Director Denis Law seems committed to returning the Hong Kong martial arts movie to the glory days of when they had awesome stunt and fight choreography and were terrible in just every other way, but we forgave them because of the action scenes (or did you watch Iron Angels for the writing?). Bad Blood is the perfect example of Law’s approach to film making. The story is the sort of ridiculous, convoluted, half-assed sort of affair you’d expect from an early 90s actioner. It also stars Simon Yam as a guy named Funky, and that counts for a lot. Unfortunately, his wardrobe is subdued. My feeling is that if you are going to cast Simon Yam as a guy named Funky, then he should be sporting the insane sort of crap that he was wearing in Looking for Mr. Perfect.
In recent reviews, and as we continue to discuss movies based on the literary works of pulp horror/sci-fi author HP Lovecraft, the names Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon have popped up a lot. More specifically, the title Re-Animator keeps getting dropped into impolite conversation. The team of Gordon and Yuzna have enjoyed considerable acclaim from fans for their adaptations of Lovecraft material and for their ability to take Lovecraft’s work and make it something new without losing the essence of what made the story work in the first place. They did this in a number of ways, but probably the wisest decision they made was to confine themselves to the periphery of Lovecraft’s bibliography, selecting lesser known and all-but-forgotten stories rather than Lovecraft’s best known and most beloved. The first of the author’s story the duo chose to tackle was Herbert West, Re-Animator.
If my review of The Dunwich Horror proved anything, it was that neither H.P. Lovecraft or the gothic horror films of American International Pictures are areas in which I am particularly expert. It’s for that reason that, when word came down that October was going to be yet another month O’ Lovecraft here at Teleport City, I eschewed making the obvious choice of tackling Dunwich director Daniel Haller’s earlier Die, Monster, Die! I just didn’t think I had that much more to add to what I’d already said on the subject. But that left me at a bit of a loss as to what film I would cover. Keith helpfully reeled off a list of yet-to-be-claimed titles (I won’t call them the dregs, exactly), one of which, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, I had never heard of. I darted over to the IMDB and perused the user reviews for Sleep, of which subject lines like “Quite possibly the worst film I’ve ever seen”, “Avoid at all costs”, and (emphasis mine) “The single worst movie I’ve ever seen” were fairly representative. “Yes,” I thought to myself. “That just might be the one.”
Several years ago, I got a Netflix account. I did it for a variety of reasons, though the two biggest were the fact that the selection of movies at the average video rental store was abysmal and the price of a rental at the un-average video store was outrageous. Netflix — not to sound like a commercial for the service — offered an astounding number of titles, and because one of their main distribution centers is in Queens, the turn-around time for receiving new movies was lightning fast, provided the lightning is that ball lightning or swamp gas stuff that drifts slowly from Queens to Brooklyn over the course of a day and is often mistaken for a UFO or gnome. Let it be said right now that on my list of things to do before I die is see swamp gas or ball lightning, or at least photograph a weather balloon that could be mistaken for a UFO. But that is neither here nor there.
There’s a story about the day Sho Kosugi first arrived in the United States in pursuit of his dream of movie stardom. As the legend goes — for surely anything related to Sho Kosugi must qualify as legend, shrouded in myth, mist, and mystery — Sho stepped off the plane at LAX and meant to board a bus bound for Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, where he intended to begin building his new life. Unfortunately, the young Kosugi could neither read nor understand very much English and so got on the wrong bus. Eventually, he found himself deposited in a rough part of town where he was promptly set upon by a trio of knife-wielding thugs. Calling upon the martial arts training he’d had while living in Japan, he quickly dispatched one of the assailants and sent the other two fleeing in terror. Somehow, a police car showed up and, after a detour down to the station, Sho finally found his way to Little Tokyo.
As I said way back when in our first review of a Chor Yuen film, and likely in every subsequent review of a Chor Yuen film, discovering his body of work was one of the best cinematic things to happen to me in years. Since that day I first brought home the then newly released DVD of Killer Clans, I’ve made it a point to purchase any of the wuxia films he directed for the Shaw Brothers Studio. Needless to say, the films are not as surprising as they were during those heady first few dates, but I can say we’ve definitely settled down into a very comfortable and happy relationship. His films still prove immensely entertaining, and the more familiar I become with it, the more I notice the differences that occur from one film to the next within what I reckon we should refer to as Yuen’s Martial World.
Bat Without Wings, for example, takes the now familiar Chor Yuen wuxia trappings and injects an element of the horror film into them. Yuen’s style has always seemed somewhat informed by a combination of horror films and old mystery serials, packed as they are with sinister cults, trap doors, secret identities, and hidden chambers. Added to that was generally a splash of colored lightning courtesy of Mario Bava’s early work in films like Hercules in the Haunted World. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for Bat Without Wings to find itself inhabited by all that, with the addition of a headless ghost, requisite “spooky green supernatural” lightning, lots of fog, and a crazed masked villain. It’s almost as if Chor Yuen got tired of films based on Jin Yong novels and instead turned to Edgar Wallace for his source material.
The story is relatively straight-forward…for a Chor Yuen film. For years, the Martial World was plagued by the notorious Bat Without Wings, a heinous villain who hid his identity behind a Gene Simmons mask. When the Bat’s villainous streak of murder, theft, rape, kidnap, and plundering finally got to be too much, the greatest heroes of the Martial World banded together to kill him. All but two of the heroes died in the process, but in the end, they finally managed to kill the Bat Without Wings…or did they?
Years later, beautiful young Lei-feng (Ouyang Pei Shan) is the head of a security escort that is attacked by a man who appears to be the Bat Without Wings, returned from the grave. The security detail is slaughtered, and Lei-feng herself is kidnapped to endure a considerably worse fate at the hands of the Bat. Only the woman’s maid (Liu Lai Ling) survives to report that, to the astonishment of everyone, the attack seems to have been perpetrated by the Bat Without Wings.
Lei-feng’s father (Wong Yung) is hesitant to believe the Bat Without Wings is really behind the crime. But when his daughter’s ghost, followed closely by her dismembered body, shows up on the doorstep, he joins forces with wandering swordsman Xiao (Derek Yee, handsome and bland as always) and Lei-feng’s fiancee (Ku Kuan Chung) to solve the mystery and avenge the murder.
From that point on, the movie hits you with the usual cast of characters “who are not what they appear to be,” and while plenty confusing and complex for a newcomer, anyone accustomed to Chor Yuen films will find this one of the director’s slightly less tangled webs of mystery and intrigue. It’s not a classic in the same way that the director’s work with Ti Lung was, but it’s still a deliriously fun wuxia outing that showcases some of the weirdness the Shaw Bros. studio was so fond of in it’s waning days. The best sequences are those infused by horror. The appearance of Lei-feng’s ghost and discovery of her body is suitably chilling. The eventual reveal of the Bat Without Wing’s underground lair looks like a set borrowed from an old Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe film. And the sequence in which our trio of heroes wind their way through an increasingly gigantic labyrinth of secret passages is a lot of fun.
The Bat Without Wings himself is a pretty classic Edgar Wallace villain (for more info on that, check out any of our krimi film reviews), right down to the sinister lair, secret identity, and “but I thought he was dead” conceit. The truth about the identity of the Bat is not that incredible a mystery, but as is often the case, Chor Yuen makes the journey so much fun that you don’t really mind if you’ve already figured out the destination. A secret treasure and copious employment of esoteric poisons only further the similarities between this movie and the krimi of the 1960s.
A few things work less well than others. There’s a bit where the three heroes investigate a mysterious prison island surrounded by bamboo and rigged with traps. It’s pretty cool for the most part, but when the “this whole island will explode” trap is triggered, it ends up being a much of sparklers firing off while Derek Yee and company try to look mildly terrified. Additionally, part of the reason the Bat Without Wings has that name is because he can fly. Unfortunately, this is realized by having the actor howl and waggle his tongue while flapping his cape up and down as he is hoisted around on some wires. It’s one o the points at which this film falls prey to the goofball (though charming) campiness of other late-era Shaw productions.
Finally, the movie is sorely lacking in compelling heroes. The three heroes are shallow sketches, at best, and none of the actors have the talent and charisma of Ti Lung to help flesh out a one-dimensional character. Derek Yee is nice to look at, but I don’t think anyone ever accused him of being an engaging performer. Even with three guys sharing the leads, they get lost in the shadow of the Bat flapping around and hollerin’ like a monkey.
But still, it’s a pretty fun movie. Not up to the standards of Yuen’s films from the 70s, but a whole lot of fun regardless. It has pretty much everything you want from such a film, plus a little more. If you’re a fan of krimi, I think this is an interesting grafting of the style onto the wuxia genre. And if you like this movie but don’t know who Edgar Wallace is, it might be worth your while to check out a few of the classics of the krimi sub-genre.
It seems like there was a period in the history of Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio when Sir Run Run Shaw had a bright red rotary telephone stored under a cheese dome sitting atop his desk. Whenever a completely loony script landed on his desk, he would calmly pick up the phone and it would automatically dial a pre-programmed number which would be answered by Danny Lee, sitting across the studio, presumably wearing a tight polyester shirt adorned with some distasteful paisley pattern. How else can you explain the man’s appearance in a string of the studio’s first real forays into the world of crazy kungfu? Although the Shaws would produce no small number of truly batty kungfu films, especially during the late 70s and early 80s when the company was on its final leg, their early forays into left field all seemed to have the common denominator of young star Li Hsiu-hsien, soon to become Danny Lee.
Lee is best known for two things: being the determined cop in John Woo’s internationally adored love letter to male bonding and the wholesale slaughter of gangs randomly dressed up as rugby players (The Killer), and his role as the super-powered costumed hero with atomic fists, Infra-Man. But scattered throughout Li’s early career with the Shaw Bros. are films that are just as colorful and bizarre as Infra-Man, only usually with a lot more sleaze and nudity thrown in. It was Danny Lee who was tapped to play Bruce Lee in the studio’s tawdry softcore sexploitation version of the Little Dragon’s final days. It was Danny Lee who became the high-jumping Oily Maniac and ran around town killing rapists before finally succumbing to the temptations inherent in being a creature imbued with all the fearsome powers one attributes to a pile of dirty auto shop rags. And it was Danny Lee who bravely stood by the side of a mostly naked jungle girl as they tried to stem the wrath of the rampaging giant ape known as Goliathon.
Movies were never part of Lee’s plan. As a kid, he idolized policemen and dreamed of one day being able to himself don those khaki shorts and the gun attached to a cord that so identify Hong Kong police of the time. Unfortunately, Lee wasn’t the brightest guy, and he could never successfully pass any of the exams to become a police officer. With few options in his future, Lee entered the TVB Acting School in 1970. By 1971, he was popping up in Shaw Bros. films like Deadly Duo and, a year later, the star-studded epic Water Margin. Lee was not exactly a major player at the studio, at least not when compared to contemporaries like Ti Lung and David Chiang. Though he appeared in many of the studio’s biggest productions, he was usually a supporting player, very often inhabiting a “blink and you’ll miss him” role.
In 1973, he got his first starring role, in River of Fury, though it was less as Danny Lee and more as a guy who could comb his hair into the same style as Bruce Lee. It was 1975′s Infra-Man — Hong Kong’s ode to Japanese tokusatsu heroes like Kamen Rider — that started Lee’s long career in appearing in the studio’s weirdest productions. He continued in this capacity for a while — starring in crazy B films, appearing in small roles in more prestigious films. When the studio hit the skids, Lee started up his own production company and decided that if he couldn’t be a real cop, he would do the next best thing, which was pretend to be a cop in the movies. Splitting his time between acting and directing, Lee produced a steady but somewhat unremarkable string of action and comedy films, the notable exception being the highly regarded Law With Two Phases, in which Lee played the archetypal “hot headed but just” cop role that would come to define his career. In 1989, he appeared as one half of the “male bonding experience on steroids” in John Woo’s The Killer. The movie was an international hit, and it made Lee a familiar face to cult film fans around the world. And then things got really weird.
I don’t know Danny Lee. I’ve never really heard him express his thoughts on political or social matters. All I can do is interpret him from afar, and that leaves me with the following impression: Danny Lee is insane.
After his success in The Killer, Lee appeared as a cop in pretty much every movie made in Hong Kong. Under his own production company’s banner, and often under his guiding hand as director, Lee established the dominance of the sleazy Category III crime film. Cat III films, for those who missed the boat, are often characterized as “Hong Kong’s NC-17 movies.” This isn’t entirely accurate. Many Cat III films could pass for R, and many still could pass for PG. While it is often obvious why a film receives a Cat III ratings, other times the classification of a particular film as forbidden fruit has to be chalked up to some cultural offense lost on overseas viewers or, more likely, the fact that no matter what country you live in, the ratings boards seem to operate without any basis in logic or reason.
In 1992, as the New Wave was becoming old hat in Hong Kong but being freshly discovered in the United States, Lee directed and appeared in Dr. Lamb. The film combined Lee’s beloved police procedural style film with the grotesqueness of extreme horror, then doused it all with the sort of sleazy tastelessness that would come to define much of Hong Kong’s output in the 1990s. Dr. Lamb spawned dozens — if not hundreds — of imitators, many of them made by or starring Lee. It’s willingness to go where no film would dare go before, it’s gleeful embrace of the basest, most irredeemably gratuitous, callous, and scummy aspects of the human condition, made it an instant classic. The Cat III craze was born, fueled by the “we don’t give a shit about anything anymore” abandon of Hong Kong in the years leading up to the 1997 reunification of the British colony with the communist Mainland. Like college students on an “end of youth” bender in Juarez, Hong Kong indulged every vice. Nothing was taboo. Nothing was too extreme or tasteless. And standing in the middle of it all was Danny Lee.
The next year, Lee topped himself, turning the extreme violence and wickedly misanthropic sense of humor present in Dr. Lamb into high art, or at least high low art. Co-directed by and starring Danny Lee, The Untold Story quickly became one of the most infamous films in the world. Telling the story of a completely unhinged killer who dices people up and serves them as ingredients in the pork buns offered by his restaurant, the movie garnered critical and fan acclaim, as well as a passel of awards for Lee and his star, Anthony Wong.
Through his direction and portrayals, Lee continuously escalated the insanity of the “cop on the edge”, and it eventually became impossible to tell when he was joking and when he truly believed the police should be allowed to do things like shove gushing garden hoses up Simon Yam’s ass or rape female suspects with condoms filled with ice cubes. In the end, though, you simply have to go with the flow. Danny Lee was insane, but pretty much all of Hong Kong was insane. I like to imagine that Lee and the rest of the Hong Kong film industry spent June 30, 1997, adrift in Kowloon Bay on a raft covered with screaming monkeys, a la Klaus Kinski’s ill-fated character in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God. But Lee probably just spent it getting ready for some variety show. Whatever. By the time Handover rolled around, Cat III films had exhausted every disgusting, perverse pleasure imaginable. The entire Cat III industry collapsed. The entire Hong Kong film industry collapsed, gutted from the inside by years of corruption, Triad control, and perhaps a general exhaustion brought on by the orgiastic excesses and Caligulan revelry that represented the island nation’s last bash before the more somber, less liberal Chinese government took control and decreed that all action stars should be pretty young male model types with floppy emo haircuts.
Battle Wizard finds the future “crazy cop” smack dab in the middle of his role as the go-to guy for any weird thing the Shaw Bros. threw up on screen. Hot off Goliathon and about to appear in the deliriously torrid Call Girls, this ultra-strange slice of kungfu fantasy casts Lee in a position that might take people familiar with the bulk of his work somewhat off-guard. He’s not stoic. He’s not mean. He’s not pretending to be Bruce Lee while banging Bruce Lee’s real-life mistress. He even laughs and smiles. But don’t worry — his basically likable character is still surrounded by a movie that includes a lascivious green goblin man, a legless fire-breathing kungfu master who has replaced his missing limbs with electrified robotic chicken legs, guys who shoot lasers out of their fingers, and a woman who can throw snakes at you that will burrow through your face and crawl around in your chest as they busily eat your internal organs.
The story begins with hero Prince Tuan Zhengchun in bed with his beloved. However, Tuan proves to be slightly less than heroic when we learn, during a rapid succession of events, that this is a mistress, he’s gotten the mistress pregnant, the mistress’s husband is outside waiting for a fight, and Tuan is more than willing to smugly ditch the mistress as soon as his wife — who doesn’t seem to care that her husband sleeps around — shows up to escort him back to the palace after being nasty to the pregnant mistress. In the fight between Tuan and his mistress’ proper husband, Wong Po-yen, Tuan uses his magical pew-pew-pew finger lasers to blow the poor guy’s legs off. Enraged by everything that has transpired that afternoon, Wong vows revenge on the Tuan family, and honestly, it’s hard not to sympathize with him.
Years pass, and Tuan’s illegitimate daughter grows up. Tuan also has a son with his actual wife. Tuan’s estranged daughter, Xiang Yaocha (Chor Yuen film regular Tanny Tien Ni) has become a kungfu master who has had instilled in her by her mother a burning hatred of all things male in general and Tuan in particular. Decreeing that no man is worthy of seeing her daughter’s face, Xiang is adorned with a black veil and sets out to wreak havoc on the Martial World. Tuan’s legitimate son, Tuan Yu (Danny Lee) has grown into an affable scholar more interested in poetry and philosophy than the martial arts, much to the consternation of his father. When pops insists that his son start taking the physical culture of youth more seriously, Tuan Yu wonders if it is indeed so important in this modern world to know kungfu, or if a man might survive purely on the merits of his refinement, charm, and intelligence.
Not surprisingly, the answer is, “You need kungfu,” but don’t think that this film is given to any deep meditation on this quandary. Tuan Yu’s quest for enlightenment lasts about three minutes, just long enough for him to meet a pretty young woman named Zhong Ling-ehr (Lin Chen-chi), whose martial arts specialty is throwing snakes at people. After Tuan Yu proves himself worthless in a fight and admits that the world is a violent place where even a scholar must hone the fine art of doing something like throwing a gob of snakes at some guy’s face, Zhong agrees to teach him kungfu. As is typical in movies of this type, the lesson begins right then and there, with no real preparation or plan other than for Tuan Yu to hobble, arms flailing wildly, at Zhong so she can toss him around. It’s the martial arts equivalent of looking for a good math tutor, then having that tutor, immediately upon being hired, punch you in the face repeatedly while demanding that you solve the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture.
When the duo is set upon by members of one of what must be eight million Poison Clans that operated in medieval China, Tuan Yu must seek the assistance of Zhong’s friend, Xiang Yaocha. No sooner does Tuan Yu come into contact with the half-sister he does not know exists than they are set upon by old Wong’s chief minion: a green goblin guy with a retractable hook on a chain for a hand. And it’s round about here that the movie starts to get completely weird. Bye and bye, Tuan Yu sucks the blood of a fabled red python that gives a man instant kungfu super powers. He and Xiang Yaocha pledge to marry one another, only to soon discover (thankfully before he’s done anything more than suck some poison out of a wound on her shoulder) that they are brother and sister and Tuan Yu’s parents are the people Xiang swore to her mother to kill. Then Wong, hobbling about on the electrified, extensible chicken legs he used to replace the legs Tuan Zhengchung blasted off, shows up to capture Tuan Yu and Xiang Yaochi, all of which leads to a colossally insane finale full of fire breathing, finger lasers, tornado punches, and poison frog eating. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of it all, Danny Lee and Tien Ni fight a kungfu gorilla.
While Battle Wizard isn’t the weirdest or most outrageous kungfu film ever made (I still think that honor belongs to Buddha’s Palm and collected works of the Yuen clan), it’s still plenty weird. Real martial arts take a back seat to fantasy fu and guys shooting beams at each other, though there’s still a decent amount of foot and fist action. In a fairly rare turn of events for ultra-weird kungfu action, the story itself is pretty straight-forward and simple to follow. There are no secret clans betraying each other, and there’s a fairly manageable cast of characters. The script by Ni Kuang, who wrote every single movie in Hong Kong during the 60s and 70s (or so it seems), is based on the novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, written in serialized fashion over the course of four years by famed wuxia novelist Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) and by Ni Kuang himself, when Jin Yong had to take a leave of absence from his authoring duties. Yong’s novels more famously served as the basis for many of director Chor Yuen’s most complex and intriguing wuxia movies made during the 1970s, and anyone familiar with the convoluted, labyrinthine plots of those movies might marvel at how streamlined, realtively speaking, Battle Wizard is by comparison.
Don’t worry, though. Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is just as fantastically overstuffed with plot twists and confusion as the rest of Jin Yong’s work. When adapting it for the screen, Ni Kuang chose to stick purely to a single character’s story in the otherwise sprawling epic, leaving the myriad dozens upon dozens of other characters, clans, gods, and plots for other movies. I don’t know if the novel explores the hinted at but largely unaddressed moral quandaries of the story as presented in the movie. For example, aside from breezing through the “can a man live without being violent” philosophical question, there’s the question of who here is the bad guy. Tuan Zhengchung certainly acts like a dick when we first meet him, but later in the story he and his brother, the emperor, become erstwhile good guys. He even welcomes his estranged daughter back into the family, though it probably would have been a more admirable gesture if he hadn’t callously abandoned her and her mother in the first place.
Similarly, it’s hard to see crazy ol’ Chickenfoot Wong as a thoroughly bad guy given that he tried to prevent his wife from having an affair and got his legs blasted off by her lover as a result. That’s bound to unhinge anyone at least a little bit. The wife, incidentally, disappears from the movie entirely right after she sends a masked Xiong out into the world to shoot people with laser darts launched out of a femur. Most of this is more hinting at complexity than it is actual complexity. It certainly makes the characters more interesting, but ultimately, it’s less like getting to know the nuances of flawed characters than it is reading the ad copy on the back of a book about these characters. From what I can gather, the elder Tuan is taken more to task for his womanizing ways in the original novel, which spends a portion of time on poor Tuan Yu falling in love with a variety of beauties only to discover that every one of them is his half-sister, since his father apparently slept with, impregnated, then abandoned every comely lass in the Middle Kingdom.
However, such thematic questions are quickly swept under the rug as soon as the fire-breathing chicken-leg wizard, toad eating, and gorilla scuffles parade onto the screen. Given the movie’s slight running time, it’s a wonder that Ni Kuang packed any character complexity at all into the story on its brisk march toward the outer reaches of kungfu insanity. When it arrives at its destination, however, it becomes one for the ages. The studio learned a lot during the making of Infra-Man, and many filmmakers seemed keen on employing the sort of optical and animation effects present in that film. Up until Battle Wizard, director Hsueh Li Pao plied his trade in pretty normal kungfu films. I don’t know the events that lead to his directing Battle Wizard instead of someone like Chor Yuen, but the end result is a satisfying smattering of kungfu mixed in with a whole lot of animated laser beams and random flashes of color.
Wong’s subterranean lair looks straight out of Mario Bava, awash as it is in gratuitous but never the less gorgeous multi-colored lighting. One half expects Reg Park to come swaggering through, stopping just long enough to apologize for the intrusion and ask the direction to Christopher Lee’s similarly lit underground abode. Art director Johnson Tsao, who worked on pretty much every Shaw Bros. movie you can think of, blends the sort of stylized sets such fantasy films demand with a lot of outdoor location work, which is one of the primary reasons Battle Wizard feels similar to but also very different from Chor Yuen’s entirely set-bound wuxia fantasies. When the sets do show up, they’re impressively otherworldly. Aside from Wong’s cave (which is actually a very simple, small, and cheap set made interesting by the way it’s lit and filmed), there’s his weird pagoda of death and, particularly effective, the multi-colored mist enshrouded swamp in which the Poison Clan dwells. The rest of the sets are pretty standard Shaw. Bros. interiors.
The acting is pretty good across the board. Danny Lee, as I might have alluded to earlier, never struck me as a particularly engaging performer. He has more range than, say, Derek Yee would later demonstrate, but very little in the way of true skill or charisma, especially when held up alongside contemporaries like David Chiang, Ti Lung, or Alexander Fu Sheng. However, he works well within his limited range for this movie, creating a character with a decent degree of charisma who teaches us the valuable lesson that you can loaf around all your life, and as long as you eventually bite a snake and swallow a toad, you will become the world’s most invincible kungfu hero. As with many of the films in which Lee was the star, this is a decidedly B-Team effort. There’s no Ti Lung, no Lo Lieh, none of the big names and matinee idols you’d find in films directed by Chang Cheh or Chor Yuen. As is often the case, letting the B-Team be the stars once in a while generates good results. They really put their backs into the effort.
Positioned where it is, Battle Wizard works sort of as a gatekeeper to the even weirder, wilder stuff the studio would find itself producing as it limped into the 1980s. It’s pretty bizarre, but it’s not as bizarre as what was lingering just on the horizon. It comes from the same source material as most of Chor Yuen’s movies, but where as his films focused on the Byzantine machinations of the men and women in the Martial World, Battle Wizard disengages itself completely from reality and dwells within a world populated by, as the name of the source material spells out, demi-gods and devils possessed of expressly supernatural power. One can see in it not just the path that would lead to bonkers affairs like Buddha’s Palm, but also to films like Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and the several other supernatural martial arts films from the Hong Kong New Wave.
For fans of weird kungfu, I can’t imagine the charms of Battle Wizard would be lost upon them. It comes at the viewer with tremendous energy and a willingness to throw onto the screen as much goofy, wonderful nonsense as it can think of. The underlying story — about a man discovering the world beyond the safe confines of his palace home, as well as discovering the sordid past of his otherwise heroic acting father — may take a back seat to all the chicken leg kungfu and lasers, but its presence at all makes Battle Wizard a cut above the usual fare. It’s nice to see Danny Lee shine in a movie which, like Infra-Man, is just as weird as most of the stuff he made but a lot less sleazy. It’s hard to imagine that a few years later, he’d be using condoms full of ice cubes to extract confessions from female bank robbers. And I need hardly even mention that having so much Tien Ni on screen is always a good thing. Her sleepy eyed beauty and willingness to shoot men with a laser dart gun made out of a human leg bone endears her to me endlessly.
Which, I suppose is an apt metaphor for this movie as a whole. It sets out to give you a rip-roaring, high-energy, higher-weirdness kungfu adventure, and it succeeds on every level, especially the level that includes finger lasers and fire-breathing wizards with mechanical chicken legs.
The wonderful thing about Battle Beneath the Earth is that it allows even an underachiever like myself with no college edukation to feel that he has a breadth of scientific knowledge superior to that of its makers. On more than one occasion while watching it I was able to point at the screen and exclaim, “Der, that can’t not happen! Har!” For instance, I don’t know anything about geology, but I know that molten lava is hot, and that you can’t just daintily step over a stream of it as if it were a crack in the sidewalk. Also, if digging a tunnel between China and the U.S. were as easy as this film makes it out to be, China’s biggest problem would be the steady influx of six-to-eight year-old American boys constantly emerging from holes hither and yon to excitedly wave their shovels at people.
Battle Beneath the Earth strikes me as being what a movie conceived by one of those six-to-eight year-old boy might be like. It’s a film that is clearly targeted directly at the kiddie matinee market, and, as such, seems to bypass all adult sensibilities and mainline directly into the brain patterns of a prepubescent Sixties-era male jacked up on war comics, high sugar cereals and violent Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, listen to this premise: The Red Chinese dig a subterranean tunnel from China to the U.S. with the intent of detonating nuclear bombs under our major cities, only to be engaged by the U.S. armed forces–ideally portrayed by a bunch of green plastic army men–in all-out warfare… beneath the surface of the Earth! Seriously, fellows, if that doesn’t stir the kid inside, I don’t know what would.
Unfortunately, in execution, Battle Beneath the Earth confronts a discrepancy between ambition and means similar to what an eight year-old likely would. As a result, it ends up being a classic example of the type of movie that marries a grandiose concept to modest intentions. “The Chinese” end up being more like some Chinese (and not even real ones, in many cases) and the “battle” ends up being more like a skirmish. Still, the movie has to be given some points at the get-go for its dopey concept and total disregard for maintaining credulity among anyone whose age breaks the double digits. Then again, given that this is a British production pretending to be an American one, it could just be an instance of some smarty-pants English people making fun of us yanks by dumbing themselves down in imitation. (Executive #1: “So how do we make it seem authentically American?” Executive #2: “Well, first of all, we should make it really stupid.”)
In line with its moderate level of spectacle, Battle Beneath the Earth is the work of a group of professionals who shared a more or less equally moderate level of accomplishment. Before helming the picture, director Montgomery Tully churned out–seemingly at monthly intervals–a large number of competent but unremarkable B crime thrillers, and also worked in British television. Similarly, writer Charles F. Vetter (here credited as L.Z. Hargreaves) was responsible for writing enjoyable genre entries like First Man Into Space and Devil Doll that, while certainly not without their well-deserved fans, are far from considered classics. Star Kerwin Matthews, for his part, was known primarily for playing support to stop-motion monsters in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Jack the Giant Killer–though it was possibly his work in eurospy films like the OSS 117 series that put him in mind for his role here–and leading lady Vivienne Ventura had a healthy resume of TV work. All in all, a perfectly respectable line-up of talent, but nowhere near a guaranty that what you’re going to be seeing will rise above mediocrity.
Our action begins on a British soundstage dressed up to resemble–at least to a grade schooler’s exacting standards of verisimilitude–a street in downtown Las Vegas. As a crowd of British extras doing their best to exude American-ness looks on, obviously over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne) kneels with his ear to the sidewalk, exclaiming excitedly about some kind of suspicious goings on “down there”. Of course, since the movie is called Battle Beneath the Earth, we know that Kramer is on to something, but the Las Vegas authorities, not being afforded such insight, just think he’s a nutter and cart him off to the bin. Kramer, of course, protests to the contrary and insures them that the threat he perceives is real. However, like most supposedly sane people in movies who are assumed to be crazy by everyone else, he steadfastly refuses to state his case in clear, simple terms, and instead resorts to vague, metaphorical language that is as close to incoherent raving as possible.
Enter Naval Commander John Shore, played by Kerwin Matthews. Since an undersea lab project he helmed ended in disaster thanks to a mysterious underwater earthquake, Shore has been relegated to a test lab where he spends his days hitting brightly colored pipes with a rubber mallet. Fortunately, one of his assistants happens to be over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer’s sister, and she asks Shore, an old family friend, to visit her brother in the brain hospital. Kramer is not much more transparent in his statements to Shore, but does show him a “seismographic drawing”–made as a byproduct of some earthquake prediction research he was conducting–that, according to him, shows man-made tunnels under the U.S.that he believes are entering the country somewhere along the Oregon coast. Later, when news breaks of an unexplained mine collapse in an Oregon coastal town, Shore decides that Kramer’s claims merit further looking into.
Part of that further looking into involves Shore visiting his buddy Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy at the very clearly labeled “Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center”. Despite the name, the center appears to be some kind of global listening post. They’ve got “the entire world bugged”, Cassidy tells Shore, and if “a champagne cork pops in the Kremlin”, they hear it. That this arrangement is unironically presented as being merely sort of neat is in keeping with Battle Beyond the Earth’s kid-like perspective, exemplified in this case by a purely “gee-whiz” conception of both the benevolence of military authority and the sleek efficiency of American bureaucracy. This is, after all, a movie where the sight of a uniformed official puffing out his chest and barking gravely into a bright red phone while standing in front of a wall-sized map is treated as being on an equal level of spectacle to any of the action set pieces, and in which, during the cast listing at the end, each of the characters are listed by full name and military ranking, even though some of them weren’t even referred to by name in the film… and none of them are real people (seriously, you feel like you’re supposed to stand up as they roll by).
The barking of terse commands into red phones is not just noteworthy in itself, of course, but also because it results in important things getting done, and often in remarkable time. At one point, when silence is required in order for the Navy’s detecting equipment to identify the locations of the Chinese underground tunnels, Admiral Felix Hillebrand (Robert Ayres) simply picks up the phone and makes a couple of calls, resulting, within just a few hours, in the entire United States going completely silent. All transportation has been shut down, traffic stopped, broadcast signals ceased and all heavy machinery of every kind brought to a halt in every single region of every state in the union. One by one, each of the states checks in with the central command center, letting the brass know that “condition silent” is in effect in their slice of the country–at which point, of course, that state lights up on a giant wall map. These few uniformed men in this room are not just important, Battle Beneath the Earth is saying, but super duper important–so much so that they can toggle the entire country on and off like a light switch.
It’s kind of hard to believe that those behind Battle Beneath the Earth meant for any of this to be taken seriously, even by the attention-deficient rugrats at the core of their target audience. This was 1967, after all, and characters such as these were already commonly being presented as either villains or figures of ridicule throughout mainstream entertainment. Most of the military men on display here, with their implied mania for control and obsession with commies, are, in fact, just a few tweaks away from becoming Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper. Still, if fun is being made, Battle Beneath the Earth is doing a superhuman job of feigning stone-faced earnestness throughout, never once tipping its hat or giving the audience the slightest glimmer of a wink.
Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy, by the way, is portrayed by Ed Bishop, who, of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, probably makes the largest blip on the radar screens of Teleport City’s readers. Though he was born in Brooklyn, there was something about Bishop–perhaps his weathered farmboy good looks or unaccented TV announcer’s voice–that seems to have struck British casting agents as being quintessentially middle-American, because his early career consisted largely of bit parts as token American astronauts, low level military functionaries and mission control operators in a number of British productions. Around the time of making Battle Beneath the Earth, he was providing the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. That would lead, a couple of years later, to him donning a platinum wig and taking the lead role of Commander Ed Straker in Anderson’s first live action series, UFO — if not the best, than certainly one of the most stylish science fiction programs of the Sixties.
Anyway, Shore’s initial visit to the (Underground) Atomic Detection Center proves unfruitful, as Cassidy’s equipment is more attuned to picking up Champaign corks popping in the Kremlin than it is hundreds of Chinese burrowing away right beneath our feet. Undaunted, Shore heads to the collapsed mine in Oregon where, while exploring a disused section, he stumbles upon a freshly made tunnel whose walls have apparently been hewn via the application of extraordinary heat. He also finds a medallion that someone has left behind that has a Chinese dragon on it. This discovery leads to Shore being authorized to return to the mine with a small group of combat soldiers. This second time around, Shore and the soldiers happen upon a big yellow tank thing bearing the same dragon insignia as the medallion, which is in the process of carving a tunnel through the rock using high intensity lasers. (These lasers are portrayed by a couple of extra-bright headlamps–but have no fear; the use of drawn-on cartoon laser beams will be used at later points as dramatic effect requires.) They follow the laser tank to an underground chamber in which a number of Asians in lab coats, as well as a few soldiers, are tending to some large, black, lozenge-shaped things which also bear the same dragon insignia. “Chinese!”, exclaims one of the soldiers. “With atom bombs!”, exclaims Kerwin Matthew in reply.
At this, Shore and company leap from hiding and waste the whole group in a hail of machinegun fire. This tactic, while effective in a very limited sense, leaves quite a few questions with little hope of being answered, such as just who all of these freshly dead Chinese people are working for. As we will soon learn, the answer to that is General Chan Lu, a rogue Chinese officer who has seized his country’s plutonium stores and held his government hostage while pursuing his own personal plan to nuke the U.S. to rubble using a system of world-spanning tunnels dug by his private troops over the course of three years. Serving loyally at his side are the evil scientific genius Dr. Kengh Lee and his key military aid Major Chai, both of whom have to compete for attention with his ever-present pet falcon.
Now, as far as I could tell, all of those Chinese military personnel gunned down by Shore and his men, like most of the non-speaking Asian roles in Battle Beneath the Earth, were played by actual Asians, but the door slams pretty hard on race-appropriate casting once we get to the speaking roles. Chan Lu and Kengh Lee, for instance, are played by veteran character actors and British TV stalwarts Martin Benson and Peter Elliott, and they do so in a dispiriting display of the most egregious putty-eyed Orientalism you could imagine. In all seriousness, if there was just one of them it might be easier to get around, but between the two of them they’re like a tag team of Fu Manchus trying to out “ah so” one another in a taxing display of excruciating inscrutability. Major Chai, also, is played by a British actor, David Spenser, though in a comparably lower key. It is only Paula Li Shiu, out of all the Asian actors on screen, who gets a speaking role, playing Dr. Arnn, a functionary of Chan Lu’s who shows up in one scene to hypnotize a captive Peter Arne using a handheld electric fan.
By the way, out of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, Peter Arne is definitely the one most worth watching. For one thing, he’s perfect for a comic book movie like this, because he looks like he was drawn by Steve Ditko; his face a collection of anxious lines that looks like just one more stressor could cause it to collapse in upon itself. Furthermore, in a field of stubbornly one-layered characters, his is the one that strives the most toward three dimensionality. Kramer is conflicted, resentful of his earlier treatment by the military establishment, but driven by a sense of duty once he is called upon to rejoin the cause, and Arne brings a twitchy irascibility to his portrayal that makes him the focus of every scene he’s in. Arne was yet another fixture of 1960s British TV (I swear, I don’t think there’s a single member of the cast of Battle Beneath the Earth who didn’t make a guest appearance on Danger Man) and I was sad to learn that he left this world under violent circumstances, the victim of murder in 1983. I wish I could pay him better tribute than simply saying that he was the best actor in Battle Beneath the Earth, but there you go. At least I mean it sincerely.
Now I have to mention here that I will be describing things in Battle Beneath the Earth that will sound much more exciting or colorful than they actually appear on screen. To counter this, I suggest that you apply to every mental image conjured by these descriptions a sort of down-sizing formula, reducing the scale of what you see in your mind by a factor of about, oh, eighty percent or so. For instance, when I describe a clash between Chinese and American soldiers, you might think of it as involving actual armies, when in reality there will be no more than a dozen people on either side. This was done, I imagine, not only to save on the cost of employing extras, but also because that is about as many people as the small sets could accommodate. To give some idea, also, of the level of art direction and set design on display, I should call your attention to the command headquarters of General Chan Lu. It appears to have been staged on a single cave set that was redressed and used for the majority of the film’s subterranean locations, and is pretty lazily decorated with whatever could be purchased cheaply and easily from a Chinatown gift shop. There are a couple of Oriental rugs slung on the wall, one of those folding screens, some Chinese lanterns and a couple of dragon statues, etc. Pretty shoddy, really, and fully in keeping with the laziness of the stereotypes portrayed by Benson and Elliott (which is the true source of their offensiveness, really: that they’re less the result of racism than they are of the filmmakers just not giving a shit).
Similarly, the high tech headquarters of the Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center is comprised of a surprising amount of exposed aluminum sheeting and, if not for all of those colorful wall maps with all their flashing lights to distract us, might look more like the kitchen in a run-down elementary school cafeteria. Finally, on the prop front, the Chinese laser tank is appealing in a life-sized toy kind of way, but looks like it was probably made out of wood, and when the U.S. makes their own version of the tank, it appears to be just the same prop painted blue. (See, theirs is yellow and ours is blue. Blue vs. yellow. Get it?)
So, with all that in mind, let’s return to the business of plot synopsis. After successfully defusing all of those atomic bombs (Matthews’ Shore is one of those old fashioned omni-abled sci-fi movie heroes that we here love so much: not just good with the science, but also with using his fists and, if the plot requires, dismantling nuclear weapons), Shore and his small team of soldiers are sent back for another foray into the tunnel. This time Chan Lu’s men lead them into a trap which is comprised of a bucket of steam-emitting nuclear waste that one of the Chinese soldiers appears to detonate using a Roadrunner-style plunger. What follows is just one of the movie’s instances of people running away from a nuclear blast–though, in this case, with only varied success, as many of Shore’s men end up getting killed. This is cold realism in action, of course, because everyone knows that you need at least ten minutes to make egress on foot from the effects of an Atomic explosion, which is the reason why Shore and his crew are later able to jog to safety after detonating several full-sized nukes. You can’t overemphasize the importance of lead time.
After this failure, team USA gets the jump on Chan Lu thanks to that aforementioned “condition silent” business, and are able to create a brightly-lit wall map showing the locations of his tunnels. Admiral Hillebrand determines that the General’s main supply tunnel under the Pacific can be accessed by way of an inactive Hawaiian volcano, and assigns Shore and his men the task of destroying it, while at the same time bringing Kramer back onto the team to create the blue version of the laser tank. It is at this point that we see the eleventh hour introduction of a sexy lady scientist (hey, who let that thirteen year old into the writing session?), Tila Yung, portrayed by Vivienne Ventura. Ventura ends up being a fairly innocuous presence, and provides someone for Shore to mack on during his downtime from saving the world, but she is disconcertingly orange in color, and has a strange vocal inflection that sounds like it’s half accent and half speech impediment which I found a little distracting at times.
Anyway, it is in the bowels of the Earth below that Hawaiian volcano that Battle Beneath the Earth‘s final battle beneath the Earth finally takes place. Of course, the way things work out, it ends up being just Shore, Tila Yung and Sergeant Mulberry (played by Al Mulock, who is sadly probably most famous for committing suicide while in costume during location shooting for Once Upon a Time in the West) holding up our end of the battle. Numbers aren’t important, however. What is important is that this battle affords the opportunity for Martin Benson to strut around and make pronouncements like “Our enemies stands naked before us!” and “Logic is the American’s god!”, and for Shore, Yung and Mulberry to steal some of Chang Lu’s soldiers’ uniforms and try to imitate Chinese people by speaking English in robot voices, and, finally, for the three of them to stand on a cliff, confusingly looking straight ahead at what is revealed to be an aerial view of a nuclear explosion.
For all its failings, Battle Beneath the Earth is a difficult movie to hate. In my case, this is partly due to it having the disarming quality of seeming like it was the result of someone watching me play army men on my bedroom floor when I was six and then making a movie out of it (though, of course, with much lower production values). In fact, it’s difficult to even call it a bad movie. What it is, in reality, is a solidly mediocre movie, though one whose mere adequacy is rendered bad when viewed in comparison to its over-reaching concept. Star Kerwin Matthews, director Tully and scenarist Vetter all contribute valiantly to maintaining that level of mediocrity, insuring that our hero will never diverge from a stubborn, slate-like blandness, that no camera composition will be inventive enough to call attention to itself, and that no situation will be novel enough to deliver any kind of actual surprise. Against that backdrop, the pulse-raising moral offense incited by the minstrelsy of Martin Benson and Peter Elliott actually comes as some kind of gift, as does the genuine quirkiness of Peter Arne’s performance.
The way it cagily intertwines itself with childhood nostalgia also makes Battle Beneath the Earth one of those infuriating films that always seems better in recollection than when actually viewed. There’s no harm in that, of course, other than that it encourages repeat viewings, which, believe me, the actual film really doesn’t hold up to. It’s a pleasant enough diversion on the first pass, but once it’s done, it’s time to close the toy box and move on.
Release Year: 1967 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Vivienne Ventura, Ed Bishop, Peter Arne, Martin Benson, Peter Elliott, Robert Ayres, Al Mulock, Earl Cameron, John Brandon, Bill Nagy, Paula Li Shiu | Writer: Charles F. Vetter (as L.Z. Hargreaves) | Director: Montgomery Tully | Cinematographer: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ken Jones
If you wanted to, it seems like you could draw up a sort of family tree of the films Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan made during his late seventies to mid eighties prime, tracing each of those movies’ origins along three very distinct lines, each leading back to a particular career-defining blockbuster that provided the template for much of what was to come. Of course, while Bachchan would star in films that were virtual remakes of Deewaar, Sholay and Don over the course of his career, the lines leading back to those three classics would not always be perfectly straight. For one would also have to consider films like 1978′s Be-Sharam, which draw upon elements of all three.
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.