the Shaw Brothers as an independent entity was the perhaps too aptly titled Journey of the Doomed, a dismal (but not without entertainment value) and seedy failure of a film that is very much the Shaw equivalent of To the Devil, A Daughter, relying on sleaze, titillation, and a couple recognizable stars to keep audiences from noticing what a dreary, tedious, mess their final genre film was. It didn’t work for Hammer, and it didn’t work for the Shaw Brothers.
Both studios made the cardinal mistake that can kill any pop culture phenomenon and is perhaps best embodied by the career of Elvis Presley — because I love making wild and seemingly ridiculous comparisons of that nature. Elvis, like Hammer and the Shaw Brothers films, came to pop culture prominence as the dangerous rebel, the rule-breaker and the hip-shaker. His rock and roll and on-stage pelvic antics were to pop music what the Shaw Brothers gory swordsman films of the 1960s were to Hon Kong cinema, and what Hammer’s gory monster films were to British and American cinema. They outraged censors, befuddled critics, but enthralled young audiences.
But all three of them refused to move forward. Elvis remained the 50s icon throughout the 60s and 70s, but society moved on around him. Stuck in time, Elvis became increasingly square looking as pop culture evolved around him. Before he knew it, he was singing for middle aged housewives in Vegas while the youth market mocked and ridiculed him. The same things happened to Hammer and the Shaw Brothers. Entertainment and tastes evolved. They did not. Any attempt to recreate themselves was short-circuited by fear of the unknown, and no sooner would they try something different than they would retreat into the cobweb-strewn familiarity of a Chang Cheh film, or a Dracula film. In the end, it killed them all. Elvis’ swansong was as an overweight drug addict in a sequined jumpsuit. To the Devil, A Daughter and Journey of the Doomed were the sequined jumpsuits for Hammer and the Shaws respectively. Amid the ugliness of their demise, it’s hard to notice sometimes that there was still a lot of worthwhile material in those final hours.
Because the story for Bastard Swordsman was so sprawling, the production spanned two films, so although the series was unable to compete with the New Wave, the second part, Return of the Bastard Swordsman hit screens a year later. By this time, the Shaw Bros. were almost completely moribund, and indeed according to some sources, although the official date for the closure of production at the studio is given as 1985, the actual date may have been as early as 1983 or 1984, with the films coming out after that being things that were already in the can. It certainly seems likely that Return of the Bastard Swordsman was in production at the same time as the first film, as they share the same cast, crews, and sets. Indeed, Return of the Bastard Swordsman would have been a fitting close to the Shaw era, for while it may have been dated, it was still a ridiculously enjoyable movie.
The story picks up pretty immediately after the end of the first film. Having mastered the powerful Silkworm technique and saved Wudong from a would-be usurper, Yen-fei (Norman Chu) has retired to a life of contemplation alongside his wife (played again by Lau Suet-wah), the daughter of the late master of the Wudong school. I must have missed something here, because as is revealed to absolutely no one’s surprise in the first film, the Wudong master is also Yen-fei’s father (and mysterious hooded teacher), with the mother being the wife of the leader of Invincible Clan. Which would mean Lau’s character is Yen-fei’s half-sister, which isn’t all that cool for a marriage even within the screwy universe of the Martial World. I must have gotten confused at some point, or maybe there was so much stuff going on that no one making the film noticed. I’m sure there was a line that would explain away their potential blood relationship. Right?
Since Yen-fei’s departure, things have been relatively quiet, at least by Martial World standards. But that’s not going to last for long, as a story about quiet and relaxing times in the Martial World would not be very much fun. For starters, the Wudong school still pretty much blows. There only seem to be a few competent students, and the cowardly, sniveling old elders are still hanging around. And the leader of Invincible Clan (Alex Man, once again) is still lurking about out there and presumably still has it in for Wudong. At this point, I really can’t blame him. Those guys are worthless. But the big problem looming on the horizon is the fact that a ninja clan from Japan has noticed all this complicated Martial World squabbling, and they’ve decided that this sort of convoluted nonsense full of backstabbing and shenanigans is perfect for ninjas. They’re pissed that it’s been an all-China affair up to this point.
The leader of the ninja clan is played by none other than Chen Kuan-tai, one of the venerable old stars from the glory days of the Shaw Brothers kungfu film, on hand no doubt to lend a little fading star power to the proceedings (though I’m not sure Chen Kuan-tai was that big a draw by 1984). Just as the Invincible Clan has Fatal Skills and Yen-fei has Silkworm Technique, the ninjas have their own bizarre magical style that they think entitles them to rule the Martial World. The style allows Chen Kuan-tai to use his heartbeat to take over the heartbeat of his opponent, allowing him to wreak havoc with their pulse until they finally cough up their own heart. Using the power also causes Chen Kuan-tai to glow red while his chest inflates, because, you know, whatever man. Ninjas.
In order to prove the superiority of his chest-burtsing technique, Chen Kuan-tai takes his most trusted and weird ninjas to China, where he intends to kill both Yen-fei and the leader of Invincible Clan. Faced with challenges from the almighty Invincible Clan and these seemingly unbeatable ninjas, the elders of Wudong dispatch a young student (Lau Siu-kwan) to track down the only man who could possibly beat these guys: Yen-fei. Along the way, Lau meets up with a fortune teller (Philip Ko) whose kungfu seems to be at least as powerful as that of all the other ultra-powerful guys we’ve seen flying around and shooting beams out of their hands. While they’re all out looking for Yen-fei (is this movie ever going have a bastard swordsman who returns?), Wudong assembles the leaders of all the remaining Martial World clans in hopes that together they might successfully defend themselves from Invincible Clan, although again, once you meet all these backstabbing, cowardly leaders, it’s hard not to sympathize with the Invincibles. Before this coalition of the sniveling can get much done in the way of fighting the Invincible Clan, however, the ninjas show up to slaughter everyone and pin the blame on Invincible Clan in hopes that this will expedite Yen-fei’s emergence from his reclusive lifestyle.
Yen-fei does eventually show up, though to be honest, this movie is a lot like Ivanhoe in that it spends a lot of time talking about the title character while the title character spends a lot of time resting and recuperating from various wounds. The bulk of the action is carried by Philip Ko, and later by Philip Ko and Anthony Lau as a noble doctor who also seems to have near invincible kungfu. Exactly how these two guys achieved such great power is never really explained, and they just sort of wander onto the scene and help Yen-fei out. Yen-fei, for his contribution to the story, doesn’t seem capable of beating either Invincible Leader or the Ninja, at least until he spends a good long while hibernating in a cocoon in a cave.
Very little changes between this film and the first. The look and feel are identical, and the production values are the same. Some characters are out — we never see the wife or daughter of Invincible Leader again — while new ones are in, including the fortune teller, the doctor, and another more conniving doctor played by Lo Lieh. Return of the Bastard Swordsman has less character development, as most of that was accomplished in the first film, leaving room for more action in the sequel. This is neither good nor bad, as the characters helped make the first film compelling. If you watched this one without watching the first one, you’d probably be able to figure most things out (it’s all summarized for you anyway), but it wouldn’t be nearly as good. Chen Kuan-tai shows up with his magical ninjas to fulfill the role of full-blown villain that was left vacant when Yen-fei reduced that wandering swordsman to a pile of bloody bones at the end of the first film, and Invincible Leader remains a complex and interesting quasi-villain with whom we can still side when he’s faced with an even greater villain. In fact, the showdown between Invincible and the ninjas is not the film’s finale, but it is far and away the best fight scene in the film, with the end being both heroic and melancholy, and a great way to resolve the story of the Invincible Clan.
By comparison’s Yen-fei’s quest to attain the supreme level of Silkworm Technique is less intriguing, but that’s not to say Norman Chu doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, even if his bastard swordsman is reduced to supporting character for much of the film. The finale is still his, or at least it’s his and Philip Ko’s. Perhaps taking a page from Jackie Chan’s playbook, the finale sees Yen-fei realize that, in all likelihood, he can’t beat Chen Kuan-tai (a nod, perhaps, to Chen Kuan-tai in Executioner from Shaolin, in which he was the hero engaged in an equally hopeless battle against a superior foe) and so must rely on cleverness, endurance, and the assistance of his friends. Their system for beating Chen Kuan-tai recalls another great Shaw Brothers film, Crippled Avengers, and once again someone discovers that a drum-based defense is best foiled by, you know, breaking all the drums.
Return of the Bastard Swordsman is a superb conclusion to the story that began in the first film. Thanks to the inclusion of ninjas, we get even more bizarre fights than in the first film, and we get them more frequently. I would have preferred maybe a little more involvement from our bastard swordsman, and maybe some explanation as to how some of the supporting characters manage to be just as powerful as the principals, but in the end, I am also pretty happy to let those small quibbles be washed away in the tide of just how much fun this movie is. It’s good to see old hands like Lo Lieh and Chen Kuan-tai coming out for another go-round, and Norman Chu once again manages to infuse humanity and vulnerability in a character that becomes ever-closer to a God. The real show, however, is as it was with the first film, Alex Man as the leader of the Invincible Clan. He shows a voracious appetite for the scenery and plays everything wildly over the top, which is a style perfectly suited for this type of film. Movies full of magical ninjas, wizards, and guys shooting laser beams out of their hands really aren’t well suited for subtlety. His final fight really makes the movie for me, and Norman Chu’s actual finale seems almost to pale in comparison.
Yuen Tak’s action choreography is once again a solid mixture of straightforward sword fighting and kungfu placed alongside fanciful supernatural skills realized with the same crude but entertaining effects as the first film. As I said at the beginning of this article, the effects were cheap and behind the times, but it’s not like, looking back from our vantage point today, the effects of movies like Zu don’t look just as crude. They may have been a major leap forward compared to Return of the Bastard Swordsman in the early 1980s, but now they all look rather archaic, and that makes it easier to appreciate the two Bastard Swordsman films without getting hung up over how old-fashioned they seemed at the time of their release. Return of the Bastard Swordsman is sort of like Clash of the Titans, a film that used Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects after George Lucas style effects had put such things out to pasture. Past their prime or not, though, the effects in Clash of the Titans are still a lot of fun, as are the effects in Return of the Bastard Swordsman. Wires, jump cuts, garishly colorful animation — considering how insane the whole world presented to us in these movies is, I don’t really see much point in saying, “Nuh-uh, that’s not how shooting crackling energy beams out of your palm looks like in real life.”
Since this really is just the second half of one long film, I wouldn’t recommend seeing Return of the Bastard Swordsman without or before Bastard Swordsman, just as there’s not much point to Bastard Swordsman unless you move on to Return of the Bastard Swordsman. Although neither film was the final curtain for the Shaw Brothers studio, they never the less serve as an excellent note on which to pretend things ended. As far as anything-goes martial arts mayhem may go, the Bastard Swordsman saga may indeed not measure up to the films of the New Wave. It may lack the breakneck choreography of Jackie Chan and Ching Siu-tung, or the technical ambition of Tsui Hark, but none of these short-comings really matter in the long run, because Bastard Swordsman and Return of the Bastard Swordsman are still spectacularly fun wuxia fantasies with a comprehensible — albeit somewhat loony — plot and solid characters. It wasn’t the movie that stemmed off the end for the Shaw Brothers martial arts film, but as far as “end of an era” free-for-alls go, you’d be hard-pressed to find another one with this much unbridled entertainment value.
This is one of those movies that, upon completion, I can’t wait to sit down and write a review of. And then, when I do sit down, all I can do is stare at the blinking cursor on a blank screen as I wrack my brain mercilessly for some way to encompass in words the absolutely bonkers display of sheer lunacy I’ve just watched. This often happens to me when attempting to write about especially weird kungfu films, because as fans of kungfu films know, nothing — and that includes Alexandro Jodorowski movies — is quite as weird as a really weird kungfu film. With Jodorowski, one can at least ask oneself “what the hell was this director thinking?” then engage in all sorts of research and philosophical debate pertaining to the meaning of his films. Yes, they are excessively weird, but they are not undecipherable. With enough thought, you can attain some degree of understanding as to his purpose and message.
With a film like Young Taoism Fighter or Fantasy Mission Force, or the film up for discussion here, Bastard Swordsman, divining a comprehensible reason behind the lunacy is far more challenging. It’s not that these films suffer from some insurmountable cultural barrier; though they may be based upon or reference classic and contemporary Chinese stories and comic books, such things, especially in the age of the Internet and a globally connected tangled web of shared pop culture, are hardly inaccessible to fans in the West. Many classic works have been translated, and many more have, at the very least, been well summarized and explained in English. The same goes for modern works of fantastic fiction, specifically the Hong Kong comic books and martial arts novels from which so many films draw their inspiration. They are not common knowledge, perhaps, but neither are they arcane secrets locked away in some box that can only be opened by someone who tests positive for Chinese citizenship, a national identity that is verified using such questions as, “Do you like to spit?” and “How do you feel about cleaning your ears in public?” Incidentally, although my relatives are American Southerners of Scottish decent, a good many of them manage to test positive for Chinese citizenship.
Neither, do I think, is this a symptom of filmmakers who are so deep and complex that it becomes a lifetime chore just to unravel their meaning. There is little of James Joyce in Jimmy Wang Yu. Although I have been wrong about some things in the past, I am firmly placed in my opinion that Jimmy Wang Yu did not have any deep-rooted meaning or message embedded in the random ghost houses, flying Amazons, and kidnapping of Abraham Lincoln by Chinese Nazis in Buicks that comprises much of the running time of Fantasy Mission Force. Nor do I think that the people who make these films are throwing weird stuff up on screen just for the sake of being weird, because in general, people who do that never come up with anything quite this weird. There is a twisted, feverish imagination at work in many of these films, and the situations and characters that are borne of these imaginations are possessed of a weirdness quite unlike any other type of cinematic weirdness. Maybe it comes from having multiple people dashing off different parts of the script mere minutes before each scene is scheduled to be filmed. Maybe it comes from taking one too many punches to the head. Maybe there is liberal consumption of Bruce Lee’s old hashish brownies during scriptwriting sessions. Whatever the reasons, anyone who submerges themselves in the weird world of kungfu cannot emerge as the same person. Like facing the abyss, you come away both scarred and enlightened. Like witnessing one of H.P. Lovecraft’s hideous otherworldly monstrosities, sometimes to merely gaze upon them is enough to drive you completely and utterly insane.
Throughout the 1970s, and the first couple years of the 1980s, the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong was cranking three distinct types of martial arts films: there were the films of Chang Cheh and those who followed his style, all about brute force, heroic bloodshed, and male bonding between archetypal characters. There were the films of Liu Chia-liang, featuring more intricate, technically accomplished fight sequences, complex characters, and comedic touches. And though these two directors were the sole definitions of Shaw Bros. martial arts films in the West until very recently, current DVD releases of the Shaws’ voluminous libraries finally turned hungry fans on to the third type of Shaw Bros. martial arts film: the artfully designed, lyrical, almost supernatural swordsman fantasies of Chu Yuan.
In previous reviews of Chu Yuan films, I’ve discussed some of the elements that comprised his style. You could argue, pretty accurately, that Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-liang made kungfu films, while Chu Yuan made martial arts films. The films of the two formers were based on real weapons, real styles, and real historical periods (albeit historical periods that might not be realized with complete authenticity). Chu Yuan, however, based his martial arts films almost exclusively within the realm of fantasy, confined them to the mythical “Martial World,” a fairytale version of ancient China populated by secret sects, supernatural styles, and fighters with mystic skills and fighting ability that bore very little resemblance to any form of actual fighting — though I have a friend whose mother swears that there are some monks who really can fly and shoot bolts of concentrated chi energy from their palms. Chu Yuan shot almost entirely on sets, using highly stylized and extremely detailed art design to conjure up a world that was recognizable yet distinctly fantastic. You knew that the normal rules did not apply.
As the years wore on, Chu Yuan began to incorporate more and more special effects into his films. Relatively straight-forward films like The Bastard gave way to his successful run of swordsman films, many of which featured Shaw superstar Ti Lung navigating his way through a world populated by esoteric clans and secret societies hiding out in underground lairs stuffed to the gills with hidden chambers, trap doors, and wild Mario Bava-esque lighting. And the fighters in his film were increasingly likely to possess otherworldly martial arts skills that enabled them to fly and vanish into thin air. By the end of the 1970s, spilling into the 1980s, Chu Yuan went hog wild and indulged every artistic excess. His later films are crammed with even more characters, even more elaborate lairs, more stylized sets, and now the martial artists could do more than just fly; they could shoot multi-colored rays, spin webs, grow or shrink, and perform all sorts of other insane feats of a superhuman nature. They were Hong Kong’s answer to American superheroes and Mexican luchadores.
Several directors followed in the footsteps of Chu Yuan, especially toward the end of the Shaw Bros. run at the top, when a faltering studio and the general sense that the Shaw product was outdated and stuffy when compared to what they were doing over at Golden Harvest (home of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao, among others) meant that desperate producers and directors were throwing every zany thing they could think of onto the screen in a last-ditch attempt to salvage some portion of the public interest. The slapdash desperation, dwindling budgets, and speedy shooting schedules, coupled with the fact that many filmmakers were trying to cram sprawling epic novels and comic book series into hundred minute movies meant that much of what was produced at the end of the studio’s lifespan was as wildly imaginative and insane as it was completely incomprehensible and convoluted.
Somewhere amid the maelstrom of this “anything goes” free for all, we find director Lu Chin-Ku’s delirious martial arts fantasy Bastard Swordsman, two films that are really just one long film split into two parts for easier consumption. Lu began his directing career in the 1970s with a series of generally nondescript, low-budget kungfu films. As an actor, he appeared in a whole passel of Shaw Bros. productions, including some of their more infamous titles, such as Bruce Lee and I, the softcore Bruce Lee biopic starring Danny Lee (John Woo’s The Killer) and Bruce’s real-life possible mistress, Betty Ting Pei. In the 1980s, however, probably as a result of studying Chu Yuan’s films as well as attempting to mimic the special-effects laden films of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung that helped usher in the Hong Kong New Wave, Lu decided to dabble in films of a similar nature. In 1983, he directed a duo of such over-the-top fantasy films for the Shaw Bros.: Holy Flame of the Martial World and Bastard Swordsman.
Bastard Swordsman started out as a 1978 television series under the title Reincarnated, starring Norman Chu and female lead Nora Miao, who appeared alongside Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon and Fist of Fury, as well as appearing in Chu Yuan’s classic Clans of Intrigue. Norman Chu had been steadily working his way up through the ranks of Shaw Bros. martial arts stars, appearing in just about all of Chu Yuan’s martial arts fantasies during the 1970s (including Killer Clans, Magic Blade, Legend of the Bat, Web of Death, Clans of Intrigue and, well, more than there’s a point to list right now) as well as films directed by Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-liang. The action in the Reincarnated television series was directed by Ching Siu-tung, who would himself go on to pair with producer (and sometimes overbearing co-director) Tsui Hark to usher in the Hong Kong New Wave with films like Zu and Duel to the Death — both of which happen to feature Norman Chu. Chu also appeared in Patrick Tam’s The Sword alongside Adam Cheng (who would himself go on to play one of the other major roles in Zu), regarded by many as the first film of the Hong Kong New Wave — a dubious claim at best, dependent entirely on how you define the Hong Kong New Wave.
Sorry, I know I’m throwing out more names per paragraph than Chu Yuan himself. If you’ve been a fan of Hong Kong films for a long time, at least since the early 1990s, or if you are a more recent but well-read (and watched) fan, then a lot of these terms and names — the Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, Ching Siu-tung, the Hong Kong New Wave, so on and so forth, are going to be familiar, if not common knowledge. But if you’re all new to this, and I know a good many of you are because you ended up at this site due to other genres, then I might be sounding as esoteric as a Lung Ku novel. So allow me, if you will indulge me in such things, to derail this review just a bit longer so I can sum up, in as few paragraphs as possible the gist of the Hong Kong film chronology and why it is important to understanding Bastard Swordsman.
Even if you aren’t a kungfu film fan — and Lord help you if you aren’t — you probably at least know what the heck they are, and more than likely, your image of them is rooted in the ultra-cheap, often shoddy productions that were dumped en mass into the United States grindhouse, drive-in, and television markets during the 1970s. Although kungfu films had been around in Hong Kong, in one form or another, pretty much since the birth of the film industry there (and Hong Kong has traditionally had the third largest film industry in the world, falling short only of India and the United States, though production dropped off substantially when the industry collapsed in the mid-late 1990s), they were strictly regional products until the 70s. The earliest kungfu films were little more than filmed Peking Opera plays (and in an effort to keep myself at least somewhat reeled in, I’m not going to explain Peking Opera to you — that’s what the rest of the Internet is for), and it wasn’t until a man by the name of Kwan Tak-hing stepped into the role of local folk hero Wong Fei-hung that the kungfu film as we know it started to take shape. Kwan and his frequent co-star Shih Kien (who would play Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon, making him present at both the birth and rebirth of the kungfu film) still relied on the stylization and acrobatics of Peking Opera, but they also began to integrate fight choreography and purer martial arts styles into their films, as well as more stories structured more for the screen rather than stage.
The result was a thunderous success, at least in Hong Kong. Kwan Tak-hing became so famous for his role that people pretty much thought of him as Wong Fei-hung; certainly he achieved more fame than the actual Wong Fei-hung, and the only other actor at the time who could boast such staggering success was an Italian actor named Bartelomo Pagano, who had appeared as the towering slave Maciste in the early Italian silent film epic Cabiria. Like Kwan, Pagano was so famous for the role and played it so many times that, in effect, the actor became synonymous with the character (Pagano eventually dropped his real name and simply went by Maciste even in his daily life). El Santo in Mexico would be another, later example of a similar phenomenon. Unfortunately, no one ever had the means or the desire to put Kwan Tak-hing and Bartelomo Pagano (or El Santo) together in a film.
Once Kwan and Shih Kien established modern kungfu fight choreography, it wasn’t long before studios started making fewer and fewer staged opera play movies and more and more legitimate kungfu films. The Shaw Brothers studio, one of the earliest production houses in all of Asia, labored away at these martial arts films until, in the mid 1960s, they hit the jackpot with a string of swordsman melodramas that relied heavily on the rhythmic fight choreography pioneered by Kwan Tak-hing, the melodrama and emotion of Chinese operas and plays, and the Grand Guignol spectacle of onscreen bloodshed and mayhem. These early swordsman films — wu xia pian as they were known — often starred a guy named Jimmy Wang Yu, usually alongside other early stars like Lo Lieh and one of the first female action stars, Cheng Pei-pei (still going strong today, with among other things, a substantial role in Ang Lee’s wu xia revival film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Men like Chang Cheh and King Hu were often the go-to directors for these types of films, which upped the ante considerably both in terms of technical fight choreography and violence.
As the 60s progressed, certain producers, stars, and directors started looking for something other than the wu xia epics that had served them so well but obviously couldn’t last forever. It was the early luminaries of the wu xia films — Chang Cheh, Lo Lieh, and Jimmy Wang Yu — who would be among the first to return to the kungfu of the Kwan Tak-hing films. It was a moment of perfect timing. In 1970, the “final” film in Kwan Tak-hing’s Wong Fei-hung series was released. He would go on to reprise his role again and again, but always as a supporting cast member. The core Wong Fei-hung series, however, lasted for ninety-nine films, which means it is still the reigning international champion for longest film series. Even James Bond and Godzilla cower in the shadow of Kwan Tak-hing and Wong Fei-hung.
Just as the Kwan films were going out of production and the public was getting tired of gruesome swordsman melodramas, the Shaw Brothers studios and Jimmy Wang Yu (who split ways with the studio) were kicking the kungfu film concept into high gear. In 1970, the “Iron Triangle” of director Chang Cheh and stars David Chiang and Ti Lung debuted together in the film Vengeance. It is partially a kungfu film, but it’s obvious that Chang couldn’t entirely divorce himself from the previous decade. Much of the fighting actually takes place with blades and knives, and the story is classic swordsman revenge melodrama. For pure kungfu, fans and historians split hairs over which was the first, but Jimmy Wang Yu’s Chinese Boxer generally claims the title of “first modern kungfu film.”
But what they were doing was being done against the backdrop of a rising storm. The wu xia films proved wildly popular in Hong Kong, but the martial arts movie remained a solidly local product. Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Chang Cheh — these were huge names in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but outside of the region, they were relatively unknown. In 1971, however, the Hong Kong born co-star of the American television show The Green Hornet returned to his native city-state, where he was considered the star, rather than the sidekick, of the TV show. Lo Wei, a former director at the Shaw Bros. studio, was working for an upstart studio called Golden Harvest, and he was anxious to nab this talented, charismatic Chinese-American to star in one of his films. The film was called Fist of Fury, and the star, as most of you probably already know, was a guy named Bruce Lee.
Stick with me, because yes, eventually this will all circle back around and connect to Bastard Swordsman. It’s just been a really long time since I got to write about Hong Kong films, and I’m pretty excited. So forgive me if I get carried away. My first professional writing job was about Hong Kong cinema, and it occurs to me that while many of these films are as familiar to me as a family member, I sometimes forget that something like Jackie Chan’s Police Story is over twenty years old now, and that some of our younger readers — heck, some of our college age readers — weren’t even born the first time I saw that movie. Because I was young once, too, and because I always found it fun to uncover tidbits of information and understand how films and film industries connect with one another, I thought I’d run down the basics for those who weren’t around when this was all big news.
Fist of Fury wasn’t the first kungfu film, and Bruce Lee wasn’t the first kungfu film star. Heck, he wasn’t even the first kungfu film star to break in America. That honor goes to Lo Lieh and Five Fingers of Death, which found its way onto American grindhouse screens while Lee was still toiling away in Hong Kong, all but forgotten in the United States. But people in Hong Kong knew what was up, and they could see that Bruce Lee represented another quantum leap forward in the evolution of martial arts and fight choreography. He gathered more and more steam, and when he finally exploded onto American screens in the Warner Brothers-Golden Harvest co-production Enter the Dragon, an unstoppable phenomenon had been created.
And by that time, Bruce was already dead.
But there’s no denying he kicked open the floodgates, allowing kungfu films to finally stream across the pacific and into the United States (among other countries, of course). Audiences, especially in crowded urban areas, went nuts for this new style of film. Plagued by skyrocketing crime rates and social unrest, the largely minority audiences found in kungfu films heroes to whom they could relate: often poor, often down-trodden, and never Caucasian. But heroes none the less, even in the face of insurmountable odds. It’s no pop culture coincidence that kungfu films and blaxploitation films arrived on the scene at roughly the same time and played to roughly the same audiences.
Unfortunately, Bruce Lee only made a few films before his death, so American distributors were hungry for absolutely anything they could get their hands on. Hong Kong, still very much in the grips of the kungfu film craze as well, was full of quality productions, and while Golden Harvest may have opened the door in the form of Bruce Lee, it was the venerable Shaw Brothers studio that became the respectable and lavish face of the kungfu film. Anchored by studio directors like Chang Cheh and good-looking, solidly trained contract stars like Ti Lung and David Chiang, Shaw Brothers became to the kungfu film what Hammer Studios was to the horror film in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were the dominant force, and their films boasted the best stars, the biggest budgets, the most lavish sets, and the most intricate fight choreography.
But even the Shaw Brothers output wasn’t enough to satiate the hunger of American distributors, and so dozens upon dozens of production companies sprung up to crank out kungfu cheapies that could keep audiences across the world doped up on kungfu mayhem. Some of these films were quite good; many of them weren’t, and often the cheaper and shoddier the film, the better it became known in the United States since whole stacks of the cheap ones could be bought for the price of a single quality production. As a result, these lower budget, more slapdash kungfu films eventually became the face of kungfu in the United States.
But we aren’t really interested in the United States right now. Back in Hong Kong, the Shaw Brothers studio was discovering, like Pony Boy, that nothing gold can stay. As the 70s trudged on, the studio struggled to stay at the top of its game and supplement its veterans with a steady supply of fresh faces — Alexander Fu Sheng, Liu Chia-hui, the group of actors known collectively as the Venoms — and new directors — like Liu Chia-liang and Chu Yuan.
At the dawn of the 1980s, the Shaw Brothers were finding it almost impossible to fend off attacks on its dominance from Golden Harvest, who had floundered about for much of the 70s as they searched for “the next Bruce Lee.” They finally found him — or them, rather — in the late 1970s. A group of former Peking Opera brats looking to make it in the kungfu movie business found homes at Golden Harvest. Among them were Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao. Chan, who had been toiling away in lackluster though occasionally entertaining low-budget films directed by Lo Wei’ sindependent production company, hooked up with Taiwanese director and choreographer Yuen Wo-ping, whose entire family was involved (and still is, as even many non-Hong Kong film fans know his name these days) in doing stunt work, directing, acting, and kungfu choreography. With two films — Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master — Jackie went from second-string ham ‘n’ egger to mega-star.
Meanwhile, his classmates Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao were working over at Golden Harvest on films like Knockabout and Magnificent Butcher, often alongside none other than Kwan Tak-hing, still playing Wong Fei-hong after all those decades. Both Sammo and Yuen Biao had appeared in much better films than Jackie Chan, including several high-profile Shaw Brothers productions, but Biao was always a nameless extra hired for his acrobatic skills, and Sammo was always a second-string henchman and behind-the-scenes choreographer. With films like Knockabout, however, they got to move to center stage, and just as Jackie Chan was doing, they wasted no time ushering in the next era of martial arts choreography, highlighted by absolutely breathtaking stunts, fights that were faster and more intricate than anything anyone ever dreamed of trying, and films that were peppered with as much comedy as violence. This was the birth of the Hong Kong New Wave.
And the New Wave was beating mercilessly at the storied shores of the Shaw Brothers studio. Locked into an old and out-of-date frame of mind, the studio simply couldn’t keep pace. They were still making good films, and even quite a few great ones thanks to Liu Chia-liang (who represents the essential middle step between the early 70s choreography of Chang Cheh and his stars and the New Wave choreography of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung) and Chu Yuan, but it was obvious as the 70s fell away and the 80s began, that the Shaw Brothers and their style of filmmaking was a thing of the past. Once Sammo, Jackie, and Yuen Biao united alongside other former classmates at Golden Harvest, it was the end for Shaw Brothers.
But Jackie and Sammo only represent a third of what comprised the Hong Kong New Wave. The second third was comprised of the aforementioned wu xia revival films by Ching Siu-tung, Patrick Tam, and Tsui Hark. Their films grew directly out of the style of films Chu Yuan was making throughout the 70s, and Bastard Swordsman represents one of the the Shaw Bros. attempts to keep pace with the changing face of Hong Kong cinema.
The final third of the New Wave came to us courtesy of Tsui Hark as producer and former Chang Cheh protoge and second unit director John Woo as director. Working with the king of Shaw Brothers films during much of the 1970s, Ti Lung, as well as the more-or-less obscure (at the time) Chow Yun-fat, Woo and Hark made A Better Tomorrow, a film that grafted the heroic bloodshed, over-the-top violence, and male bonding of the Chang Cheh films and the frenetic action choreography that was pioneered by Hung and Chan onto the world of Hong Kong triads and gangsters. Although there are plenty of connections between Woo’s heroic bloodshed gangster films and his teacher’s similar kungfu films from a decade before, the connection most important to Bastard Swordsman exists within the realm of the fantasy films made by guys like Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung.
Ironically, this revitalizing revolution in Hong Kong filmmaking, which has been likened to a similar revolution in the United States during the 70s, failed to ever make much of an impact outside of Hong Kong. Jackie Chan tried and failed several times to break into the U.S. market a la Bruce Lee or Five Fingers of Death, but for the most part, these films remained all but unheard of in the United States until cult film fans started in the early 1990s getting a hold of bootleg copies of Jackie Chan’s Police Force and John Woo’s The Killer.
Still with me? No? OK, I can deal with that. That’s an awful long way of saying that Reincarnated represents one of the very first attempts to create the Hong Kong New Wave, thanks largely to the involvement of Ching Siu-tung. Which means that the guy who was ultimately partially responsible for the series that gave birth to the Bastard Swordsman films is also the guy partially responsible for the New Wave revolution that killed off the Shaw Brothers studio and caused them to start making desperate movies like Bastard Swordsman.
See? See? Everything is connected.
The unique thing about Reincarnated — the Chinese title for which translates literally to “Transformation of the Heavenly Silkworm” — was that, unlike the Chu Yuan films that inspired it, it was not based on a previously existing novel. In fact, the success of the original television show inspired subsequent novels, as well as a sequel series and, finally, the Shaw Bros. produced two-part Bastard Swordsman movie, the Chinese title for which is the same as that of the Reincarnated television series.
For the films, and because he was already an established hand at the studio, they were able to once again cast Norman Chu (he did not appear in the sequel television series, and I doubt very seriously that, given the incompatibilities between paperback books and human anatomy, he ever appeared in any of the novelizations, though if he did, that would have been quite a surprise for whoever opened the book and found him stuffed in there) as orphan Yen-fei, the constantly bullied servant at the Wudong school, one of the most revered pillars of the Martial World. Despite the rep, it seems very few of the students at the school are all that great, and while they should be practicing their martial arts, they instead taunt Yen-fei like a bunch of elementary school bullies, surrounding him and calling him names while they all point at him, and throwing daggers at him — just like in elementary school, like I said. It’s hard to believe any of these students are grown men. I mean, seriously. Surrounding him and chanting names while they all point at him? Shouldn’t these guys have outgrown that by the time they turned ten years old? Hell, though it’s not featured in the film, it seems like they probably also made him eat bugs.
Yen-fei can find no relief from his childish tormentors. The school elders constantly judge in favor of the students, and the school master (Wong Yung), has a curiously zealous grudge against the harried orphan. Only the master’s daughter (Lau Suet-wah, who has awesomely sexy eyebrows) treats Yen-fei with any sort of kindness, but being the abused black sheep of the school, he’s forever too shy to pledge his love to her.
Yen-fei’s not the only one with problems, though. The master and his brother (the superior martial artist and sort of the shadow master of the school) must soon show up for their regularly scheduled duel with the ruthless master of the rival Invincible Clan, who can’t let a day go by without having his henchmen cart him over in a palanquin so he can laugh in everyone’s face and toss some of the useless Wudong students around. I really wish the villains of the world were more like the villains in martial arts movies. Instead of just threatening us via Internet video, imagine what it would be like if the leaders of al-Quaeda instead arrived at the steps of the Capitol building to belt out evil laughter and point a lot, thus requiring members of Congress to file down the stairs in formation while wielding staves. The world went wrong the day our despots and villains stopped sitting in thrones surrounded by henchmen. Now Stalin — I bet that guy would have shown up and cut loose with the evil laughter if he’d had the chance. It would have worked, too, because no American President ever looked more like a Shaolin monk than Eisenhower.
Although this Invincible Clan guy is kind of a prick, he also has good reason to laugh. The Wudong master knows there is no way he can possibly beat the guy. In fact, in all their assorted duels, they’ve never beat him, probably because his secret kungfu style is the Fatal Skill, which is a pretty direct and to the point skill that gets the job done and allows you to glow green. By contrast, the Wudong secret skill is the Silkworm Technique. Now how is the Silkworm Technique going to stand a chance against The Invincible Clan’s Fatal Skills? Especially when no one in the Wudong school has actually ever mastered the Silkworm technique! To make matters worse, the Invincible Clan has decided that this year, if Wudong loses the duel, the Invincible Clan is just going to kill them all because, frankly, who the hell needs Wudong around anyway?
Meanwhile, we learn that Yen-fei has secretly been training in kungfu under the guidance of a mysterious masked man who has turned the youth into the greatest fighter Wudong has ever produced. However, in exchange for his training, Yen-fei has to swear that he will never let any of his fellow Wudong students know he knows kungfu. This becomes increasingly difficult to comply with as the Invincible Clan comes down on Wudong and a wandering swordsman (Anthony Lau) appears who also seems to have it in for Yen-fei and his school. In the end, Yen-fei is forced to flee while the Invincible Clan, his own Wudong students, and the members of a couple other martial arts clans from around the Martial World all seek to kill him and each other before Yen-fei can perfect his skills, unlock the secret of the Silkworm Technique, and sort out the piles and piles of intrigue and deep, dark secrets.
Compared to the wuxia mysteries of Chu Yuan, the first Bastard Swordsman movie is pretty straight-forward. There are a lot of characters, but it’s pretty easy to keep everyone straight, as they all have distinct traits and personalities and, for the most part, play fairly major roles in the plot of the story — as opposed to Chu Yuan films, where there are likely to be twice as many characters, many of whom appear and disappear with little or no explanation, and many of whom are so aloof and remote that it becomes a chore to tell them apart. The plot of Bastard Swordsman is the basic “innocent man must prove his innocence” plot made more complicated by the fact that no one can ever finish a simple sentence before someone else yells, “Shut up! I don’t want to hear your lies!” and flies at them through the air while shooting brightly colored beams. If there is one fault to be found with the film, this is it, and while I understand that it helps propel us directly into the fight scenes, there are times when I wish someone would just take the ten seconds to say the one sentence or one word that would avert all this bickering. But I guess that’s sort of the point, that people in the microcosm of the Martial World are too wrapped up in squabbles and power plays to do the one simple thing or say the one simple sentence that would eliminate so much tragedy.
None of what I’ve written so far in attempting summarize the basic plot sounds all that weird, and I guess few things do when they are boiled down to their essential components. The weirdness comes in the embellishments, and make no mistake about it, Bastard Swordsman is embellished with so much weirdness that it’ll damn near blow your mind. We’re not talking the sheer level of pandemonium attained by Buddha’s Palm (another late-era Shaw Bros. martial arts fantasy), but make no mistake about it, this films is plenty crazy and derives its craziness not from astoundingly confounding plots (by wuxia standards, these films are very straight-forward), but from the supernatural nature of the martial arts and the special effects employed in realizing these powers on screen.
The same year Bastard Swordsman was released also saw the release of Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the Death, another film stuffed with magic ninjas, wizards, and flying swordsman, directed by the man who had worked on the original Reincarnated series and starring Norman Chu. Duel to the Death broke new ground and served as a massive leap forward in the quality of special effects presented in Hong Kong movies, thanks largely to the information brought back from America by producer-director Tsui Hark, who applied his newfound knowledge (he spent considerable time in the States studying Industrial Light and Magic special effects techniques) in excess in his own Norman Chu-starring film, Zu.
Bastard Swordsman, on the other hand, relied almost entirely on somewhat outdated, low budget tricks. Where as Duel to the Death was produced at Golden Harvest, then overflowing with cash from the success of upstart stars and directors like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung and only just emerging as the dominant force in Hong Kong filmmaking, the ambition of Bastard Swordsman is foiled by the limited resources available at the Shaw Studio, which was waning just as fast as Golden Harvest was rising. All the hot actors, directors, and choreographers were at Golden Harvest (and later, at Tsui Hark’s offshoot Film Workshop). Shaw Bros. movies still had their audiences, but they were increasingly out of date and unpopular, and the few young stars the studio had were no longer under exclusive contract the way they had been in previous decades. Like England’s Hammer Studios a decade before, the Shaw Bros. had gone from leader of the pack to creaky artifact. By the time Bastard Swordsman went into production, the once-illustrious studio was all but a thing of the past.
As such, none of the technical innovation that went into Duel to the Death or Zu found its way into Bastard Swordsman, which instead had to rely on the archaic methods that had served them in the 70s — wirework and crude animation. Of course, now the sands of time have swept multiple eras up into one uber-era, and Zu and Duel to the Death are scarcely recognizable to newer fans as being any more or less crudely realized than Bastard Swordsman and Return of the Bastard Swordsman, and as things get mixed into a big ol’ stew of “old stuff,” it becomes a lot easier to look back on the special effects in Bastard Swordsman as over-the-top, colorful, and fun than it must have been to look at them in 1983 and see anything but cheap crap pumped out by a dying studio.
Naturally, everyone glows and has colored lights shining on them. Most everyone can fly, and a more accomplished martial artists can shoot colorful glowing beams out of their hands. Norman Chu’s Yen-fei is drenched in animated blue energy when he summons his power, looking a bit like that Lightning guy from Big Trouble in Little China. Once he becomes a master of Silkworm technique, he can spin webs, toss his enemies about, and imprison them in a cocoon he can then kick and bash around until his foe is little more than a pile of rattled bones. But that’s nothing compared to Chen Kuan-tai’s secret ninja skill in Return of the Bastard Swordsman, which allows him to inflate his chest and use his heartbeat (while he glows, naturally) to take over the pulse of his opponent, which in turn allows him to make them cough up their own heart. But we’ll get to that later.
That’s all just the tip of the iceberg, as both Bastard Swordsman films are crammed with esoteric rites, rituals, and fighting techniques all wielded by a cast of increasingly outlandish characters. While Chu Yuan films were prone to stop from time to time for bouts of exposition and philosophizing, Lu’s Bastard Swordsman rarely take a break from the ridiculous, over-the-top action. Very few and far between are the scenes free of guys shooting lasers at each other, or flying around engaging in sword duels. But while other such wuxia fantasies rely almost entirely on wild special effects-driven fighting, the Bastard Swordsman duo strike a healthy mix between supernatural martial arts shenanigans and genuine fight choreography. With action direction by Yuen Tak (one of those Yuens, the ones who adopted the name of their Peking Opera master, a group that also includes Yuen Wah, Cory Yuen Kwai, and Yuen Biao — not to mention the guys who didn’t change their names, like Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan — but not the clan of Yuens that included Yuen Wo-ping. what is it with that surname, anyway?), both Bastard Swordsman films boast excellent hand-to-hand and sword fights that don’t rely on wires or glowing animation of crackling blue energies.
Although people come for the weirdness and spectacle, Bastard Swordsman offers plenty of other elements that make it worth staying around. For starters, taking a note from Chu Yuan, Lu’s film is packed with complex, well-developed characters. Chang Cheh always dealt in symbols and archetypes, while Chu Yuen favored more human (though still supernaturally powerful) characters. The cast of Bastard Swordsman falls somewhere in the middle, and much of the film’s power comes from the quality job done by the actors inhabiting the characters. Norman Chu makes a compelling and empathetic lead. We root for him when he’s the abused underdog, and we cheer for him once he begins to discover his true potential as a fighter.
But the real complexity is manifest in the leader of the Invincible Clan. He’s sort of evil, sort of not. He definitely has a grudge against the Wudong, but we never really have a clear picture of whether or not Wudong is all that heroic by contrast. We never see them out defending the poor or performing kind acts, and frankly, what we see of most of the members sort of makes them out to be dicks. Who knows if they are really any more or less “evil” than the Invincible Clan? Invincible Leader is mostly considered evil because he does that laugh. But when he defeats the master of Wudong, he grants leniency in carrying out the death sentence, going so far as to issue a command that no one in the realm should lay a finger on any member of the Wudong Clan until he himself has time to kill them. When yet another rival clan attacks the Wudong and claims to be from the Invincible Clan, it’s the Wudong who refuse to listen to explanation or investigate the situation, while the Invincible Clan vows to get to the bottom of who wronged the Wudong and violated the proclamation.
There’s also the estranged wife (Yuen Qiu) and daughter (Candy Wen Xue-er) of the Invincible Clan leader, both of whom have secret connections to Wudong and Yen-fei, and both of whom are far deeper characters than “evil dragon lady” or “damsel in distress.” Along with the daughter of the Wudong leader, they each play vital roles in helping Yen-fei unlock his skills and, with any luck, put an end to all the squabbling in the Martial World. That they play such significant, developed, and heroic roles in the film is definitely something Lu picked up from his Shaw Bros. peers Chu Yuan and Liu Chia-liang, both of whom were well known for featuring women in substantial roles while Chang Cheh couldn’t wait to get the dames off the screen and get back to a shirtless Ti Lung being stabbed in the gut.
The rest of the Invincible Clan seems pretty noble as well, especially compared to the cowardly, squabbling, whining Wudong students and elders. Yen-fei definitely has more in common with the Invincible leader than he does with his own clan. Both men are striving to attain a level of martial arts prowess that will elevate them beyond the human sphere and grant them near godlike powers. If the Invincible Leader is a dick, if he tends to laugh a lot, if he sits with rakish casualness in his sparkly throne, it’s probably because he is so dedicated to the attainment of the ultimate level of martial arts that he almost ceases to be human or relate to human morality. Yen-fei is similar, but his upbringing and his relationship with the three women keep him from becoming disconnected from his humanity.
Lu’s direction is gorgeous, aided greatly by the cinematography which takes full advantage of the widescreen format. Along with the bright glowing beams of light, Lu splashes each scene with vibrant colors. The art design definitely owes a debt to Chu Yuan, but where as he likes to keep his films almost entirely set-bound, Lu Chin-ku mixes stylish sets with outdoor locations, reflecting perhaps his penchant for alternating between supernatural special-effects fights and more authentic sword fights and kungfu. Although Bastard Swordsman ultimately falls short of the elegance of Chu Yuan at his best, it’s still a breathtakingly beautiful and meticulously constructed adventure.
Part one of the film resolves some of the major plot points it introduces — specifically the sorting out of the Wudong intrigue and the appearance of the mysterious swordsman. However, it leaves plenty of other plot threads — specifically the conflict between Yen-fei and Invincible Clan’s leader — dangling to be wrapped up in the sequel, which, conveniently, picks up right where the first film leaves off.
Commando tells the story of young Chandu, who’s name changes in the subtitles to Chander about halfway through the movie. Either way, I’m simply calling him Commando, in honor of his arch nemesis being named Ninja. The movie begins when Commando is but a boy, and his father is the commando of the family, prone to taking his young son out on early morning workouts that involve singing, at least half a dozen different track suits, running, judo, horsing around on the playground, karate, riding horses on the beach, riding bikes, shooting rifles, getting punched repeatedly in the face by his father, and doing push-ups that look less like push-ups and more like a little kid making sweet, sweet love to the ground. Perhaps this is an allegory for young Chandu’s love for Mother India, but I don’t think it’s a proper way for a boy to behave toward his mother. So let’s just chalk it up to appalling push-up form and leave it at that.
While many fans of B-movie and cult film tend to center their discussion of Franco on his horror and sexploitation (though one could argue that all his films fall into this latter category) output, I tend to be more familiar with his action and espionage films– and keep in mind that, when discussing Jess Franco, the term “action” is used in an extremely loose fashion by which “action” can be defined as people sitting in a nightclub watching a psychedelic performance art striptease, or it can mean two people standing silently and staring at a rug for a spell. But the reason I like looking at Franco’s non-horror films is that, within the realm of horror, and certainly within the more narrowly defined realm of European horror, there is already a lot of incompetence and weirdness and a tendency to abandon logic.
It seems fitting that my first post-thanksgiving review should be of a film this goofy. Thanksgiving back home in Kentucky was grand, as it included a visit to Churchill Downs where I raked in a small fortune in winnings (and by small, I mean small, like fifty bucks), bourbon drinking, fried chicken and fried biscuits at Joe Huber’s Orchard, Winery, and Family Restaurant, a visit to the Bass Pro Shop where I got to go on a light gun safari (end conclusion — you don’t want to hire me as your crack shot assassin — the only thing I could consistently hit was the turtle, and that was by accident), and a late-night conversation with my sister, my best friend from high school, as well as another friend newly met, about cadaver dissection in East St. Louis, machine gun battles in Guyana, and watching sub-dermal parasitic worms from the Amazon crawl around beneath the skin of your ankle.
Whenever someone names a predictable title like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster or Yor, the Hunter from the Future as one of the worst movies of all time, my inevitable response is that if they think that’s one of the worst movies of all time, then they obviously haven’t seen enough movies. Certainly not enough to be making such bold proclamations such as naming it one of the worst of all time.
Things in the Japanese film industry were chugging along during the 1960s. The gradual erosion of restrictive post-war regulation of the Japanese film industry by occupying American forces (samurai and yakuza flicks were banned, as was just about anything that would “inspire the Japanese spirit”) meant that writers and directors were coming out of a long creative hibernation and finally getting to flex their brains again. Inoshiro Honda and Toho Studios were cranking out a steady stream of highly enjoyable fantasy, science fiction, and monster movies built on the foundation of the enduring success of Godzilla. Akira Kurosawa was making movies that no one would watch until Americans started discovering them in the 1970s. Takakura Ken and Akira Takarada were burning up screens as Japan’s two biggest matinee idols. Japan had yet to befoul the world by making M.D. Geist. All in all, not a bad time to be a film fan.
As Japan continued to distance itself from the wreckage of World War II and rapidly match the prosperity of the United States, more and more people started buying and watching television sets. As it had done in the United States some years before, this trend sent the movie industry into a panic, and not without good reason. Profits declined, attendance dropped, and back then, they couldn’t blame it on Internet downloading. The solution many film companies came up with was simple enough, and matches in many ways what cable channels like HBO have done: if you need to compete with broadcast television, do so by packing your features with the kind of stuff you can’t put on TV. This means, as you can guess, more sex, violence, and people calling each other “cocksucker.”
Suffice to say that in the 1970s, cinema censorship laws became increasingly lax both as a way to help salvage the industry and simply because the natural trend after severe restriction is usually toward greater leniency, Japanese studios started cramming more violence and tits into their movie. In other words, they started making the sort of films about which Teleport City can get enthusiastic. Shintoho opened the gateway during the late 50s and 60s by continuously pushing the envelope on crime and action films centered around female protagonists and seedy environments. Nikkatsu Studio blazed the trail with a series of films that became known as “Roman Porno” films — though disappointingly, these are not a bunch of Japanese movies about decadent ancient Romans; it was just a shortening of the phrase “Romantic Porno,” because saving yourself the second it takes you to pronounce the one additional syllable in “romantic” adds up to several seconds over a lifetime, or several minutes if you are in the industry and thus more likely to be saying “romantic porno.”
Nikkatsu was one of Japan’s first film studios. During World War II, the consolidation toward the war effort of Japan’s limited resources resulted in Nikkatsu becoming part of Daiei Studios, probably most famous to readers of Teleport City as the eventual home of Gamera. After the war, Nikkatsu returned to its independent status, but Daiei got to keep all the production facilities. Nikkatsu had to start from scratch, and they financed the rebuilding of their studio by relying heavily on distributing foreign films rather than making their own. Audiences that still had to deal with the aftermath of the war looming outside their door (if indeed they still had doors) were ravenous for any form of escape, and American administrators were much happier to see Japanese audiences flocking to American westerns and action films rather than reviving their own films.
When Nikkatsu had built up the capital it needed to finance the establishment of new facilities and begin production again, it opted to look to the foreign films it had been distributing with great success as inspiration for their own films, rather than returning as most studios had to the standard set of pre-war genres (some of which, as mentioned, were banned by Allied administrators). Thus, American and French new wave films became the models Nikkatsu would look to, which meant the resulting films were considerably different from anything else being made in Japan at the time.
The new Nikkatsu was built around a core of stars, and it began attracting the attention of filmmakers who were interested in experimenting with film and making movies that other, more traditional studios, weren’t willing to chance. Thus, Nikkatsu soon became the home of people like the maverick director Seijun Suzuki, whose films were often so inventive and outlandish that even liberal Nikkatsu sought to reel him in by slashing his budgets and forbidding him to use color film stock — a move that resulted in Suzuki making Branded to Kill, the most off-beat and cracked-in-the-head films in his repertoire (at least until he remade it as Pistol Opera).
Although well-respected now, Suzuki’s films weren’t exactly the sort of thing that could save a studio. Quite the opposite, frankly. As the film industry crisis grew more pressing throughout the 60s, Nikkatsu decided that it was time to ramp up the nudity. Thus the birth of Roman Porno. The term was meant to differentiate the Nikkatsu films from straightforward pornos, which have always existed in the underground and, during the 1970s, were really starting to make their mark on society in a much bolder and more mainstream fashion. The Nikkatsu films, by contrast, still boasted a budget, recognizable actors, and even respectable writers and directors. Of course, they were still sleazy melodramas full of gratuitous nudity, too, and that’s what made the m special. The Nikkatsu films tended to explore increasingly bizarre sexual territory, delving frequently into the world of S&M and rape. They were also cheap and easy to make and helped keep the studio afloat when so many other, less daring (or sleazy, or opportunistic, if you prefer) studios were tanking in the great industry collapse that plagued the 70s. A similar crash took out the British film industry around the same time (Hammer Studios being one of the most famous casualties), and the attempt to salvage operations by increasing the levels of sex and violence in the films was pretty much a world-wide phenomenon.
Also badly in need of an injection of life, Toei Studios decided to jump on the sex and violence bandwagon, though they tended to take a decidedly different approach than the Roman Porno movies of the infamous Nikkatsu. Toei was doing well with a variety of action-oriented films, so they decided that they should stick with the action movies, but jam them with more nudity and even greater amounts of violence. Thus was born the pinky violence film. Once Toei established the framework, plenty of other studios followed it. Even Nikkatsu flirted with it when they made their Stray Cat Rock films with Meiko Kaji before committing themselves almost entirely to Roman Porno movies. These pinky violence movies tended to exist within an established number of settings: they were either turn-of-the-century female samurai/gambler movies (Sex and Fury, Female Yakuza Tale, and the Lady Snowblood movies starring Meiko Kaji and based on manga by Kazuo Koike — the man who brought Lone Wolf and Cub to the world) derived from less sexual but scarcely less violent precursors like the Crimson Bat and Red Peony Gambler films; or they were “girl gang” or “juvenile delinquent girl” (sukeban) movies. From time to time, a women-in-prison film would get thrown into the mix, the most famous being the Female Convict Scorpion movies starring Meiko Kaji (if you’re going to watch Japanese exploitation films, you’d best get used to seeing her name).
For the most part, though, girl gangs ruled the roost, because they were easiest to film. They didn’t require period sets or costumes. Directors could shoot guerilla-style at various locations around Japan, usually without worrying about casting extras or getting permits (which is why so many of these films — Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess included — feature shots of the characters walking down the street surrounded by onlookers gawking directly at them or into the camera). And you could make the same movie over and over with only a few tweaks to keep it interesting (this movie has a gang of girls just out of reform school; that movie has a biker gang; and so on).
What made these exploitation films interesting is…well, no. Tits and violence made them interesting. But what made them intellectually interesting is that they became the playground for a lot of inventive directors who felt the more traditional films hamstrung them and wouldn’t allow them to explore wild new directing styles and story content. So amid the boobs and bloodshed, you often got films with highly creative and ground-breaking direction, as well as plots that tackled all sorts of subjects (violence against women, Japanese racism, war crimes, et cetera) still considered taboo in the Japanese mainstream. Sometimes the messages were there as cheap justification for the exploitation. Sometimes, the exploitation was there to make the message easier to express. Whatever the case, it made for some completely wild films that offer up all sorts of potential for discussion.
For the most part, these films remained unseen by all but a few hardened tape traders in the United States, who would suffer bad VHS dupes and no translation just for a chance to see the psychedelic madness of 1970s Japanese pop exploitation. Luckily, the relative cheapness of DVD over VHS, as well as an increasingly receptive group of Japanese studios (previously, they were notoriously antagonistic toward foreign distribution and charged insane prices to license their titles — something anime companies still like to do), the hitherto untapped reservoirs of Japanese yakuza and pinky violence movies are finally seeing the light of day in the United States. For fans like me, the efforts of companies like HVE, Kino, Diskotec, and Panik House are enough to bring to the eye a sweet, sweet tear of joy. Finally, I have something other than the three-hundred different budget DVD versions of Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter and Legend of the Eight Samurai.
In 2006, Panik House released the only DVD besides Space Thunder Kids that I’ve purchased in the past year (Netflix and the purchase of a new car and thus new car payments have combined to quell my once lusty DVD buying habit): The Pinky Violence Collection. Collecting four notable girl gang movies (and one audio CD) into an eye-blistering hot pink package stuffed with liner notes from author Chris D. (author of Mavericks of Japanese Cinema), it was pretty easy for the set to convince me to part with my cash during one of those Deep Discount DVD sales.
Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess is the first of these films we will be sampling, although it turns out that while it is certainly a great film, it’s not exactly what you might call indicative of the trend as a whole (neither, for that matter, was Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter). As with the Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, Worthless to Confess is part of a series of films that, to date, have only seen the one film released (when oh when do I get the rest of my Stray Cat Rock movies? I just can’t get enough Meiko Kaji in a big, floppy hat like those psychedelic trolls used to wear). In the case of the Delinquent Girl Boss films, Worthless to Confess is the final in the series, though it would seem that, at the very least, this film is a self-contained adventure that has very little carried over from the earlier films. I don’t know if the other three were more connected to one another, but the point here is that you really don’t need to go into this film worried that you haven’t seen the previous three, except in the capacity of really wanting to see the first three films because you figure they’re probably pretty cool.
These Zubeko Bancho films were considerably less sleazy than most of the pinky violence films, and the women in them are treated with much greater kindness than you’d see in films like, oh let’s say Terrifying Girl’s High School. Unfortunately it’s hard to make statements about th Zubeko Bancho series as a whole, having not seen the rest. There’s not a lot of information floating around about them. I’m not a casual fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I also fall fairly short of “dedicated scholar.” I guess I’m a lazy scholar. I haven’t put forth the effort to track down and watch all the films in the series (I can’t even find cast and credits list for the other movies. Hell, can’t even find a complete list of titles for the series), so remember that the bold, sweeping statements I make are based pretty much entirely on seeing this one, final film in the series. What can’t be gleaned from it has been cribbed from various liner notes and the scant other resources I managed to turn up.
I don’t want to stray too far into the realm of plot synopsis, but I do want to lay out the opening scene of this film, as it sets a thematic tone for everything that comes after. We open on a group of juvenile delinquent girls at reform school movie night, where they are supposed to be suffering through a documentary about the flora and fauna of the Hokkaido region. However, the projectionist has been convinced by the girls that he should show one of Takakura Ken’s Abashiri Prison films instead. As the girls go nuts over seeing yakuza matinee idol Takakura Ken leaping about in the Hokkaido snow, slicing chumps down with his trusty katana, prison officials try to figure out what kind of nature documentary this is. Once they figure out Hokkaido’s Great Outdoors is actually one of the Abashiri Bangaichi movies, they pull the plug, resulting in a modest riot of shoe and panty flinging.
Opening with a salute to the Abashiri Prison series means rather a lot to this sort of film. The most obvious is the simple act of homage. During the 1960s, Takakura Ken was one of the biggest (perhaps the biggest) stars in Japan, thanks in large part to his frequent appearances as a noble yakuza fighting battles full of honor and humanity. The Abashiri Prison series was his long-running string of films that all seem to start with him as a yakuza freshly released from Abashiri Prison with visions of “going straight” only to get caught up in some sort of gangland turmoil so that the film can end with him going back to Abashiri Prison as some trumpet-heavy closing theme song wails in the background. I believe if you totaled all the films, Takakura Ken served 1,700 years in Abashiri Prison over the course of the series.
Like most movies that become pop culture phenomenon, the first Abashiri Prison film wasn’t meant to be very much more than a quick, cheap yakuza film. But something about the movie and it’s story of a man who proudly clings to the tradition of yakuza nobility and honor even as the world around him descends into cynicism resonated with young Japanese audiences, who perhaps saw it as a metaphor for Japan’s struggle in the wake of World War II. Here, after year of waiting, was a film that grandly celebrated these mythical Japanese qualities. Folks ate it up, and a franchise was born.
Most of the Abashiri Prison films were directed by a guy named Teruo Ishii, who directed a series of sci-fi and crime films during the 50s and 60s. In 1965, he helmed Abashiri Prison, and suddenly he was one of the most successful directors in Japan. But since Japan didn’t really embrace the auteur theory or create cults of personality around directors, you can’t really say Ishii became a superstar. Still, he was successful enough to throw his weight around the studio a bit, and he followed up a successful string of Takakura Ken yakuza films by doing what any good director would do: going completely off the deep end and indulging in a career full of increasingly bizarre, sick, and twisted sex and violence films that include titles like The Joy of Torture, the still-banned Horror of a Deformed Man, Hell’s Tattooers, and a couple Yakuza Punishment films. Ishii’s film’s pushed the envelope for the amount of deviant sex and weirdness a director could cram into his films, and his late 60s work definitely kicked down the door and made Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno films viable.
Oddly enough when everyone was enjoying the fruits of the tolerance for perversion and sex that Ishii helped sow, Ishii himself opted to shift gears yet again, working primarily on a parade of Sonny Chiba karate films (including Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, the superb Executioner, and Karate Inferno). In 1973, he contributed to the pinky violence trend by directing Female Yakuza Tale, a sequel to director Norifumi Suzuki’s Sex and Fury (both starring Reiko Ike — whose name you’ll be seeing pretty much as often as Meiko Kaji’s). Ishii remained sporadically active throughout the 80s and 90s before dying in August of 2005. While he may not have the name recognition of, say, Akira Kurosawa or Inoshiro Honda, you can’t really fault a guy whose final film was titled Blind Beast vs. the Dwarf.
But during the 60s, the attention all focused on the star, and it was Takakura Ken and his movies that served as the template for yakuza films throughout the 1960s, until Kinji Fukasaku turned the genre upside down in Battles without Honor and Humanity, the film that dared postulate that maybe not all these yakuza guys were noble anti-heroes with swank theme songs; that many of them were, in fact, wretched scumbags and cowards. Curiously, the yakuza seemed as enthusiastic about this portrayal as they’d been by the Takaura Ken films of the previous decade, probably because as weasely and pathetic as most of the characters were, at the end of the day there was still Bunta Sugawara up there on the screen, standing tall and looking cool and letting all the junior yakuza types fancy they were like him rather than like the squealing, flailing goofballs that comprise most of the cast of characters.
Worthless to Confess definitely features more of the latter type of yakuza, though the girls in the movie are considerably more honorable than the gents, but where Kinji Fukasaku’s films are relentless deconstructions of the yakuza myth, Worthless to Confess is more of a “between two worlds” look at yakuza who are undeniably like Fukasaku’s cowardly, backstabbing scumbags but exist in a world that acknowledges the existence of the Takakura Ken yakuza movies that created (or at least helped perpetuate) the myth in the first place — sort of like making a zombie movie set in a world where zombie movies exist. Ken represents the image to which the yakuza strive, while Kenji represents the reality of what they achieve. And somewhere caught in the middle of it all, the women in the movie are more Takakura Ken than the yakuza around them, and like the matinee idol, star Reiko Oshida lives a life that follows the Abashiri Prison pattern of getting out, trying to go straight, getting caught up in turmoil, and ultimately winding up right back in the same place you were at the beginning of the movie.
Oshida (who has very few film credits to her name, unfortunately, but was a member of the cast of Playgirl, a TV show about a cast of swingin’ crime-fightin’ chicks) plays Rika, a small-time delinquent serving a sentence in a women’s reform school where she meets a variety of other inmates, including a woman named Midori (Yumiko Katayama, another Playgirl alumnus), whose boyfriend is a small-time yakuza punk (though like all small-time yakuza punks, he thinks he’s a major player) and whose father, Muraki (yakuza film mainstay Junzaburo Ban, who was also in the Akira Kurosawa film Dodes’ka-den), is a kindly auto mechanic. When Rika gets out, she takes a job in the old man’s garage and discovers that Midori is bleeding her father dry in an attempt to pay off her deadbeat boyfriend’s ever-escalating gambling debts. The local yakuza are keen to see the guy get in so much debt that Midori will pressure her father to sell his garage, and Rika is keen to protect the old man and try to straighten Midori out. Needless to say, in order to do so, she’ll have to reassemble the old gang from reform school.
A lot of the pinky violence films that hit the market during the 1970s weren’t aiming to do much more than cram as much T&A and violence onto the screen as they could get away with. And really, just like there’s nothing wrong with seedy cheerleader sexploitation movies, there’s nothing wrong with Japanese girl gang movies that really don’t want to do more than pack the screen with boobs and bloodshed. However, there were also certain movies that managed to fulfill the basic demands of the genre without indulging in the excesses of their contemporaries and while filling in the sex and violence gaps with better stories and better characters. Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess is definitely the Swinging Cheerleaders of the pinky violence trend. It has the T, has the A, and has the violence, but not in the doses that other films (including other films in the Panik House collection) boasted. Instead, it boasts a more complex plot, more sincere melodrama, and more likeable characters. It’s a more ambitious movie, and a better one as a result (keeping in mind that greater ambition doesn’t always equate with a greater movie — right, Chronicles of Riddick?).
For starters there’s Reiko Oshida. Meiko Kaji and Reiko Ike were the queens of Japanese exploitation cinema during the 1970s (populating a lofty dais alongside Pam Grier from the United States and Chen Ping in Hong Kong), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a cuter, more personable, and more charismatic leading lady than Reiko Oshida. Meiko Kaji looked dangerous, mysterious, and alluring. Reiko looks like the cute girl next door who just took a few wrong turns here and there, but is basically sweet and likeable even if her wrong turns means she also affects a take-no-crap toughness. The character Rika is instantly likeable and, unlike many of the anti-heroines in these films, never really does much that make her the least bit unlikeable. She gets out of prison, smiles, and helps people out. It’s a shame Oshida didn’t make more movies, girl gang or otherwise, because she emanates an immediate and undeniable warmth. Plus, she’s just as engaging once she’s “pushed over the edge” and breaks out the red overcoat and katana for the film’s outrageous finale as she is as the sweet girl who just wants to build a decent life for herself.
The film perpetuates this impression by steadfastly refusing to make Reiko Oshida drop her drawers — something practically unheard of for the lead in a pinky violence girl gang movie. But the director (who was also the scriptwriter) was adamant that her lack of nudity was essential to the overall success of the story, and he fought tooth and nail to keep his vision intact. What nudity there is in the film is handled by co-stars Yumiko Katayama (who plays Midori) and Yukie Kagawa (who plays Rika’s pal Mari). While Rika’s lack of nudity is used as one more way to make her seem different and more innocent than the rest of the cast, it should be noted that none of the girls who lead sexy and promiscuous lifestyles are looked down upon because of their choices. Mari ends up working in a scummy nude modeling club, but the scumminess is seen as entirely belonging to the assholes who go there and treat her poorly. For the most part, sexual liberation and freedom is treated as being OK.
Oshida is buoyed by a spectacular supporting cast. Yukmiko Katayama, who also didn’t have much of a career in film before or after this movie (she appeared in one other pinky violence film, Criminal Woman: Killing Medley, which also appears in the Panik House collection), is wonderful as Midori, the most complicated of all the women. She’s the more classical pinky violence anti-heroine in that she does a lot of questionable things before finally being redeemed in time for the big showdown. Her boyfriend and the yakuza are suitably slimy, and you spend most of the movie in eager anticipation of the comeuppance you know is going to be delivered unto them.
The rest of the cast performs with solid skill. Pinky violence regular Tsunehiko Watase plays a truck driver who falls for Rika and gets to be the only really decent or dependable guy in the whole movie. Mari’s husband is a sickly yakuza who also happens to be the truck driver’s brother. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s a load on his brother and wife, and although he dreams of taking Mari away and starting a clean life, he also can’t divorce himself from the delusions associated with being a yakuza. He just has to prove himself, just one time, then he can go. Unfortunately, he ends up being told to prove himself by killing Midori’s father (unaware, however, that he is her father). There’s also a Lou Costello-type assistant mechanic who is there for comic relief that is neither especially funny nor especially painful — which is about the best you can hope for when it comes to comic relief. And finally, Nobuo Kaneko hams it up royally as the fey yakuza Boss Ohyu. Nobuo is probably best known for playing the even more cowardly and spineless Boss Yomimori in Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity series. He also shows up in some Seijun Suzuki films.
Anchored by a quality cast and a sparkling leading lady, screenwriter/director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi is able to delve into deeper territory than is visited by the average pinky violence film — in much the same way as Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter. Themes of “female empowerment” and liberation are often grafted onto these films as an easy way to deflect some of the criticism and charges of misogyny that dog such exploitation fare. Usually, these feminist messages are disingenuous and no more meaningful or sincere than when a male scriptwriter uses a female penname to write a porno film, so that the producer can go, “How can it be degrading to women? It was written by a woman?” Now, you know me, and you can probably guess that the honesty of intention in a feminist message isn’t exactly something that plays a big factor in helping me decide whether or not I like a movie. However, it is nice to come across the occasional movie that does indeed manage to be both exploitive and pro-woman. The women in Worthless to Confess are all basically good people. They’re treated with respect from beginning to end, and the movie doesn’t indulge in any of the leering rape nudity that show sup in so many other pinky violence movies. Rika and Midori both find themselves on the receiving end of some yakuza torture and sneering, but it is relatively restrained by pinky violence standards, and cut short before anything really nasty happens.
There is also no weird sex in the movie. One character is alluded to as being a lesbian, but for the most part the characters who do have sex, have pretty normal sex — which is distinctly abnormal in a pinky violence film. Worthless to Confess is also unique in its portrayal of the family. In most pinky violence films, families are ridiculously dysfunctional; full of shrieking psychotic mothers, incestuous fathers, or parents who simply don’t give a damn about anything. Worthless to Confess gives us a kindly and respectable father figure, though, and Rika and her gang really don’t want much more out of life than to find a place they can call home and a group of people to whome they can refer to as family. For once, the family and father figure is OK rather than all twisted and weird.
At the same time, most of the men besides Midori’s dad and the truck driver are scheming, backstabbing scumbags. The only men who can be trusted are the hard-working, regular Joes — the truck drivers and the auto mechanics of the world (though Midori’s dad has a great twist in his story that reveals him to be a little more than just a simple, hard-working auto mechanic). Most can’t be trusted or, at the very least, can’t be depended upon. If they aren’t slimeball yakuza tripping over pachinko machines and getting their asses handed to them in fights by Rika, then the men are asexual girlie men. Gang girl Choko, for instance, is married to a nice but ineffectual goofball who cowers behind her at the club when yakuza start throwing their weight around. He spends much of the film in an apron and head scarf, making food and drinks for Choko and her pals.
There’s really not much action in this movie, but you don’t even notice since the characters are so engaging. The first fight scene doesn’t come until the forty-five minute mark, which is very different from, say, Girl Boss Guerilla, which can’t go more than five minutes without some chick pulling off her shirt and starting a knife fight. Variety is nice, of course, so while I certainly appreciate a movie like Girl Boss Guerilla, I can also appreciate the more reserved approach of Worthless to Confess. Of course that reserve goes out the window the second Rika and her girls throw on hot pants and go-go boots, break out their swords, and slice their way through a pop art club full of whimpering, worthless yakuza assholes. If Worthless to Confess lacks the nonstop insanity of many of the zanier entries in the world of pinky violence, it makes up for it with a finale that is off-the-charts awesome, doubly so since the movie has spent the last eighty minutes or so making you actually care about what happens to these women. The sight of Reiko Oshida and her crew walking down the street in formation wearing blood red trenchcoats, which they throw off to reveal their battle outfits and katanas as they explain their intention to slaughter every goddamn yakuza in the club, is an absolutely fantastic procession of images.
Yamaguchi’s handling of bad-ass female characters manifested itself elsewhere in his career as well. He directed Etsuko Shiomi’s Sister Street Fighter trilogy, which is all about a tough gal sticking it to The Man. He also directed a few Sonny Chiba karate films and something called Wolfman vs. the Supernatural, which I feel like I really need to see. It’s obvious that Yamaguchi favored action and plot over sex and titillation, and while I have no problem with any mix of those three elements, his focus on developing characters and telling a more complete and complicated story means that, while Worthless to Confess is not the most outrageous or the most typical pinky violence film, it is one of the very best and most enjoyable.
Above and beyond all else, kungfu films have always existed so that they can teach to us valuable life lessons. At their best, they are practically training manuals for how to live a healthy, productive, and socially relevant life. For instance, if your pupils are killed by a one-armed kungfu master, then you as a blind master of the flying guillotine should go about avenging their deaths by killing every one-armed man in the province. Far more potent than the moral litmus test, “What would Jesus do?” in the daily life of the average person is the question, “What would the blind master of the flying guillotine do?” And you know what he would do? Jump through a roof, throw the flying guillotine, and send a severed head rolling across the floor. Not surprisingly, this is often what Jesus would do as well, as far as I can reckon.
Kungfu films also serve as a road map for building rewarding, emotionally rich familial relationships, teaching us the most productive way (snake fist) to deal with conflicts within the family structure. The landscape of kungfu films is littered with films in which a son and a father, or a daughter and father, or two siblings, must struggle both against one another as well as together against a greater outside threat. This often manifests itself as some wholesome bonding activity, such as jumping from pole to pole over a field of knives, or trying to grab the chicken bits out of each other’s rice bowls. Visit any modern family or marital therapist, and you find that, nine times out of ten, they employ the same — or at least very similar — methods for working through the issues that complicate interpersonal relationships.
House of Fury is a more modern look at the nuclear kungfu family, and while its look and style have been updated for modern sensibilities, the core message at the center of the film remains consistent with the many that came before it: the family that trains in kungfu together will deal out swift kungfu vengeance together.
Anthony Wong stars as Yu Siu-bo, a somewhat boring practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and physical therapy. He delights in spinning outrageous yarns about his past adventures fighting ninjas and assorted supervillains, a practice which embarrasses his two teenage children, college-age slacker Nicky (Stephen Fung, Avenging Fist, Gen-X Cops, Gen-Y Cops) and high schooler Natalie (Gillian Chung, one-half of the Hong Kong pop superduo Twins and star of The Twins Effect), both of whom assume their dad is just a world-class bullshitter. At least, they assume that right up until a wheelchair bound psycho named Rocco (your buddy and mine, Michael Wong) shows up hoping to drag the identity of a retired secret agent out of Siu-bo. Suddenly, the two siblings realize everything their father has ever told them has more or less been true, and now they’re caught right in the middle of a frenzied kungfu battle between their father and Rocco’s thugs. Luckily, this being a kungfu film, dad trained his kids well.
House of Fury is a family film in more ways than simply being about the evolution of the relationship between two children and their father (involving the “tall tale” characteristic that allows me to actually compare the themes of a film full of crazy flying ninjas and kungfu and Tim Burton’s Big Fish). For starters, the number of familiar old faces on parade is more than enough to counterbalance the presence of shining new stars like Gillian Chung and Stephen Fung. Anthony Wong is a welcome addition to any cast, and when he’s interested in his role, there are few actors in this world that are finer at their craft. He’s top notch as the good-hearted but drab Siu-bo, padding about the place, weaving spectacularly crazy adventure tales, and talking to a photo of his dead wife. He’s both comical and poignant without ever being overly saccharine. He plays the comedy and action as well as he does the loneliness of the character. Inhabited by Anthony Wong, Siu-bo simply feels like a real guy. When his secret comes out and he jumps into action, he’s just as much fun. His best friend and patient is the aging Uncle Chu, played by Hong Kong movie stalwart Wu Ma. We’ve seen Wu Ma for decades, and watching him in action) even if it’s heavily aided by wires and CGI) is great fun. He and Wong represent the older generations perfectly.
On the other end of the scale are Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung (and to a lesser extend, Gillian’s fellow Twins member and Twins Effect co-star Charlene Choi). Fung, like a seeming endless parade of pretty young faces that started way back with Aaron Kwok and continued through Ekin Cheng and on to Fung, has been regarded as the “hot new thing” that is finally going to salvage Hong Kong cinema from the doldrums in which it’s drifted for years, revitalizing the industry and returning to it the spark and magic that made the 70s, 80s, and first half of the 90s so memorable and beloved. He hasn’t fulfilled that expectation, but then, it’s not really fair to expect it of him. Of the host of hot guys who emerged at the turn of the century to become the somewhat unmemorable and interchangeable faces of the next Hong Kong new wave (which has also yet to really materialize), Fung was a fair enough performer, but he was always a little hollow and cardboard and unspectacular. It was hard, especially for fans who weren’t screaming teenage girls, to tell one hot new thing from the next, even when they were all collected together in movies like Gen-X Cops. Thus, when a director wanted to make a “real” film, they still went to the last men standing from the 80s and 90s — Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau, Simon Yam, and of course, Anthony Wong (Stephen Chow doesn’t make the list, simply because he’s always been sort of a whole film industry unto himself). Thus, especially for me, guys like Fung, Edison Chen, and Nick Tse continue to fail to make the same impression as the guys from whom they were supposed to inherit the mantle.
What Stephen Fung is to the men, Gillian Chung is to the women. As one-half of the pop megastar duo Twins, producers hoped she would carry the name recognition to become a movie superstar where so many other hopeful starlets have simply been swallowed whole, unable to become the next Brigette Lin or Maggie Cheung or, quite frankly, even the next Hsu Chi, or even the next Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Funny, isn’t it? Back in the 80s and 90s, Maggie Cheung was most often described as “irritating” or “insipid,” known as she was for little more than being the squealing, whining girlfriend in Jackie Chan’s Police Story films. And Hsu Chi? She was just some softcore porn nobody. And now? They’re two of the biggest, best respected actresses on the international scene. Who would have guessed it, watching Police Story or whichever the hell The Fruit is Swelling film it is that stars Hsu Chi?
While Gillian is no Hsu Chi, and she’s certainly no Maggie Cheung, she’s still a pretty solid performer with a lot of charisma. Handled properly, and should there ever be more than one good script every other year coming out of Hong Kong, she does indeed show the potential to become something more than a cute face that will disappear in a couple years. Stephen Fung — I don’t know. He’s still kind of a bore, and he still doesn’t exude much charisma. I have hope for him, but not nearly as much as I do for Gillian Chung.
As for Chung’s Twins partner, Charlene Choi, there’s really not much that can be said about her in this film. She has a very small role that doesn’t really give her much to do beyond tease Stephen Fung’s Nicky for a couple scenes.
I would be remiss, however, if I left my review of the cast at the above. That’s a lot of good actors doing good work up there. How can I celebrate them without screwing up my courage and looking at the performances of American-born actors Michael Wong and Daniel “Michael Wong for the next generation” Wu. Wu I first encountered in Gen-X Cops, and I was awed by how spectacularly awful he was. Daniel Wu originally went to Hong Kong simply to “get in touch with his roots,” get the feel of the place from which his parents came. An extended stay lead to some modeling work, and from there he found his way into film. He seems like a decent guy in interviews, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was really unbelievably horrible in Gen-X Cops. However, each subsequent movie in which he’s appeared has seen him improve in tiny increments, so that by the time we’ve gotten to House of Fury, he is merely bad. And if nothing else, Daniel Wu rolled naked on the beach with Maggie Q where as I simply watched him roll naked on the beach with Maggie Q. Wu was never sold as the next Andy Lau, Tony Leung, or Jackie Chan, but if he keeps working at his craft, he could, at the very least, be the next Aaron Kwok or Leon Lai.
The same can’t be said for Wu’s countryman, Michael Wong, though Wong did have Ellen Chung naked and grinding away on him in one movie, so that caveat about our relative accomplishments still stands. Michael Wong has been plying his acting craft for a couple decades now, and in every film in which I’ve seen him, he has wowed me with his ability to never get any better no matter how much experience he has. It’s amazing just how consistent he’s been over the past many years. It’s a sustained level of badness of which Keanu Reeves could only dream. It’s absolutely astounding. He never gets better, but he never gets worse. Michael Wong is superhuman in his ability to sound like every role is his first role. And despite being surrounded by world-class veterans and promising young upstarts, Michael Wong manages to deliver the exact same bad level of performance he’s always delivered, doggedly refusing to let the presence of Anthony Wong cause him to accidentally step up his game.
I have no idea how Michael Wong has sustained his career for this long. He’s good looking, but not that good looking. He’s fit, but he’s not any good at kungfu and only marginally passable at performing other forms of action choreography. In all aspects of his acting career he is merely below average — so much so that he’s not even bad to the point of being funny. Well, no, sometimes he’s funny-bad (witness his anguished plea, “You’ve gone over to the dark side!” in The First Option), but mostly he’s just bad. And yet, the man has never gone wanted for roles. Usually they’re in B-team movies, but from time to time he manages to sneak into an honest-to-goodness movie like House of Fury. He must totally baffle his brother Russell (New Jack City and Joy Luck Club, plus a bunch of his own movies, as well as some television work). As for me, I embrace Michael Wong. I don’t really like calling anyone “the Ed Wood of…” but if ever there was an Ed Wood of acting, it has to be Michael Wong, and I love him for it.
Of course, all my love can’t make anyone think that Michael Wong is any good in House of Fury. He’s awful. He’s so bad he makes Daniel Wu look good, though he doesn’t make Daniel Wu in Gen-X Cops look good. You might think that Wong is trying to play Rocco as a cool, calculating, emotionless man consumed by vengeance and just failing at the characterization, but anyone who has seen Michael Wong in any movie before will simply say, “No, that’s just Michael Wong. He can’t act.” His soft-spoken monotone is made even worse by the fact that he’s surrounded by performers the caliber of Anthony Wong and Wu Ma, and even young Gillian Chung. Heck, even charisma-vacuum Stephen Fung seems positively animated and warm next to Michael Wong’s utterly bizarre performance as the wheelchair-bound Rocco. And in case you think that strapping Wong with a wheelchair means he’s not going to have a bad action scene, think again. Action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (he of too many decades and too many credits to list) figured that the best way to get a decent action scene out of Wong was simply to film him in fast speed rolling around in his wheelchair. Sadly, director Stephen Fung (more on that in a moment) resists the natural urge to set the entire scene to “Yakkety Sax.”
The final piece of the main cast is this kid named Jake Strickland. I have no idea who this kid is (this is his first and currently only listed film credit), but I assume Yuen Wo-ping discovered him on some youth martial arts circuit and couldn’t resist throwing him into the film as Rocco’s son. As an actor, he’s not much, but then, what do you expect from a fourteen-year-old American making a foreign language film. He’s still better than Michael Wong (both he and Wong deliver their lines in English). The kid is really just here to twirl a staff and kick some ass, and in that sense, he’s surprisingly good. Hong Kong films have always had better luck with martial arts kids than American films — just compare any of the Three Ninjas to that little kid with the perfectly spherical head kicking ass alongside Jet Li in New Legend of Shaolin and My Father is a Hero. It seems that being a decent kiddie kungfu performer doesn’t really have much to do with race (obviously), but instead has to do with whether your action director is Yuen Wo-ping or John Turteltaub. Jake Strickland looks fantastic in action, and his fight with Anthony Wong is priceless. Wong is torn between the fact that he doesn’t want to beat up a fourteen-year-old kid and the fact that this fourteen-year-old kid is kicking his ass and flipping around with a staff and running up walls, and it makes for a great fight scene. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Jake Strickland again, but he does a fine job here — and he has a great name for being either an action star or Hank Hill’s boss at the propane shop.
The rest of the action is a pretty good mix between old style kungfu, wire-fu, and a little CGI enhancement here and there. Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung are not accomplished martial artists, and from time to time you can tell that, but most of the time, Yuen Wo-ping poses them and flings them about pretty well. Their fight with Josie Ho and the rest of Michael Wong’s thugs is a stand-out moment, as is the finale (in which, among other things, Stephen Fung also faces off with Jake Strickland). Anthony Wong, of course, is no martial artist either, but the man has been around long enough to have picked up the tricks of the trade, and he looks good in his few action scenes. Even elderly Wu Ma gets in on the fun. For years, I railed against the tendency to cast non-martial artists as kungfu masters, then mask their lack of skill with wire tricks and flashy editing — a trend that was largely championed by Yuen Wo-ping (with plenty of help from Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark). In my old age, I’m getting soft, or simply accepting that the days of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao are over — even for Sammo, Jackie, and Biao. House of Fury delivers fantasy kungfu but it does it well, and from time to time, it allows itself to be a throwback, if not to the glory days of Sammo Hung choreography, at least to the solid, no-wires choreography that made Yukari Oshima and the girls with guns genre so much fun.
Now comes the funny part. Although I continue to be unimpressed by Stephen Fung as an actor (calling him a hot young thing really isn’t fair — he’s only a year or two younger than me), I was surprised to see that as a writer and director, he’s surprisingly accomplished. I have no idea hos much of House of Fury was directed by Fung, and how much was the work of his mentors Yuen Wo-ping and Jackie Chan, but the fact is that Stephen, for whatever amount he directed, showcases a steady hand and the ability to let the film’s story speak for itself, rather than piling on lots of irritating flashy editing and intrusive directorial tricks. Surrounded by such talent (as well as Willie Chan, another producer on this film and cohort of Jackie Chan), Stephen Fung may not emerge as the next Jackie Chan in front of the camera, but he has an excellent chance to emerge as the next Jackie Chan behind the camera. There are definitely some signs of the old Jackie and Sammo directorial styles, which were also influenced by the directorial work of Lo Wei (who directed Wu Ma, among others like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee) and Bruce Lee himself. Although House of Fury boasts the wirework and CGI that seems to be part and parcel of modern kungfu films, the direction itself is surprisingly down to earth and reminiscent of the good ol’ days.
Fung also co-wrote the script, along with Yiu Fai-lo (previously the screenwriter for the dreadful Jackie Chan flop Gorgeous and the even more dreadful Andrew Lai horror disaster The Park). Given how dreadful Yiu’s previous scripts are, I have no problem attributing the bulk of the work on the script for House of Fury to Stephen Fung. As a guy in his early thirties who no doubt grew up a fan of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, this is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect him to write. However, we’ve seen thanks to countless gigabytes of fanfic that being a fan of something doesn’t mean you’re going to write a good story about it. Fung’s script, on the other hand, is well-written, well-paced, and surprisingly…I don’t want to say complex, really. Touching? Maybe that’s it. Let’s just say it’s good. The homage to Bruce Lee exists in the title and in some of Anthony Wong’s fight choreography, but other than that, it doesn’t play much of a role in the story. At this point, though, fans of Hong Kong cinema should be used to gratuitous Bruce Lee gags and imitations. It’s almost as if Stephen Fung wanted to make an 80s style Hong Kong action film and knew that he couldn’t do that without throwing in some random Bruce Lee allusions.
Bruce Lee nonsense aside, what Fung has done is write a very good modern-day reinvention of all those old “quarrelling kungfu family” movies that were made in the 1970s — right down to a “sitting at the table” kungfu fight over bits of chicken. Although being a fan doesn’t make you a good writer, a good writer who is fan enough to throw in obscure homages like that makes for a real treat. The relationship between the family is also well-written. The whole “discovering the secret past” thing isn’t anything new, but Fung executes the story well. The central theme seems to be that the older generation shouldn’t be dismissed, that they have plenty to teach us, and sometimes their rambling stories are true, or at least interesting. As an avid listener to my grandfathers’ stories about World War II — many of which seem as embellished as Siu-bo’s stories about fighting ninjas that can vanish into thin air — I understand and fully appreciate the message at the heart of Fung’s cracking good kungfu movie. It seems especially apropos in a film that owes so much and pays such close attention to the films of the generation before. In fact, to stick with the analogy about my grandfathers and World War II stories, it’s easy to see the films of the 70s and 80s as “the greatest generation.” Whenever anyone talks about the Golden Age, they inevitably point to these films. The next Jackie Chan, we say. The next Tsui Hark (if only Tsui Hark could be the next Tsui Hark). The next Chinese Ghost Story or A Better Tomorrow. And amid all that are the new films and new actors, largely dismissed, often disdained, living in the shadow of the greatest generation, looking at them with a mix of awe, contempt, and envy and the knowledge that they will never live up to but will always be compared to those films.
Also central to the plot are the two fathers, Siu-bo and Rocco, and different ways in which they have raised children adept at kungfu. Siu-bo trained his children hard, but there’s a tenderness to his training as well. He does it because he knows one day someone might come for him, and by default them, and they’ll be better off if they can defend themselves. For the most part, however, they are allowed to be regular young adults who regard their father as a bit of an oaf. Similarly, Rocco has trained his son in the martial arts, but in his case, it’s to use him as an instrument of attack. And Rocco’s son is an interesting juxtaposition to Nicky and Natalie. Where as both Nicky and Natalie are involved in active social lives (he works at a marine park, she is involved in school plays), Rocco’s son is a shut-in who knows little beyond his PSP and staff fighting in the basement. He’s like one of those anime otaku who collect martial arts weapons, except that he can actually use his.
Something that makes the script more complex than it might otherwise be, however, is the relationship between Rocco and his son. Rocco isn’t necessarily a heartless villain. He’s in a wheelchair because he was a special ops sniper assigned to assassinate some terrorist leader. However, an agent for the Hong Kong secret service needed said terrorist alive for a different assignment, and in order to prevent Rocco from killing the man (Rocco was working for the United States), he attacked and crippled him. Now all Rocco wants is revenge on the man who paralyzed him — and Siu-bo happens to know who that agent is. So it’s not like Rocco is simply evil — and we see this when, after he’s nearly killed in the final showdown, his son drops his staff and runs to protect and plead for his father’s life. Obviously, Rocco isn’t a complete dick, and the scene is nice even if Jake Strickland and Michael Wong are both bad actors.
House of Fury finds a way to embrace that as it reconcile its young protagonists with their father. With new and old talent both in front of and behind the camera, House of Fury is more than just a lot of fun (though it is certainly that); it’s the closest we’re going to get, in my opinion, to mixing the past with the present. It’s not a ground-breaking film, but it’s plenty enjoyable in the same gee-whiz way that the films of the 80s were., with al the same ham-handed goofiness and melodrama that people seem to forget was so omnipresent in those films. Sure, it doesn’t best the best of the 1980s. It’s not Dragons Forever or Project A. But if more new films were more like House of Fury — fast-paced, action-packed, a blend of legit kungfu choreography and special effects, but also full of good humor and heart — then maybe we wouldn’t miss the past and bemoan the future quite so much.
Teleport City is, by and large, a cult film site. It would seem, upon first impression, that a film like Captain Blood, or many of the old films that I regularly watch, would be ill at home here. After all, they are classics. Does anyone need one more person telling you Captain Blood is great? Or that any of these old films are great? I mean, everyone already knows that, right? It’s common knowledge, and everyone has seen these films a thousand times. Well, while that may have been true at some point, it hardly holds up well today. In fact, even many of the best-known films of the 50s and earlier have, in today’s pop cinema landscape, been so completely forgotten that they have achieved a level of obscurity that rivals that of any of the other cult films we might be prone to discussing. This they accomplish despite being widely available, widely discussed in the past, and cherished by the handful of people who still bother with old black and white films.
But for many people, and through no real fault of their own (it’s hard to seek out and watch something if no one tells you it exists), these films might as well be as mysterious and esoteric as a Filipino superhero film in which a woman in a silver space bikini fights a vampire. The sources to which these people (and by “these people,” I mean those who are roughly my age or younger) — often do not mention old films, and so they become forgotten relics despite their merits and the best efforts of Turner Classic Movies (also known as the cable channel most in need of going HD). Additionally, older films have the reputation of being crude and overly talky, full of antiquated melodrama, weird acting styles, crummy special effects, and endless scenes of well-dressed people sitting around in living rooms doing nothing at all. Where this impression of older films come from, I am not entirely certain, because anyone who takes the time to dig a little deeper into cinema’s past has discovered that action, adventure, and intrigue were staples of the film industry of the 30s and 40s just as much as they are today, and in many cases, the action, adventure, and stuntwork on display in black and whites from bygone eras surpasses anything that is done today, hamstrung as we are by an over-reliance on CGI and insurance-related litigation.
I am confident that the type of people who seek out the movies regularly discussed on Teleport City are the same people who are open to (if not already actively engaged in) exploring older films and understanding that most of the conceptions people have about them are wrong. And so, a film like Captain Blood, or Gunga Din, or any of the old noir and Poverty Row thrillers we’ll be getting to in due time, actually fit in at Teleport City every bit as well as the films of Jess Franco or Antonio Margheriti. Turning up amazing and forgotten films doesn’t always require you to travel to Manila and spend a month digging through the crates out back of a grimy video rental store. Sometimes, all you have to do is skip the “Midnight Movies” section of wherever you go to rent or purchase films, and walk (or click) over to the “Classics” section.
Which brings us, with a shorter digression than usual, to Captain Blood. I watched a lot of black and white adventure films when I was a kid. There was no cable television where I lived, and there were no VCRs, so you were left with whatever they played on regular television (which, back then, went off the air around one in the morning and wasn’t filled with nothing but Everybody Loves Raymond reruns), and that often meant watching black and white films, most likely because the rights to them could be had for cheap, and they were likely to be acceptable for television broadcast without the need for much editing. So I developed a taste for them, because really, that’s all we had save for the Godzilla films on the weekend. However, through some cruel twist of fate, I never saw any old pirate movies. I saw plenty of other types of adventure films, and I’m pretty sure I saw Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby Dick at least once a week, but if I saw any of the old swashbuckling pirate films, I don’t remember them — and given my bizarre propensity for remembering weird things like that, it seems unlikely that I would have sat through an Errol Flynn pirate movie and not remembered it.
Ahhh, Errol Flynn. Allow me, if you will, to indulge for a moment one of my gentlemanly crushes — or admiration, if flirtations with homosexuality make you uncomfortable for some reason (and if they do, you need to grow a little more backbone). I have never shied away from such things and see no reason to do so. My taste in men falls primarily along the traditional lines of masculinity as defined in the 30s and 40s my matinee idols like Errol Flynn and Clarke Gable. Bogart and Mitchum. Cary Grant, of course. And wiry little Fred Astaire for his amazing power to look amazing in clothes no man should be able to pull off. Even with today’s leading men — a talent pool largely devoid of any real charisma or air of rugged masculinity — I gravitate toward the few men who radiate that old-school air (which smells of mentholated shaving cream and woody musk): Clooney, Denzel, drunken Russell Crowe, and lately Josh Brolin. And this guy at the climbing wall at my gym.
But few and far between are the lads who cut such a shape as the men of the 30s and 40s. They knew how to dress, they knew how to throw a punch, they knew how to drink, and they knew how to handle the ladies except for Bette Davis, who no one could handle nor should much want to. Of these men, I was early on familiar with the films of Bogart and Gable, Grant and of course Mitchum — who was and remains still my Grandpa Harley’s favorite actor and role model in life (photos of my grandfather as a young man are striking in their likeness). But while I knew Flynn by name, I knew practically nothing about his films and had never seen one until much later in my life. Ah well, so much the better. It’s always nice to know something is waiting just over the horizon, yet to be discovered. Since then, I’ve worked hard to improve my familiarity with Flynn, his tumultuous life, and his films. And now you, dear reader, get to be the recipient of my hard-earned knowledge, so long as “hard-earned” means “I read a book.”
Flynn’s career as a leading man began with Captain Blood. Before this movie, he had a couple small roles but had done very little that would make people sit up and take notice. 1935 was a big year for filmmaking, and a number of my favorite big-budget (for the time) adventure films come from that year — Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clarke Gable, Howard Hawks’ Barbary Coast, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades, among other films. Additionally, 1935 saw the release of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which I have not seen but am keen to do so, as it stars Gary Cooper and deals with one of my sundry pet obsessions — that being the portrayal in Western cinema of Raj-era India (and from a time when India was still a British colony). Somewhere amid that parade of bright lights and star power, Warner Brothers decided to release a pirate film by a director no one knew and starring two leads no one had ever heard of. Pirate movies were difficult enough as it was. During the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks was able to buckle his swashes all over the place, but with the introduction of sound, production of seafaring fare became problematic, as the technology and technique was not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with all the creaking, cracking, and crashing that comes with filming on a ship and on the ocean.
This resulted in swashbucklers that were less about the swashing of buckles (or is the buckling of swashes) and more about guys sitting around inside their cabin — which could be conveniently created on a studio sound stage. Captain Blood, as Warner’s film was to be called, was to be an attempt to return to the more action-oriented style of Fairbanks, troubles with sound recording on the high seas be damned. But there were other problems facing the production. The first actor to whom Warner offered the role of Captain Blood turned it down, as did the second. That left them flailing, somewhat, until finally they settled on taking a chance on one of their bit players, a Tasmanian by the name of Errol Flynn. Playing opposite him as the lead female was another newcomer, Olivia de Havilland. Unknown starlets were one thing and hardly uncommon. They could easily be made into overnight sensations by pairing them with an established leading man. But now, Captain Blood was saddled with two newcomers, and on top of that, it was being directed by Michael Curtiz, a man whose experience lay almost entirely in the early, silent days of filmmaking and who was hardly a name to contend with spectacle-makers like Howard Hawks and Cecil B. DeMille. I’m not sure what Warner Brothers’ expectations for the film’s performance were at the time, but it’d be hard to argue that it was anything but an underdog and that Warner was taking a gamble when they bet their million dollars on this unproven cast.
Captain Blood tells the story of righteous Dr. Peter Blood (Flynn), who finds himself on the wrong end of King James’ temper during the 1685 rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth was previously known as James Scott and more previously still as James Croft, the illegitimate son of King Charles II. The Duke of Monmouth was a title created specifically for him, presumably to keep him out of the hair of other contenders for the throne. It didn’t work. When Charles died and James II, Monmouth’s uncle, was crowned King of England, Monmouth — who had a long and distinguished military career — felt severely slighted. He had himself crowned king in exile (he was, at the time, living in the Dutch provinces), and in 1685 launched a revolt meant to bring down James II and the Catholic-influenced reign. The rebellion, like many rebellions, started off strong, but when people started dying, the rebellion went the way of so many others. People deserted Monmouth en masse, and before too long, his rebellion was crushed at the battle of Sedgemoore.
Monmouth himself was captured, tried, and executed. It is during this battle that our hero Peter Blood — himself no fan of James II but also of the opinion that the Duke of Monmouth was going to be just as rotten — is asked to save the life of a wounded man. Blood, having no committed political leaning, relies instead on his sacred oath as a doctor, which compels him to help those he can. When King James’ men bust in and find him, they aren’t as keen on the Hippocratic Oath as Blood, and he soon finds himself in prison and on trial for treason. Brought before a judge whose only interest is in sending men to the gallows, the future looks bleak for the well-meaning and eloquent doctor, until King James is convinced that, aside from being hugely unpopular with the people, his gory orgy of retribution and hanging is a waste of manpower that would be better used as slaves in the colonies of the New World. So it is that Blood finds himself spared from the noose but shipped off toward a fate often considered far worse. Incidentally, my own ancestors from Scotland followed pretty close behind him, getting themselves in a spot of trouble in 1689 and finding themselves shipped off to some place called America — or so the family legend goes. Family legend also includes my grandfather beheading Adolf Hitler, so read into that what you will.
In Jamaica, Blood continues to be uppity and proud and smart, a trait that immediately rubs local plantation Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill) the wrong way. However, Bishop’s niece Arabella (de Havilland) takes a liking to Blood and purchases him for ten pounds, only to discover that he is hardly thankful to her, as slavery is still slavery. Blood finds himself in considerably better standing than his fellow slaves when his skills as a doctor are put to use healing the governor, who suffers from a painful bout o’ gout. Still as he is a man of honor and a natural-born leader, he does everything he can to protect his boys and irritate Bishop, who is infuriated that Blood’s role as doctor to the governor allows hims to get away with so much. Blood eventually hatches an escape plan, though he runs into a snag when a Spanish warship attacks the city. In the ensuing chaos, Blood leads the slaves first to freedom, then across the bay, where they board the Spanish warship while its proper owners are busy looting the town. Possessed now of their freedom and a fine ship, but not a home, Blood drafts a series of Buccaneers’ Articles, and so begins their lives as pirates.
Watching Flynn in this role, it’s hard to believe this is his first time as a leading man. He handles the role with astounding proficiency. It is impossibly not to cheer for Captain Blood, and the script provides Flynn ample opportunity to deliver stirring speeches about freedom and tyranny, punctuated by scenes of guys firing muskets and cannons and swinging from the rigging of giant sailing ships. Flynn handles his stirring speeches with the same aplomb as he does the action scenes. He is the very definition of roguish charm, and he is assisted by a series of perfect foils, which include the thoroughly loathsome Colonel Bishop and the shifty French pirate Levasseur (played brilliantly by Basil Rathbone). Although it happened somewhat by chance, it seems that, in the end, Captain Blood was constructed purely to turn Errol Flynn into the dashing, swashbuckling heartthrob he became. Recognizing the chance that has fallen into his lap, Flynn does not disappoint.
Although Flynn is the center of attention, Olivia de Havilland fares well to, The script by Casey Robinson grants her a stronger character than was usual for the time, while still keeping her as a believable member of the female sex during the late 1600s — as opposed to modern tendencies to create strong women by flying in the face of history and filling themselves with scantily-clad, often skinny warrior-women who are, for some reason, all proficient at Chinese style swordplay and martial arts. Arabelle may not take part in the swashbuckling, but when it comes to nerve and intelligence, she is nearly the match of Blood and very much the superior of Colonel Bishop. She had Flynn strike up an easy chemistry that makes the romantic portion of the film believable. There’s no question why a woman would fall in love with Blood, and there’s very little mystery behind Blood’s attraction to Arabella. The two young stars were paired in subsequent films, and rumors persisted that the two of them were romantically involved off-screen as well, though de Havilland has always denied this, citing Flynn’s status as a married man — which is sort of a novel defense, knowing what we know about Flynn and his voracious appetite for drinking and womanizing.
These appetites would plague him throughout his life, culminating in a statutory rape charge he was eventually found not guilty of — though even a Flynn fan like me has to question the accuracy of the outcome given that, later in his life, Flynn was courting a fifteen-year-old. But for the most part, Flynn’s off-screen dalliances and poor judgment did little to tarnish his popularity or his image as a noble hero. More damaging to his career was his failure to enlist in World War II (can you imagine a current leading man’s career being damaged on account of his failure to enlist?) while still playing war heroes on-screen. In fact, Flynn had enlisted — several times, and to every branch of the armed forces. Each time he was rejected on account of a series of health issues that included a weak heart (he suffered several heart attacks throughout his life), a bout with tuberculosis and malaria, and a permanently injured back. The film studio was unwilling to publicize Flynn’s reason for not serving, as they felt that it was better to keep a tight lid on the star’s growing health concerns. Thus, Flynn was left behind to make films like Objective Burma while the war was won by guys like Jimmy Stewart.
As I siad, the two newcomers are anchored by a solid supporting cast headed up by Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill. Both make for memorable villains, though Atwill’s merely rotten Bishop is left in the wake of Rathbone’s lamboyant French pirate. Although he’s only on-screen briefly, there’s no forgetting him. At the time, Rathbone was on the cusp of super-stardom. Having already eked out a comfortable career for himself as a supporting player, Rathbone would rocket to fame when he took on the role of Sherlock Holmes. Both Rathbone and Atwill are fondly remembered by horror fans for their work in that genre as well. Both of them play wonderfully off the fresh-faced and enthusiastic Flynn, and the duel between Rathbone and Flynn is one of the all-time greats.
Whatever his personal demons may have been, Captain Blood turned Flynn into a superstar, and the role defined the type of role he would play for most of his career just as it defined the swashbuckling hero. Flynn went on to star in more pirate films, including the wonderful Sea Hawk, as well as series of adventure films that includes The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Objective Burma, They Died With Their Boots On, and The Dawn Patrol, alongside his real-life friend David Niven. Other actors were quick to work within the persona created by Flynn, including Tyrone Power, who sometimes did it almost as well as Flynn. But almost means that, to this day, Flynn remains the very last word in swashbuckling heroes.
Director Micahel Curtiz fared much worse after this film. Although he went on to direct a number of the above-mentioned Errol Flynn swashbucklers, his career was all but killed when he took yet another huge gamble — this time casting an actor known almost entirely for playing b-grade heavies in crime films as a romantic lead. That actor was Humphrey Bogart, and the movie, which was released under the title Casablanca, is all but forgotten these days. In reality, of course, Curtiz did all right. He even made a habit of giving unproven actors a big break. Flynn, and then Bogart as a romantic lead. Later in his career, Curtiz was one of the few directors who was willing to give Elvis Presley a real role, that being King Creole, which is generally regarded by many as Elvis’ one truly great film and performance. Curtiz, having cut his teeth in silent era market of Europe, brings many of the sensibilities of those films into Captain Blood (and many subsequent films). Chief among these is his use of shadows and lighting, which is used to great effect many times throughout the film. Curtiz also solves the problem of shooting on location and around the ocean with a clever use of sets, location shooting, and convincing use of miniatures. Ship decks and cabins are sets, put into context with shots of actual ships on the ocean. The battles are staged in a similar fashion, and the sword fight between Blood and Levasseur is yet another combination of set and location.
Curtiz solution for the sound while shooting on a beach or aboard a ship is simple: he doesn’t use sound. Blood and Levasseur’s duel is shot without sound and on an actual beach, relying instead on the music by Erich Korngold to do the talking. When there is dialog, Curtiz switches to a series of convincing sets. He handles ship settings in the same way, restricting dialog to scenes that can be created on a set while scenes of actual ships are accompanied by Korngold’s orchestration and the foley artist’s ample cannon shots. The battles — and there are several good ones — also rely on miniature work mixed with actual ships, and are achieved with a remarkable degree of effectiveness. The final battle, in particular, in which Blood and his men take on a duo of French warships, is particularly exciting and well executed. There are several shots where I have no idea whether or not they’re using miniatures or actual ships.
I doubt anyone guessed Captain Blood would become the perfect storm of stars, director, music, and spirit that it did, but that’s usually how it happens. As far as swashbucklers and pirate movies go, you’d be hard pressed to find one better, and if you did, it would probably also star Errol Flynn. As far as my opinion goes, I hardly have much more to add. Although I was late in coming to this ad other Flynn films, I consider it one of the absolute best adventure films ever made, crammed to bursting with strong characters, great ship-to-ship battles, sword fights, and romance. The film proved to be a tremendous hit, nabbing an Oscar nominations for best picture (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was also nominated, but all fell before the might of The Mutiny on the Bounty) as well as sound direction. In addition, in 1935 you were still allowed to cast write-in votes, and as a result, Michael Curtiz found himself nominated for best directing honors, Casey Robinson for best screenplay, and Erich Korngold for his score. In a field that was very thick, this film full of and by unknowns didn’t do too bad.