There is a particular style of courtship presented in Bollywood movies that can be a bit of a tough go-around for Western viewers trying to dabble in that cinema. This courtship begins, predictably, with boy meeting girl. But while boy is immediately smitten by girl, girl loathes boy — because she is either A) a stuck-up rich girl who cannot see beyond boy’s modest circumstances, or B) a virtuous village girl who cannot see past boy’s frivolous and free-spending ways. In either case, boy does not give up, and instead strives to make himself a near constant presence in girl’s life, popping up with a new, even more spirited attempt to ingratiate himself whenever she least expects it. Finally, by dint of boy’s persistence and omnipresence, girl’s resistance is worn down and she has no choice but to look past her prejudices and see the kind, tender and – above all – mother worshiping heart that beats within boy. Love blossoms.
Shaan is an over-the-top Bollywood masala film that plays in very much the same vein as Don or The Great Gambler — which makes sense, since all three of them star Amitabh Bachchan. For me, they work as sort of a trilogy, even though none of the films is technically connected to the other in any official capacity. But they share so much, both in terms of pacing and overall atmosphere (and the fact that Amitabh’s character is named Vijay in all three films), that I like to think of them as some great, flared slack-clad, bow-tie sporting, kungfu-packed epic saga. Shaan is actually the least of the three films, but that by no means implies that it is anything less than absolutely sublime. Heck, as soon as the credits start rolling, projected as they are on the swaying rump of a sexy lass, you know you’re in for a real treat.
The phrase “Jess Franco at his worst” is something that should strike fear in the hearts of even the stoutest of cult film aficionados, to say nothing of the mainstream masses who go about their daily lives in blissful ignorance of the sundry celluloid abominations lurking in the dank, shadowy alleys of the cinematic landscape. Even at his best, Jess Franco manages to illicit negative reactions (to put it politely) to his work from the vast majority of viewers. And Jess Franco at his worst? The sane mind dare not even imagine what such a beast would look like! I, as has been stated elsewhere, am a fan of Jess Franco, and a pretty big fan at that. And as a fan of Franco, I recognize that often times the dank, shadowy alley leads to the secret door that opens up into a magical psychedelic jazz strip club decorated with garish pop art excess and populated by the bizarre and decadent fringes of lunatic society.
I freely admit that, for one not predisposed toward Franco’s peculiar predilections and directorial quirks, his films can be inaccessible and rather impenetrable — which I guess is my way of skirting around calling them boring and incompetent. As for myself, my appreciation of Franco and of the Franco aesthetic has grown over the years, aged like a fine wine, until I have reached the point where I positively adore his warped creations. If I could have any filmmaker’s career, I would most likely end up picking Jess Franco. If nothing else, imagine the sheer number of bizarre stories he must have amassed over the decades of his long career as a cult filmmaker on the fringe.
Franco himself probably could have picked the film career of any other filmmaker to be his own, but he eventually picked Jess Franco as well. He was not always the maverick nutjob over-indulging in his own obsessions. There was a time, however brief and long ago, that Franco flirted with mainstream acceptability and garnered praise and work from more established and well-respected members of the cinematic industry. But every time the choice was presented to him: play the game and be accepted or play by your own rules and remain on the fringe, Franco took the fringe route. You can chalk this up to whatever you want: dedication to a personal vision, artistic madness, or the inability to make a sound business decision. It’s probably all three, and then some. Whatever the case, Franco become a filmmaker so prolific and so committed to his own idiosyncrasies that at some point he may very well have stopped making movies in specific genres and became a genre unto himself.
If you know Jess Franco, then you know what I mean when I say “a Jess Franco film.” You know that there are tropes and themes that run through most all of his films regardless of whether they are horror, science fiction, espionage, sexploitation — all other labels applied to his films are secondary to that of “a Jess Franco film.” And at times, not only is Jess Franco a genre unto himself, but his films attain such lofty levels of bizarreness that they perhaps stop being movies at all and become some entirely new and incomprehensible type of art. Or maybe he’s just bad at what he does. Whatever the case, and probably because Franco and I seem to share a lot of common interests, fetishes, and obsessions, I have grown to look upon his body of work with considerable fondness and respect.
And I am not alone. As more and more of his films find their way to DVD in uncut and properly presented formats, Franco’s fanbase is growing. However, even among his fans, the jungle adventure Diamonds of Kilimandjaro (their spelling, not mine) gets very little love. Even those with a tremendous talent for digesting Franco seem to regard Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and it’s follow-up, Golden Temple Amazons, as among the very worst films Franco ever made. And while “Jess Franco at his worst” is more than enough to keep most people away (hell, “Jess Franco” alone is enough to keep most people away), that phrase is, in turn, more than enough to make me think, “Man, this I gotta see!”
So with my love of Franco in general established, let me further say that I also have a weakness for jungle adventure movies. Some of the earliest films I remember seeing were the old Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller, and between those and all the Poverty Row b-movie adventures about jungle goddesses that filled Matinee at the Bijou when I was a kid, plus a dollop of old pulp stories when I could find them, I knew that jungles were full of crocodile wrestling, hot chicks in loin cloths, lost treasure, ancient crumbling cities carved into the sides of cliffs, and oblivious British professor types in pith helmets explaining some anthropological point as they puff on a pipe and fail to realize that they are slowly sinking in quicksand. And men of adventure — men like me — would stride through those leafy quagmires with a machete in one hand, a colonial rifle in the other, and harvest glorious tales of adventure and romance. Yes sir, that was the life for me. And even though I’m in my thirties now, I still haven’t let go of the dream that one day I’ll be living that kind of life. The closest I can get is the jungle adventure film, all full of the good stuff I just mentioned, and usually even fuller of scenes consisting of the stars pointing at something off camera, followed by a cut to grainy stock footage of an elephant or a rhino or something.
So that brings us to Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, an old fashioned jungle adventure film as directed by Jess Franco and produced by Eurocine Studios in France. Man, for a guy like me, it just keeps getting better! Eurocine was infamous for being the production house that looked at the very cheapest, laziest, and sleaziest of European exploitation films and felt that they could do it even cheaper, lazier, and sleazier. In fact, “Cheaper, Lazier, and Sleazier” might have been their corporate mission statement, and as far as I can tell, they always lived up to it. You knew that with any Eurocine production, you were going to get a plot that had been written on the back of a used napkin five minutes before filming started. You knew you would get stars with no interest in acting in the movie. You knew you would get a director who was considered to be the worst by most people but was still working beneath himself when working for Eurocine. And perhaps most defining of all, you knew you were going to get a whole lot of nudity. I’ve always wanted to research and write two film books. One would be a history of exploitation filmmaking in Florida, when folks like David Friedman, HG Lewis, and Doris Wishman were running wild and setting gorillas loose in nudist colonies. The other would be a history of Eurocine, driven by personal anecdotes from the people who worked for and with them. It must have been insane, and any book on the subject would be a tome of ultra-cheap filmmaking techniques and hilarious personal accounts. Sounds like a job for Tim Lucas and Pete Toombs!
Among cult film fans, Eurocine’s best-known production is probably Zombie Lake, a film of staggering incompetence directed by one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, after another of my favorite directors (Jess Franco) turned it down because the movie was just too cheap and crappy. Too cheap and crappy for Jess Franco, huh? Truly, it boggles the mind. But Franco wouldn’t get through a lifetime career in exploitation films without doing some work for Eurocine. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro and Golden Temple Amazons were two of the movies Franco apparently didn’t think were as cheap and shoddy and ill-conceived as Zombie Lake. And while even Franco fans seem to hate both films, I have to admit that, well, just like Zombie Lake, I kinda like them. Actually, I more than kinda like them.
Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is basically the end product of someone at Eurocine getting stoned and proposing a movie probably with the description, “It’d be like Tarzan, but with tits!” And from what I can tell, that’s about as far as you had to go with concepts and pitches at Eurocine. All that’s left to do is call Jess Franco and tell him to have the film done in a week or two. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro begins with a plane crash, as all good Tarzan rip-offs do. The only survivors are a caricature of a Scotsman and his daughter, Diana, who grows up to be German sexploitation actress Katja Bienert. For some reason, the natives who find them decide to worship the Scotsman as a god, even though they already seem to know what white people are and thus shouldn’t really be so enraptured when one of them drops by wearing a knit cap and kilt. Years later, an expedition to the jungle results in an explorer running into Diana, who has an aversion to wearing tops — an affliction all women in this movie seem to have. When she frees him after the others want to put him to death for trying to take sacred diamonds from the jungle (actually, it’s a small chunk of amethyst), the explorer returns to civilization and reports to the dying matron Hermine (Lina Romay in heavy old-person make-up) that her daughter is still alive. Hermine then commissions an expedition to find the child and return her to civilized society.
So begins the adventures of one of the worst-equipped jungle expeditions of all time. Two of the guys (Albino Graziani as the dickish but ultimately moral Fred, and Antonio Mayans as the friendly but ultimately immoral Al) at least spring for proper jungle attire, or as proper as dungarees and t-shirts can be. But the other guy, Diana’s drunkard uncle or something, played by Olivier Mathot, shows up wearing his finest flared slacks and loafers. Still, that’s nothing compared to his wife, Lita (played by Mari Carmen Nieto, aka Ana Stern), who shows up for their jungle adventure wearing the same tank top, denim cut-off hot pants, and high-heeled, hot pink 1980s scrunchy boots that she would later wear in Jess Franco’s Mansion of the Living Dead. Seriously, someone needed to get this woman one of those old Banana Republic catalogs, from back when the catalogs were digest sized and printed on thick brown paper, and all the clothes were safari and adventure themed, with lots of tales about rum and gauchos and jungle expeditions thrown in for good measure. Lucky for all involved, Lita’s questionable taste in rain forest hiking attire will not be much of an issue, as she spends much of the movie naked.
In fact, if you are going to like Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, you are going to have to really like two things: naked women and random shots of jungle foliage, because that’s about all this movie is comprised of. In fact, they should have just titled it Tits and Foliage, because it’s not like I wouldn’t watch a movie called Tits and Foliage. In fact, I’d probably be more likely to watch Tits and Foliage than something called Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. Plus, the movie is full of tits and foliage, but there are no diamonds, and there is no Kilimandjaro. For like 89 minutes this is a movie about a group of dumb people trying to find a naked white chick in the jungle while a naked black chick in the jungle throws spears at them. And then in the last minute, some Scotsman in a hut stammers, “You are here to steal the treasure!” Huh? Treasure? What treasure? What the hell is anyone in this movie talking about?
If you asked me if I like this movie, the answer would be an enthusiastic “yes!” If you asked me why I liked this movie, I would sort of shuffle and mumble and get all awkward like a little kid who has just been asked what the teacher just said after being caught not paying attention. Certainly, there are very few, if any, artistic merits about Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. Most of the signature Jess Franco flourishes are absent. There’s no jazzy psychedelic score. There’s no ultra-cool pop art nightclub. There’s no interesting cinematography or direction. Jess pretty much sits the camera in the jungle (or a Spanish stand-in for a jungle) and lets stuff happen in front of it. If the movie is short on running time, no problem. He’ll just shoot fifteen seconds worth of random palm fronds and jungle scrub to pad things out. Still short on time? Might as well use some of that stock rhino footage Eurocine found lying around in a warehouse somewhere. It’s obvious that Franco was as bored making this movie as most people are watching it. And yet, I really like the movie. Is it the threadbare plot? Is it the bored acting? The listless direction? The plodding pace? I can’t say for sure, but something about this movie delighted me. I guess, Like I said before, I’m just a sucker for jungle movies, especially when they feature an adventurer in high-heeled, hot pink 1980s scrunchy boots.
Lead actress Katja Bienert has little to do beyond walk around the jungle naked. When she is given more than that to do — swinging from a vine, for example, the results are usually pretty good evidence for why she wasn’t given much to do beyond walking around the jungle naked. She sort of flails around on the vine for a second and is obviously about to fall right before Franco cuts away and dubs in a war cry that sounds more like, well, the sound you make when you are about to fall. I don’t think even Tarzan himself would have seemed as cool if his war cry had been, “Whoops!” Bienert looks good in a loin cloth, of course, and she worked with Franco a number of times before and after this film, including Eugenie, Lillian the Perverted Virgin, and one I absolutely must see, Linda — aka Naked Super Witches of the Rio Amore. In fact, as late as 2002, she was still working with Franco, appearing in Killer Barbys vs. Dracula, as well as doing a fair amount of work on German television shows. As you might guess from the titles that make up the body of her work, she hasn’t exactly achieved an air of respectability, but then, neither has Teleport City, and I’d probably be much happier hanging out with Katja Bienert than I would with Meryl Streep or the Dali Lama. Sorry, Your Holiness, but I’m bailing on you to hang out with a German sex film star, because that’s the kind of awesome guy I am. Katja spends the bulk of Diamonds of Kilimandjaro looking vaguely confused and amused, which is nice because that’s how I spent the bulk of Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, too.
Albino Graziani is another Franco regular. In fact, I don’t think he ever worked with anyone but Franco. He stars here as Fred, vying for Alpha Male status on the expedition with the less boisterous Antonio Mayans. But while Fred spends all his time carrying around a gun and shouting, Mayans is busy laying every female he sees, including Lita and, eventually, Diana herself. If there’s anything close to a complex character in this film — and there really isn’t, to be honest — it’s Fred, who reacts with disgust when he learns that there is more to this expedition than he was initially told. It turns out that Lita and boozy uncle whatever his name was are intent on making sure Diana never returns to civilization, lest they lose out on their inheritance. Al himself eventually has a crisis of conscience as well but ultimately sacrifices principal in order to steal the diamonds that are actually amethyst. Pretty much all of his character development takes place in the span of thirty seconds, which is convenient if you lead an active lifestyle and don’t have a lot of time to spend watching some dude with a beard discover himself and ultimately succumb to temptation and greed.
Actually, one of my favorite things about the Eurocine films I’ve seen is that they all try to throw in some deep, important message amid all the gratuitous scenes of naked jungle chicks and skinny dippers. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro has the moral conflict between Fred and Al. It has the moral conflict between the primitive and civilized. It has the moral conflict over whether it is right to take Diana from the jungle if she does not want to leave — would she even know if she wanted to leave? And it throws in an angry, frighteningly hot black chick (Aline Mess, also in the jungle adventure Devil Hunter with Al Cliver and possessed of the most alluring bloodthirsty snarl I’ve seen in a while) who knows these white fools are no gods and have only come to plunder her land. Mess seems to relish her role, and if there’s anyone to watch this movie for, it’s her. She spends the entire thing running naked through the jungle, beheading obnoxious jackasses with unbridled glee, doing sexy ritual dances, and throwing spears at irritating people. You could be offended by the stereotypical portrayal of blacks as primitive and superstitious, but I look at her behavior and think, “Man, what’s not to love about this girl?” Plus, she’s like the only one who isn’t falling for the “white man from sky is god!” shtick.
Oh, and there’s the moral trickiness of a father who hangs out with his naked daughter in the jungle all day, but the film seems unconcerned with that one. It is European, after all. But the script, penned by Franco and Olivier Mathot in a writing session that probably lasted twenty minutes, crams all these “big ideas” in with no real thought. Not that Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is deep or meaningful in any way. Hell, I’m like one of maybe three people in the entire world who love this film, and even I wouldn’t try to sell that claim. It’s like something I would have written when I was twelve and all hopped up on jungle adventure movies and copies of Penthouse than my friend’s dad had hidden in their utility closet.
Franco at his worst? I don’t really think so. Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is certainly not Franco at his best, but I really thought this goofy mess of a film was kind of fun. I can’t justify it, and don’t feel like I even need to. I certainly wouldn’t promise you that you will like it as much as I did. But I did like Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. It really is a throwback to old style adventure films, only without much adventure and with more nudity. It has nothing to do with the better known Italian jungle films of the 80s, all of which were gory, serious cannibal movies. Compared to those, and even with the near-constant gratuitous nudity, Diamonds of Kilimandjaro is sort of this dumb, innocent old-fashioned movie. It has a charm for me I can neither explain nor deny. It’s pure, idiotic cheesecake, and then it attempts to cram complex thematic elements in between the scenes of Ana Stern skinny dipping and Ana Stern getting laid and Ana Stern wearing her high-heeled, hot pink 1980s scrunchy boots, and Katja Bienert topless and falling out of trees. I admire that.
Release Year: 1983 | Country: France/Spain/maybe Germany | Starring: Katja Bienert, Antonio Mayans, Aline Mess, Albino Graziani, Javier Maiza, Olivier Mathot, Ana Stern, Daniel White, Lina Romay | Screenplay: Jess Franco, Olivier Mathot | Director: Jess Franco | Cinematographer: Jess Franco | Music: Jess Franco and Daniel White | Original Title: El Tesoro de la Diosa Blanca
At my age, and with my experience, I shouldn’t fall for it. And yet, on occasion, I’m still taken in by cool posters and cover art. At these times, I actually leave my body and hover above myself, screaming warnings but powerless to prevent my corporeal self from plunking down a wad of cash on a movie that has a cool looking cover. “You fool! You know the movie isn’t going to be anything like the cover!” my spirit cries, but alas his words are unable to prevent the transaction. And so it is I end up owning movies like Throne of Fire, a dreary, slow-moving, largely uninteresting Italian sword and sorcery film with a cover that featured an illustration of a big-breasted nude chick swinging around a sword and wearing a little metal thong. “This looks pretty good,” I said to myself, even as my other disembodied self was shouting, “Dude, seriously! That chick probably never even shows up in the movie! Didn’t you learn anything from the cover of Hot Potato???”
Well, I didn’t, and true enough, Throne of Fire never features a sexy, naked Valkyrie type chick swinging around a sword. In fact, it’s the rare sword and sorcery film that doesn’t feature any toplessness at all. The whole thing plays out more like a really bad throwback to 1960s peplum than it does a 1980s sword and sorcery film. Once again, the jazzy, saucy poster art lured me in and let me down. And once again, I learned nothing from the transaction. I’d do it again, I tell ya! I’d do it again! Ha ha ha!
What Throne of Fire lacks in sexy, naked Valkyrie type chicks swinging around a sword it makes up for with plentiful scenes of people sitting around in poorly lit throne rooms discussing events that would be more interesting if they were actually happening on screen instead of just being described to us by bored Italians. Keep in mind that my capacity for liking even the absolute worst of 1980s sword and sorcery films is legendary. I like Barbarians. I like Conquest. For crying out loud, I like Hawk the Slayer and Archer: Fugitive from the Empire! Right now, I’m sitting here and thinking about how I want to watch one of the Ator movies — and possibly all of them!!! And that seems like a good idea to me, and it’s not something I haven’t done before. This past weekend, Krull was on TV, and not only did I watch it, but I also watched it when they did the late-night replay — and I already own that shit on DVD, man! So for a sword and sorcery movie not to get my easy-going seal of approval really has to mean something, I think. Throne of Fire is a bad movie. Not Yor, the Hunter from the Future bad, which is awesome, but regular old boring “is this asshole still explaining the plot to us?” bad.
Taken at face value, the description of Throne of Fire’s plot is as deceptively enticing as the lurid artwork. Satan wants a son so he can plunge the world into darkness, but instead of siring the kid on his own, he sends his messenger. When he becomes a man, the son of…well, the son of Satan’s messenger will sit upon the throne of fire, thereby giving him power to — honestly, I’m not sure, but it probably has something to do with more plunging the world into darkness type of business. Only a hero pure of heart and clad in naught but a loincloth and leather bicep tassels can stop the evil one’s dastardly plan. Also, only the rightful heir can sit in the throne of fire without being set ablaze (something you’d think wouldn’t bother the son of Satan, but since this is the son of Satan’s errand boy, I guess it’s important), so Satan’s ward must also kill the proper king and marry that king’s daughter. In time, you will learn that setting people on fire when they sit on it without permission is the sole power of the throne.
But really, I mean that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Aside from the fact that Satan is too lazy to sire his own son. But then, I guess technically God didn’t do the deed with Mary, so he didn’t sire his own son, either. Seriously, you Christian gods and demons need to take a page out of Zeus’ pick-up artist manual. Now there was a god who knew how to sow his seed. That cat could hardly find time to hurl his mighty thunderbolts, so busy was he getting busy and seducing fair maidens by appearing to them as a shimmering mist of impregnation or a horny silver-furred pygmy marmoset waving its hands wildly and yelling, “I’m king of the gods, baby!” I guess Satan was too busy tempting the souls of good men and pressing Slayer CDs to find time to bang some disinterested lady in a crappy Italian sword and sorcery film.
Anyway, with a plot like the one possessed by Throne of Fire, you figure you’re going to get some random scenes of villages being pillaged, and an old man or woman will probably talk rapturously about how the hero has come to fulfill the prophecy, and then since this is the devil’s adopted son we’re talking about, there will probably be scenes of sweating people being tortured, and there will be an orgy. Hell, that could be the entire plot, with the finale consisting of a plodding sword fight and probably some crudely animated magical ray beam effects. And you know what? I’d be pretty satisfied. But even in the admittedly modest realm of being “at least as good as Iron Warrior,” Throne of Fire fails miserably. And while it does have the prophecy, the torture chamber, and random scenes of pillaging, there is no orgy (Seriously? The son of Satan isn’t going to have an orgy? He isn’t even going to litter his throne room with scantily clad maidens? Lame, son of Satan, lame!), and even the stuff that is present is so unimaginatively staged and so lacking in energy that it hardly even registered. I mean, dudes are pillaging a village and setting huts on fire, and I didn’t even notice.
So where were we? OK, yeah. Satan sends his messenger to impregnate a woman, so that this child may sit on the titular throne of fire, a feat which seems to have absolutely no effect, positive or negative, on the powers of the people who sit upon it. Morak, the son of the messenger of Satan, grows up to be Harrison Muller, who spends his day sending gangs of killers out to perform the most boring acts of pillaging you’re ever going to see. On the plus side, some of them have pretty cool eagle wing helmets. It seems like, given the free reign Morak has with sending around death squads, that he has already succeeded in conquering pretty much the entire crappy kingdom, but people are still talking about the good king on his throne of fire. It apparently never occurs to Good King Fire Ass to send out an army to stop Morak’s band of brigands. Seriously, Morak’s army has like ten guys in it. How can they possibly not be defeated? Maybe if the king spent more time attend to the affairs of his kingdom and less time worrying about his fire throne, he wouldn’t be in this situation. The last time we had a fire king around these parts, he had armies of scantily clad barbarian dudes and was able to fend off attacks from a guy who could hurl icebergs at him. By comparison, Morak doesn’t seem to have any powers at all beyond the powers of prolonged exposition, and still this fire king gets his ass handed to him.
The king eventually falls to Morak, but the princess Valkari escapes. Hey! She does look like the sword swinging chick from the cover, though she keeps what little top she has on through the entire film. Sabrina Siani plays Valkari, and she at least is a welcome sight for eyes that are fast becoming difficult to keep open. She was a staple of the Italian sword and sorcery industry during the 1980s, having appeared shortly before this film as the largely naked evil Ocran in Lucio Fulci’s completely bizarre barbarian fantasy film Conquest, which would be a much more entertaining film to watch than this one. She also appeared in The Invincible Barbarian, Sword of the Barbarians, White Cannibal Queen, and Ator the Fighting Eagle — all of which would be more enjoyable to watch. Yes, even Ator. I never thought I’d find a movie that would make me think, “Man, I sure wish I was watching Ator right now — no, I really wish I was watching Ator III!” but I guess that’s the thrilling part of this job: you always learn new things.
Only one man stands in the way of Morak, the little gang he has, and his mad scheme to do whatever it is he’ll be able to do by sitting on the throne of fire. That man is Siegfried, played by Invincible Barbarian star Pietro Torrisi. Pietro is a huge guy who gives off a sort of “Brad Harris with a perm” vibe, and his career in Italian exploitation was extremely long if unremarkable. He mostly filled uncredited roles, starting out as far back as 1963 with an appearance in The Ten Gladiators. In 1965, after a few more gladiator movies, he made the jump to Eurospy films, appearing in a couple pretty movies starring George Ardisson. Still, his roles were restricted to things like “Bodyguard.” He continued this steady but minor work throughout the spaghetti western trend, the violent cop film trend, and the sexploitation trend.
In 1982, after nearly twenty years in the business, someone finally decided that the post-Conan sword and sorcery boom was the right time and place for Pietro to step up to the plate and take on a starring role. And so he became Zukhan, king of the barbarians, in Franco Prosperi’s Invincible Barbarian. He had another starring role shortly thereafter in Sword of the Barbarians, then was back to an uncredited role in The Iron Master, one of the few Italian sword and sorcery films that has eluded my prying eyes up to this date. And then it was on to the role of heroic Siegfried. At age forty-something, he still looks good, and if nothing else, he handles the action scenes with gusto. It’s just too bad there are so few of them. He spends most of the movie getting captured, escaping, getting captured again, being taunted by Morak, escaping, then getting captured. And to make matters worse, Morak isn’t even a very good taunter.
The movie threatens to pick up when Morak has Siegfried cast down into the Well of Madness, where he will be assaulted by all manner of ghoulish monsters and hallucinations. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really deliver on the Well of Madness, and Siegfried is menaced by one guy with blobs of make-up on his face and some spooky underlighting before he is allowed to go about his business. While down there, he happens to find his own father, who has been imprisoned lo these many years by Morak. It turns out that Morak can’t kill the old man because the guy knows the secret of the prophecy that prescribes by when and in exactly what manner Morak must sit upon the throne of fire. He imparts this knowledge to Siegfried, and then just for the hell of it also gives him a spell of invisibility and the gift of invulnerability to anything but fire — which is kind of a lame gift when you are fighting a guy who is about to take over the fire throne. Anyway, there’s a long bit where Siegfried and Valkari keep rescuing each other and then getting captured again, and the whole things finally boils down to the inevitable showdown between Siegfried and Morak. By the time this admittedly competent — especially within the realm of Italian barbarian movies, where the sword fight choreography was often legendarily awful — sword fight occurs, you will have stopped caring, fallen asleep, or coughed up your own skeleton in an attempt to relieve the mind-numbing tedium.
So let me put this in perspective: there is a movie directed by Jess Franco called Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. Even among fans of Jess Franco, it is considered to be terrible and tedious. I am going to give that movie a tepidly positive review and claim that it’s not as boring as, well, as Throne of Fire. Other than the fact that some of the sword fights are OK and the leads look good, I have almost nothing positive to say about Throne of Fire except to mention that Siegfried is a master of gymkata. I go into movies like this expecting to be entertained no matter how awful they are. And I almost always am. And when you put this movie in, and it’s got that topless barbarian woman cover and the first thing you are greeted with is the Cannon films logo and a remarkably crappy synth score, well things seem to be headed in the right direction, at least to me. But it doesn’t take long for you to realize that you’d be much better off watching one of Cannon’s other cheap-ass barbarian films, possibly Adventures of Hercules. Anything would be better than Throne of Fire.
Although you can’t fault Torrisi and Siani for their one-note but largely competent performances (relative to the performances one usually sees in these types of movies), there is plenty of blame to be spread around among the writers and director. By this point in his lengthy career, Franco Prosperi should have known better. Way back when, he helped write the script for Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, one of the very best peplum adventures and arguably one of the best fantasy films of all time. He was originally slated to be the director before Bava took over. He must have died inside the day Bava took on directorial duties for Hercules in the Haunted World, because shortly thereafter Prosperi settled into a career of churning out scripts and doing directorial duties on a slew of sleazy mondo exploitation films. By the time he was tapped to direct a couple sword and sorcery films in the 1980s, he must not have given a damn about anything. His direction in Throne of Blood is as listless and boring as the script, and while me manages to keep everyone in frame and in focus, he doesn’t put much effort beyond that into things. Frankly, though, I guess it’s hard to blame him. After Throne of Fire, he decided to direct and a write a couple Cannibal Holocaust rip-offs. Cannibal Holocaust rip-offs…think that one over for a few minutes.
Complicit in the crime of boring me to tears are writers Giuseppe Buricchi and Nino Marino. Between the two of them, they had almost zero experience writing scripts, and their lack of ability shines through in every scene. There is no sense of pacing, not a single moment that generates even a spark of excitement. The dialog is dull and pointless and abundant. The entire thing is lazy. Why is the son of Satan’s messenger doing all this instead of the actual son of Satan? Why does the son of Satan’s messenger need a Christian friar to perform his wedding ceremony? Shouldn’t he have his own devil-y friar? Why is the good king so easy to beat? Why do all the peasants killed in one scene show up again, alive and well, a few minutes later in another scene? OK, OK — that one we have to blame on Prosperi. The only bright spot in the entire dismal affair is a single gag where Morak agrees to let Valkari’s people free. He then proceeds to shoot them in the back with arrows as they try to leave. But hey, at least they were free. Still, a ten second gag in ninety minutes of undiluted dullness hardly makes for a film worth recommending.
You know the worst thing about Throne of Fire? It’s that I just finished watching the movie and writing a review about how boring it is and how much I hated it. And then I look over at the table and see the bad-ass cover and think to myself, “Hey, Throne of Fire. That movie looks kind of cool. Maybe I’ll watch it…”
Since I started Teleport City many moons ago, I’ve gotten a lot of email from people claiming to be ninjas. One was so batshit insane that I had to break confidence and send it around to other people. I’ve since lost it, but maybe someone still has it. It’s the one where a single sentence goes on for a full page. There was also a guy who used to write all the time and tell me about how he was a member of a secret ninja society that guarded Washington, D.C. But my favorite email is probably from a ninja who believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was Jim Kelly. The first time he wrote me, telling me how he loved my movies and wanting to know if I had any merchandise for sale, I did my best to let him down politely and tell him I’m not Jim Kelly without making him feel stupid. Then a few months later he wrote me, addressing me as “Mr. Jim Kelly” again. This time he was asking me what I’d been up to and when I was going to make another movie. For this time, I just didn’t reply, figuring that would cause him to lose interest. It didn’t.
I can anticipate a lot of things that would potentially show up as the first shot in a Sinbad the Sailor movie (as opposed to Sinbad the Comedian movie, though I can also imagine the first shot in that movie as well, and it’s Sinbad making an exaggerated screaming face and running away in fast motion from a poopy baby diaper), but one thing I never expected was a still shot of Edgar Allen Poe. It’s that same one everyone uses when they need a photo of Edgar Allen Poe. Maybe that’s the only one. I don’t know. I also didn’t know why Poe would be associated with the opening of a Sinbad the Sailor movie, though I could understand it in a Sinbad the Comedian movie, what with the macabre and all.
I was having a hard time starting this review, and I’m not sure why. I don’t mean that I was caught in some moral dilemma, wondering if I should dare discuss such a filthy, irredeemable piece of trash — I think we all know how such a moral dilemma would hash out if I’m involved. I guess it was just a case of writer’s block, or exhaustion. Or maybe it was the fact that there were just so many things to say, so many approaches that could be taken in discussing the source material, that I was overwhelmed. Perhaps even spoiled for choice. And under a bit of pressure. An epic as vast and sprawling and serious as this demands an appropriately grave and serious demeanor. Would I do the subject justice? Would my review be deserving of such a monumental work of art? In the end, I simply had to accept that sometimes words don’t come easy, even to a rambling windbag like me, but like the titular character of the Overfiend, while words may not come easily, they must come never the less.
Which brings me to the disagreeable preface that must be applied to a review of a film of this nature. As regular readers know, I pride myself in ardently defending the standards and decency of the community. Luckily, since the community to which I refer is the Internet, which means pretty much anything short of Hitler jerking off on Jesus while the Savior makes sweet love to a little boy can be considered decent and acceptable. Still, even with the community standards of the Internet thus established, I feel like I should warn some of our less seasoned and no doubt happier readers that the movie about which we’re going to talk today is a work of questionable morality and ill repute.
At this point in my career, I don’t think any recreated act on film or video could manage to shock or offend me. Amuse, perhaps. Disappoint, sure. But when you’ve been at this for as long as I have, the disconnect between make-believe and reality becomes crystal clear, and once you’ve managed that, there’s not much point in getting offended by goofy make-believe sleaze. But I understand that not all of you share this particular immunity toward offense, for a variety of valid personal reasons, so allow me to warn you now: Legend of the Overfiend is utter and absolute filth. Unless, like me, what was human in you died a long time ago, you will find this series inexcusably tasteless, offensive, and perhaps even upsetting. In a couple weeks, I’ll be reviewing the ridiculously fun and enjoyable Bollywood caper Shaan, and I suggest that if you have heart or soul left in your being, you simply rejoin us then and give this whole horrible Legend of the Overfiend thing a miss.
On the other hand, if you find cartoon tentacle porn more absurd than upsetting, and if you want to slog through a film that is indeed filthy and wretched, but also one of the single most important titles in the history of anime in the United States, then steel yourself, make sure your boss isn’t working (I’m writing this at work — I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be reading it there), and prepare to submerge yourself in a series that is impressive both for how callously offensive and perverse it strives to be while also striving to be colossally epic and vast in scale — sort of like the Old Testament.
When, during the summer of 2006, Teleport City decided to dig about in the waters of anime from the 1980s, we mentioned on more than one occasion that the eighties were probably the most glorious decade of unfettered excess and decadence in the anime world. The giant robots and melancholy space pirates of the 1970s gave way to hot chicks in battle armor, exploding heads, and the now infamous birth of tentacle porn, among other things. While today’s anime market may be choked with cheap hentai titles full of tentacle rape and nurses pooping on each other, it’s neither as shocking nor as notable today as it was in the eighties, for two main reasons. First, the eighties did it first, and just about everything that happens today is derivative of the sleazy pioneers of the 1980s. Modern sleazeball anime may have plumbed further into the depths of human perversions and replaced magical demon bodily fluids with actual human bodily fluids, but given how mainstreamed porn and sexual deviance has become (and God bless it!), even the most shockingly sick and twisted modern hentai lacks the punch of its forefathers, if for no other reason than we’ve seen it all before. I don’t know what it says about me or society that a title like Cool Devices can come out, and my reaction is a decadent sigh of boredom and, “Oh, ho hum. He’s peeing on his sister.”
Second, modern hentai (for you people who don’t take time to acquaint yourself with esoteric terms, “hentai” is what people call porn anime so they don’t have to call it porn anime) exists largely and almost exclusively within the confines of the porn ghetto. There is very little, if any, cross-over between hentai and the more mainstream world of shrieking blonde ninjas in orange jumpsuits telling me to “believe it!” Of course, I speak only of official production anime; if one needs to find the crossover between porn and mainstream anime, one need only turn to our dear old friend, the Internet, which will allow you to access a whole world of fanfic in which the characters of Naruto lick each others buttholes while fending off an endless attack of bad grammar and spelling mistakes. But that’s fanfic, and it’s a ghetto all its own. Only Dragonball filk is lower.
There was plenty of underground hentai in the 80s, of course, but there were also several titles which crossed the line (in more ways than one) and either flirted with or achieved legitimate mainstream crossover success. Here in the United States, when anime broke in the latter half of the Reagan era, it was defined primarily by three titles, though only two are ever really acknowledged as having reigned supreme, while the third is filed away as sort of this guilty curiosity that no one really saw, but don’t let that sort of anime history revisionism fool you. There were three king hell titles: Akira was the obvious top of the heap, followed by the OVA Bubblegum Crisis, which dominated the home video market for reasons I still cannot fathom to this day. I guess it was all we had at the time, and it was better than watching MD Geist.
The third title comes to us courtesy of one of the creators of the classic anime series Yamato, aka Starblazers in the United States, and even though Akira is named time and again as the defining moment in 80s anime and one of the landmark accomplishments in the history of anime as a whole, it was the bastard son of a writer-director-producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki — The Nish, as he has become known lately — that really defined anime in the mainstream press. In between creating Starblazers, delighting generations with Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight, and shooting cannons off on his private yacht, Nishizaki found time to serve as producer for a new series which, unlike all his previous ideas, wasn’t just a rehash of Yamato. Following the lead of Lovecraft-inspired horror that flirted with graphic sex presented to us in Wicked City, Nishizaki decided that the one thing wrong with that movie was that it only featured some sex thrown in with its violence, and never had the guts to show full-on penetration of a woman by a gigantic demon penis.
And so, as the 90s came to a close and the window for getting a high-profile work of such decadence and depravity was closing, Nishizaki collected together a crew that included director Hideki Takayama (still brand new to the game in 1989, but he’s since gone on to direct all sorts of screwed-up demon rape porn, and for some reason, Sakura Wars) and writer Sho Aikawa (who was fresh off the popular title Vampire Princess Miyu and would go on to write for Fullmetal Alchemist), and together, they made a little OVA series called Urotsukidoji, more popularly known as Legend of the Overfiend.
This is a pretty dubious assembly of talent, and one sort of has to stretch the meaning of the word talent to really fit them all in. After all, Nishizaki hadn’t really come up with anything memorable since Starblazers, and he seemed to be batshit insane in addition. Sho Aikawa — who I’d like to think is the same Sho Aikawa who would go on to acting fame in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t — may have achieved some degree of respectability with Vampire Princess Miyu, but that was flirtation with respectability, at best, and you have to do much better work if you want to make people forget about you also having written Dog Soldier and Angel Cop. And director Hideki Takayama? Other than becoming the go-to guy for Overfiend sequels and rip-offs, he doesn’t have much to offer. But the fact remains that while they may not have been impressive names, they were still names, and they had some legitimate work under the belt. And The Nish, crazy or not, still had Yamato era clout that helped make his own private exploration of ridiculously grotesque and pornographic extremes more of a high profile release than the average piece of hentai naughtiness.
But whatever respectability the Overfiend saga — and porn aside, it is a saga, complete with a vast and ambitious personal mythology and epic scope — may have squeezed out in Japan is nothing compared to what happened to the thing when it hit the United States. It became a cult phenom that, for a brief time, very nearly rivaled the status of Akira, albeit with a decidedly different tone in those who talked about it. I remember seeing it for the first time in 1990, when a friend who was heavy into trading VHS tapes to get obscure horror films, ended up with a copy on a tape where it shared space with some Japanese porn movie about a woman pursued by a garbage bag containing her murdered husband, and an underground video of some chick performing “hanadensha,” or “pussy arts,” such as blowing up balloons, shooting a dart gun, smoking a cigarette, and, umm, filling herself up with squirming, live eels. Yeah, I really don’t have any excuse whatsoever, other than it was pretty late, and we sure did laugh a lot.
It was just the first episode of Overfiend, fuzzy and with no translation, so all we really knew was that there was a spectacle on the screen the likes of which we’d never really seen, not even in Wicked City. And we weren’t the only ones. Bootleg copies of this “ridiculously screwed up thing from Japan” were circulating like wild fire throughout the cult film underworld, and while many looked on with awe-inspired disgust, that doesn’t change the fact that many looked on, always corrupted by a friend waving a VHS tape and saying, “Dude, you have got to see this!” So many saw it, in fact, that the Overfiend eventually crept into mainstream consciousness and became the poster boy for how hideous and corrupt anime was. Not just porn anime, but all anime. It didn’t matter if it was the gender bending shenanigans of Ranma 1/2, the turgid teen romance of Kigamure Orange Road, or the epic science fiction of Akira. Overfiend, as far as the local newscaster was concerned, embodied them all, and all anime looked like and was as perverse as Urotsukidoji. If only. I might have finished Kigamure Orange Road if that had been the case.
Of course, it’s not like anime was totally innocent of the charges. The 80s were, as we’ve said, pretty packed to the gills with messed up stuff. If anything, The Overfiend was simply the trends of the 1980s taken to their most logical extreme, or as logical as Nishizaki was ever capable of being, and exploding in the final year of that decade with all the gruesome force of the Overfiend’s orgasm blowing some chick’s head off in a messy splash of blood, brains, and semen. It was the last gasp of the twisted, free-for-all of the 1980s. After that, anime settled down, and the porn settled to the bottom of the barrel. In time, when old timers would go back and talk about the seminal movies of the 1980s, they would neglect to mention the most “seminal” of them all. If Urotuskidoji was mentioned, it was usually as an offhanded aside, or a sneering condemnation of how this tasteless abomination ruined anime and made everyone thing anime fans were all a bunch of murderous pervs. Rarely will they mention that, for better or for worse, damn near everyone who watched anime in those days saw it. Rarely will they mention that it was, again for better or for worse, a defining title of the era, and that among other dubious claims to fame, it was the first anime feature (when the OVA episodes were edited together to create a feature film) to be released in both dubbed and subtitled format not just to U.S. home video — but to U.S. movie theaters as well.
The Overfiend gets no respect, and frankly, it doesn’t deserve much. The animation is sometimes hit or miss, occasionally nicely realized, and in some cases bordering on great; the story is scatter-brained; and yes, it’s packed full of misogynistic violence toward women, underaged sex (though the warning at the front of the film swears the high school characters are all over the age of nineteen), and rape that culminates in exploding heads. It’s just not very good. But it does have its moments, and good or not, it played a huge role in defining the formative years of anime, and deserves, if nothing else, to be recognized for its contributions (be there good or ill) and its rightful place in the history of anime. So it was that I decided that, while I wasn’t going to champion the series (I save my Nishizaki championing for Odin), I would at least try to put it in it’s proper context, and I would do so with the help, should they chose to offer it, of the great and mighty torchbearers of celebrating “old school” anime, the Anime World Order podcast. Of course, they’re a podcast, and I’m a written review website, so I don’t know exactly how this collaboration will work out, but that’s all part of the fun.
Of course, as soon as Gerald from the AWO took me up on the offer, I had to figure out exactly how I was going to deal with such a notorious and admittedly irredeemable piece of filth. The Overfiend, I mean, not Gerald. In my younger years, I would have simply indulged in it with reckless abandon, celebrating the filth and the fury with slimy screencaps and interminable gusto. I am older now, and not so prone to adolescent fits of petty offensiveness, but I’m also still not offended by things that are saucy or stupid, or in the case of Urotsukidoji, both saucy and stupid. And in the end, Urotsukidoji is definitely stupider than it is offensive. In fact, I find the whole thing so absurd, so totally ludicrous as to be inoffensive, because seriously, man, how can anyone take this crap seriously? There are much scarier things in the world and much scarier things in the world of anime, and they are called moe and harem shows, but we’ll come to those later.
So in deference to my more sensitive readers who do not share my callous disregard for what you humans call morality, I’ll do my best to exercise some degree of restraint, which may be an odd thing to do in the case of Urotsukidoji — but only just barely, because while I may claim that the purpose of this review is to put this much maligned piece of trash in its rightful place in the pantheon of anime, my real motivation is simply to have a good laugh, which ultimately, is about all you should get from something as completely goofy as the Overfiend.
Our story begins with narration courtesy of a guy who seems to be competing with Tomisaburo Wakiyama as Ogami Ito for the deepest voice in the world. He lays out the basics for us — demon world and human world, one intruding on the other — the usual. And there’s a chosen one who will rise up and cleanse the world and unite us all while demons with six breasts do it doggy style to clue parents in to the fact that they shouldn’t have rented this movie for their kids, even though the kids themselves are no doubt appreciative. Right away Nishizaki clues us in to the fact that there’s not going to be much in the way of originality on display in this story. We then meet the nominal hero of our story, a goofy peeping tom named Nagumo, who alternates his days between peeking in the girls’ locker room and being licked on the cheek by the number one ace hero of the basketball court during some weird Japanese high school sport in which basketball games are accompanied by a girls’ gymnastics routine. Watching everything from up in the rafters is Amano, the new kid at school who no one seems to notice has catlike whiskers. Amano is searching for the titular Overfiend, the super-being foretold by prophecy to be the savior of the world. Amano is pretty convinced that it’s that cheek-licking basketball guy, but Amano’s sexy sister Megumi is convinced that it’s someone else, possibly nerdy perv Nagumo. Either way, once again we see that ancient beings relying on a “chosen one” is always a stupid idea, because the chosen one is always some kind of a chump. Here we get a face-licking basketball star or a masturbating nerd. Nice going, prophecy of old.
When next we meet the brave and noble Nagumo, he is slinking into the school to peep on Ameki, the sweet girl next door on whom he has a crush, and one of the female teachers. When it turns out that the teacher intends to sex up the young student, Nagumo assumes his standard position of peeking in. But when it’s further revealed that the teacher is, in fact, a hideous demonic monster that is going to rape Akemi via a twitching tangle of giant tentacle penises that spurt glowing neon goo, well, Nagumo still just sort of squats there peeping through the crack in the doorway. It’s not until Amano shows up that the sexual assault is halted thanks to some good ol’ magical intervention that results in exploding heads.
The good thing about Legend of the Overfiend is that it doesn’t try to trick you into thinking it’s something it’s not. If you are going to be offended and disgusted by the movie, it makes sure you know that from the very first few minutes. That way, at least you haven’t wasted your time. Pretty much everything that will jam pack the rest of the series running time is put up front for your consideration in this opening scene, so you can’t say Nishizaki didn’t warn you. Personally, as I said before, the whole scenario is so utterly silly and juvenile and presented in such an over-the-top manner that it’s really hard for me to feel offended in any way. I would have loved to have been sitting in on The Nish and his crew when they were writing the story for this absurd exercise in the extreme. Although the story itself is presented in a serious fashion, I can’t imagine anyone taking it the least bit seriously when they were writing it.
But then again, Nishizaki is batshit insane, so who knows? Whatever sexual and psychological hang-ups he and the society in which he lived might have had are certainly laid bare in The Overfiend. There is an obvious fear and lack of understanding in regards to women. Lesbians are all secretly drooling demons who have hidden their giant penises behind a veneer of femininity. And even as they paint a terrified phobia of homosexuality, they fetishize the penis to a degree that would even make Tom of Finland blush. If you are the type to analyze such things, it’s worth noting that The Nish made his millions working on the Yamato series. The original battleship Yamato was a massive World War II ship that was supposed to be the pride and joy of the Japanese people and a symbol of their might. Its construction bankrupted the Japanese military, and during it’s first major combat operation, it was sunk by American airplanes. Still, however, the Yamato is held up by many — mostly men — as a great symbol of pride despite it being a catastrophic failure. More than a few people have said that the Yamato was nothing more than the “big dick” syndrome. Theirs was the biggest and that made them the baddest. Never mind that the thing turned out to be impotent.
So decades later, Nishizaki resurrects the myth of Yamato’s grandeur by creating a cartoon series in which the original ship is recovered from its watery grave and turned into a spaceship that will save humanity. If The Nish had his history straight, then there would have been tremendous fanfare and pomp as the space battle cruiser Yamato was launched. Then it would have been shot down by aliens a few minutes later. But that would have been a pretty lame television series, and since Yamato is one of my favorites, I’m glad Nishizaki didn’t go that route. And ultimately, I reckon championing the old Yamato battleship is no different than any other country championing their lost causes.
Anyway, after Yamato, Nishizaki made a show about a submarine that’s turned into a spaceship — completely different from the Yamato series, right? Anyway, you may notice that Nishizaki — who also happens to be a gun and cannon nut, as well as sporting a fondness for speed boats and big yachts — seems to have a preoccupation with things that are long and cylindrical in shape. And then comes The Overfiend…I’ve never seen Nishizaki naked, and likely never will, so I can’t say what he’s compensating for. However, it’s pretty obvious that the man has built an entire career around his obsession with his own penis. Overfiend is just the most overt example.
Anyway, having established that this movie is going to be an affront to all that is decent and tasteful in the world, Overfiend then goes on to lay out the rest of its plot, which has got to be one of the most complex and sprawling mythologies ever grafted on to cheap animation and porn. Nishizaki may be obsessed with dicks, he may fear and/or hate women, he may be ripping off Wicked City, but no one can say that the man didn’t have vision or put work into the back story of his infamous masterpiece of the grotesque. Spread over the first few episodes of Legend of the Overfiend, we get a story that spans thousands of years and involves everything from depraved captains of industry to Nazi madmen, to peeping tom high school students. As Amano and Megumi continue to try and ferret out the Overfiend — or Chojin — other forces from the demon realm seek to do the same. This includes such demon assassin hits as messing with that basketball guy during his orgy, offering up a giant possessed demon penis that will make the school’s resident nerd ultra-potent and powerful if he chops off his own useless little member and replaces it, and finally sending a wizardy uber-being out to kill Amano. Just when you think Overfiend can’t possibly get any sillier, it finds a way.
Eventually, Nagumo realizes his destiny, but to the horror of Megumi and Amano, it’s not the destiny they expected — and for all that is ridiculous about Overfiend, the final revelation that basically, the people who believed in the prophecy just got it all wrong, is a pretty nice writing touch. The series ends on a cliffhanger of sorts — with Amano shedding his human disguise and attempting to take on the Overfiend himself while vowing to survive the carnage that comes from the inevitable destruction of the world. Unfortunately, the series is never fully resolved. The final two episodes of the OVA end up being post-apocalyptic side stories that don’t really go anywhere, and subsequent sequel series’ were equally pointless. Eventually, the final Urotsukidoji series was just a remake of the first series. If you’ve seen Odin and suffered through its non-ending, then you might pick up that this is sort of a thing for Nishizaki. Unfortunately, Overfiend does not end by randomly cutting to a Loudness music video.
Not all the blame (or credit — whatever) for Urotsukidoji can be laid at the feet of Nishizaki. Urotsukidoji was actually created by manga artist Toshio Maeda in 1986. Maeda was working as a porn manga artist and had gotten bored, he says, with drawing the same mundane crap over and over. He decided that what erotic manga needed was a dash of grotesque fantasy. Blending his erotic manga with a Lovecraft-esque sense of the horrific, Maeda more or less invented the tentacle porn genre — yes, it’s a genre now — with tentacles and nightmarish abstractions of the penis standing in for actual sexual organs as a way to skirt Japanese censorship laws. When Nishizaki seized upon Urotsukidoji as the source for his next masterpiece of anime, Maeda’s position as the father of sick and twisted cartoon porn was cemented. Maeda went on to create several more of the more infamous high-profile hentai titles of the early 1990s, including the terrible Adventure Kid, Demon Beast Invasion, and La Blue Girl. Maeda is infinitely proud of his legacy and has reportedly even said that he wants “Tentacle Master” inscribed on his tombstone. Urotsukidoji remain his defining “masterpiece.”
You know, Urotsukidoji is an absolute mess. Although the high concept is interesting and intricate, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. And it’s still largely just a pornographic rip-off of Wicked City with a bit of Akira thrown in (the scene in which the Overfiend comes full into power and decides to destroy the world is very reminiscent of the finale of Akira). It draws from the same Lovecraftian/H.R. Giger vision of horror as Wicked City. The characters are ridiculous — after being raped in every orifice by a teacher who turns into a slobbering monster, Akemi shows up for school the next day and is basically no more freaked out than, “Boy, that sure was weird.” Nagumo is completely impossible to like as a character. I guess the story is ultimately about Amano and, to a lesser degree, Megumi, which is OK since Amano is the only halfways decently developed character in the whole thing. The animation is often incredibly cheap, with limited motion in most scenes. Effort seems to have been put into the big battles and the demon rape, but that’s about it.
But for someone as awful as me, there’s a perverse enjoyment to be extracted from the nonsense. For one, I admire the ambition of the story. Most of the tentacle porn that would follow in the footsteps of Urotsukidoji was incredibly weak — basically, they would say, “There’s a demon world, and they rape humans and some people fight them,” and leave it at that, knowing that the ultimate goal of their little film is to get some lonely perv off, and he’s probably not even going to listen to the plot. That wasn’t good enough for Nishizaki. The man had created an expansive universe for Yamato, and even for Odin, and he saw no reason that Urotsukidoji shouldn’t enjoy the same epic mythology. Never mind that it was an endless parade of filthy porn and callous rape; he was still going to weave a monstrously complex tapestry to serve as the backdrop Also, as cheap as the animation is in most scenes, one does have to admire the imagination that went into the monster design. There are, after all, a lot of monsters in Urotsukidoji, and no two of them look alike. From hulking wolfman-like monsters to grotesque toadmen that dress like Humphrey Bogart, the sheer number of drooling ghouls the art team dreamed up is fascinating. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s all about the giant screaming (sometimes literally) cock, but still, points for wickedly sick imagination.
Finally, there’s the finale. Although it leaves almost all of the plot threads dangling and is a weak resolution to the story as a whole, the scenes of mass destruction and carnage as the fury of the Chojin and the whole demon world is unleashed on earth are pretty impressive. They obviously cut costs on the rest of the series so they could deliver on the finale, and at least in that respect, Urotsukidoji doesn’t disappoint.
But it’s still pretty foul. I wouldn’t really recommend it, although I was just as enthusiastic in the old days about convincing unsuspecting friends that they should watch it. But there is something grotesquely fascinating about the whole artistic abomination. The incredible insanity and over-the-top spectacle of it all trumps the nasty misogynistic edge and juvenile penis-obsession and really transforms Urotsukidoji into a sleazy carnival sideshow. You hate yourself for looking, but you can’t turn away. It’s that car wreck everyone slows down to gawk at. As wretched as it may be, it has a strangely hypnotic power that can draw even decent people into its world of laughing demons and spurting bodily fluids.
It might be worth watching just so you can see the cast list for the English dub. Apparently, whoever worked on it was a little embarrassed, so the English cast list includes names like Chris Courage, Rebel Joy, Rosie Palmer, and my two personal favorites, Lucy Morales and Jurgen Offen. I would assume that the use of such names is perfectly in tune with Nishizaki’s high school locker room level of discourse. The dubbing was done primarily for the theatrical cut of the film, which combined the first few OVA episodes into one film and cut out all the scenes of actual penetration. The Japanese cast (most of whom elected to have their names left out of the credits) actually includes a lot of experienced actors, including a lot of people The Nish roped in off the Yamato series and other Leiji Masumoto works. Tomohiro Nishimura, who voices Amano, even worked on My Neighbor Totoro! It’s sort of reminds me of all the respectable actors who showed up in Caligula.
If you are interested in the history and evolution of anime, you can’t help but pay attention to it. The dang thing played in American movie theaters, for criminey’s sake! Newspaper and TV reporters held it up as the sole defining example of “anime,” resulting in crusades to have anime banned and all anime fans branded as slobbering perverts, while at the same time, apologists tied themselves in knots trying to write pieces that deconstructed and analyzed the film and trumpeted its artistic merits (it’s a cautionary tale about teenage pregnancy or a cautionary tale against blind faith, depending on who’s writing the analysis). It was an absolute fiasco, and if nothing else, I always enjoy a good fiasco. As alarmist and shocked as the reaction in the U.S. was, it was even more sensational in England. In the U.K., things were a little more serious. Urotsukidoji practically destroyed the anime market in England, which was only just coming off the high of its infamous Video Nasties years. It took a long time before anime fandom in the U.K. could rebuild itself. Like its titular character, Urotsukidoji destroyed the world so it could rebuild a new and better one in its place. But the fact that it gutted the industry and made anime so incredibly difficult to obtain for many people might be the main reason, far more so than the actual pervy content of the series, so many people harbor a lingering distaste for this anime atrocity.
For me, personally, it didn’t make much of a difference. I didn’t suffer any of the “anime is all porn and anime fans are all perverts” stigma because, frankly, no one at my high school even know what anime was or was in any position to even hear about Overfiend or anime. everyone in Buckner, Kentucky, was too committed to the new Bocephus album at the time. So I have a much better sense of humor about this series than many other people who did get branded as freaks on account of it may have — even if they were Miyazaki fans and had never seen Overfiend. I mean, hell, as far as anyone I knew was concerned, if you were watching cartoons, period, you were just a nerd.
At the end of the day, Urotsukidoji is all those things and more — and less. It is filth. It is irredeemable. It does have artistic merit. It lacks artistic merit. It is shameless and offensive. It is ridiculous and harmless. It was the logical illogical extreme and the culmination of the increasingly outrageous nature of anime in the 1980s. You should avoid it like the plague. You should absolutely see it.
There’s really no way to make sense of the controversy and jungle of opinions surrounding the series. At the end of the day, you really just have to see for yourself. Me, I think it’s mildly entertaining in spots and ultimately harmless. In fact, as outrageous as the porn aspects of Urotsukidoji may be, when held up against certain aspects of the modern anime landscape, it seems to be little more than goofy doodling — quaint, almost, perhaps even innocent. And that’s because everything is presents is so preposterous that it can’t be taken seriously or really looked at as a corrupting agent. No one is going to go out and mimic the Chojin, after all. Compare that to something like the modern moe or harem show — things that may not feature a giant demon raping a woman and making her body explode with his semen, but instead paint a world where an unlikable loser with no redeeming qualities never the less finds himself in control of a group of slavishly devoted women who worship him like a god. Or moe, in which female characters are so overly precious and innocent and doe-eyed and pre-pubescent that the whole thing reeks of child pornography. These types of shows are far more insidious and perverse than the flashy, over-the-top idiocy of Urotsukidoji. They often appeal to a segment of the population that really does relate in some way to the lead male character and really does let the portrayal of women and little girls affect their opinions of the real world. I don’t see Urotsukidoji operating in quite the same fashion.
So yeah. Whatever man. Urotsukidoji is the tawdry piece of pornographic trash you’ve heard it is; it’s also not all that fiendish or corrupting. It’s just silly. But it is a major milestone in the history of anime, so if you are the type who needs or wants to understand the evolution of anime, then you pretty much have to deal with Urotsukidoji. It’s really not as painful as you think it might be. I mean, I wouldn’t watch it with my parents or invite a date over to watch it, but come on: it’s so loopy, so genuinely cracked in the head, and so unabashedly over-the-top, and so epic and ambitious that it really stops being offensive porn and starts being nothing more than a laughable freak show. And it does try to be something more than cheap porn. It tries to be really lavish, complex porn. Earlier, I made a passing reference to Caligula. Overfiend is definitely the Caligula of anime — fitting, even, since both films were funded with Penthouse money. They both contain about the same degree of perversion an twisted grotesquery (I’m pretty sure that’s not a word — but it is now!).
Release Year: 1989 | Country: Japan | Starring: Yasunori Matsumoto, Koichi Yamadera, Yoko Asagami, Daisuke Gori, Tomohiro Nishimura, Maya Okamoto, Hirotaka Suzuoki, Yumi Takada, Norio Wakamoto | Writer: Sho Aikawa | Director: Hideki Takayama | Music: Masamichi Amano | Producer: Yoshinobu Nishizaki, Yasuhito Yamaki | Original Title: Chojin densetsu Urotsukidoji
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.