Interpol 009 has everything you’d want in a 1960s spy movie–except for a memorable villain, a spectacular crime, and audacious action set pieces. On balance that leaves you with attractive stars, lots of nicely photographed scenes shot in glamorous locations, some nice cars, and a lot of fun gadgets. Fortunately, thanks to its amiable tone and sure-handed technical delivery, that’s enough to make Interpol 009, if far from a dazzling entertainment, at least a pleasant way to wile away an hour or so with a cocktail (or two).
My introduction to Hong Kong cinema came in the form of a crash course between the years of 1991 and 1993, when I began to discover and voraciously devour a seemingly endless parade of mind-blowing films made in the past decade. Finding the movies was hard. Finding information on them was even harder, but there was an explosion in the popularity of these films among cult film fans in the United States around that time, so though it took some leg work, we soon found that we were not alone. Together, then, we stumbled through the dark, trading tapes, raiding Chinese grocery stores that stocked videos, writing reviews for one another, publishing fanzines, and doing our best to spread, pre-internet style, every scrap of information we were able to dig up on these amazing movies. In the course of two weeks (maybe less), I think a few friends and I huddled around my massive 10-inch screen TV and watched A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Swordsman, Zu, Once Upon a Time in China, and A Chinese Ghost Story. We sat there another week and just drooled. Though I love each of those movies, there was something about the elegance, beauty, and melancholy of A Chinese Ghost Story that made it stick out as my favorite of the time. Decades later, it’s still one of my absolute favorite movies.
Thanks to the release over the past decade of a large portion of the Shaw Brothers catalog on DVD, it should no longer be a secret to anyone who cares that the venerable Hong Kong studio was responsible for far more than the martial arts movies that got imported to the U.S. or horror movies in which people vomit up snakes. Among the more delightful discoveries to come out of this digital mother lode is the handful of James Bond inspired pictures churned out by the studio during the late sixties. Of course, since most of these movies don’t actually feature any spies or espionage (among the exceptions being the Angel With the Iron Fists series, which features Lilly Ho as a lady super spy ranked Agent 009) that influence is expressed mainly in terms of attitude and design.
On occasion, we here at Teleport City are accused of being, perhaps, not the most discerning of viewers, susceptible to pretty colors, flashing lights, and naked flesh that blind us to the fact that a movie might otherwise be one of the most atrocious pieces of crap ever made. Frustration can occur when someone looks to us, sees us shrug and go, “It seemed all right to me,” and takes that as a recommendation that eventually winds up with them writhing on the floor, clutching their head in agony as they succumb to the mind-melting wretchedness of a movie I thought wasn’t really all that bad. I can’t say I have done such things with a completely clear conscience. I may have mislead a few people into thinking the Star Wars Holiday Special was going to be hilariously awful instead of just regular ol’ boring awful. But for the most part, it’s true that I enjoy a lot of really terrible movies that I recognize other people probably should not watch. And the sad, sick thing is that I don’t enjoy these movies with any sense of ironic detachment or “so bad it’s good” emotional distance; I genuinely enjoy Treasure of the Four Crowns.
But never let it be said that I am totally without standards. Every now and then, something will parade across my screen that is too much for even me to excuse. It’s painful when it happens. As I’ve said many times, I’m hear to celebrate movies I enjoy, not rip apart movies I hate. And it’s doubly painful when I discover that a movie I was certain I was going to like ends up being almost totally unwatchable. Alas, such was the case with Amazons vs. Supermen, a movie that, on paper, seems to have been written specifically to delight me. Three super warriors, including one goofball in a bondage mask and chain mail miniskirt, a big strong guy in studded leather, and a kungfu guy, team up to battle scantily clad Amazons. Oh, and Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio is co-producing, which means the kungfu guy is martial arts movie superstar Yueh Hwa. There will also be flame-throwing wooden tanks (which seems like a terrible combination of vehicle fabrication material and mode of attack). And one more thing: Alfonso Brescia is directing. Now those things are prime ingredients in making any cake I will gleefully gobble down. And yet, by the end of the thing, which seemed to take forever to get to, all I could do was shake my head in dazed confusion as I tried to figure out how it could have all gone so terribly wrong. Of course, many people will throw up their arms and exclaim, “Alfonso Brescia was the director? What about that signaled any chance of success?” To which I can but meekly respond, “Well, I kinda like Alfonso Brescia movies.”
Alfonso Brescia’s career trajectory is really no different than that of most Italian exploitation film directors. He started out in the early 60s, directing a few sword and sandal films, as that genre was wildly popular at the time. Among these otherwise routine entries into the cycle was a film called Conquerors of Atlantis, which proffered a world in which Hercules (the perpetually confused Kirk Morris) teams up with a strapping Arab prince to battle the laser-gun wielding, metallic robe wearing, futuristic wizard army of Atlantis, which for some reason is now underneath the Sahara Desert. There’s really nothing abut the movie that isn’t completely awesome.
After that, Brescia moved along with everyone else into spaghetti westerns, sex comedies, and cheap war movies. In the early 1980s, late 1970s, he directed a series of cheap space opera movies that got made because Star Wars was popular. I seem to be one of the only fans of these movies, which used mostly the same cast, sets, and costumes and included War of the Robots, Cosmos: War of the Planets, Star Odyssey, and then culminated in the XXX rated Beast in Space, which once again used the same sets and costumes but, sadly, not the same cast. I would have paid good money to see Yanti Somer and her awesome crew cut in that movie.
Between the period of westerns and the science fiction, Brescia made a few more sword and sandal movies. Exactly what prompted this brief return to a dead genre I don’t know (the earlier peplum phase had died out by 1966). Perhaps it was the promise that now you could show some nudity. I don’t know for certain, but whatever the case, there was a sudden quick revival in sword and sandal movies, almost all of them this time revolving around the mythical Amazons (which lends credence to my thought that it was all about permission to flash a boob or two). Brescia made two such movies — 1973′s Battle of the Amazons and 1975′s Superuomini, superdonne, superbotte, better known (well, relatively speaking) as Amazons vs. Supermen, though the movie has so many alternate titles that you’d think Al Adamson had been involved with its distribution.
Things start off properly enough, with a village of bikini-clad Amazons (located in what looks to be a rock quarry — scenic!) engaging in those random sorts of deadly games that I think must surely have been the invention of movies. The best Amazonian warriors face off in a series of deadly contests that include standing on platforms and shooting arrows at each other, then all going down to wrestle amid a field of spikes. It’s possible that this was a contest to chose the next queen, but I’m not sure. If it wasn’t, then one has to question the strategic wisdom of having your very best warriors — including your queen — kill one another for absolutely no reason. There also seems to be some sort of schism among different factions of Amazons, but this never becomes a part of the plot apart from having a few women cheer for one person in this idiotic games over another. The games duly concluded, the Amazon queen Beghira (played by gorgeous Euro starlet Magda Konopka in a silly looking curly wig that I guess is supposed to make her appear more Greek) triumphantly announces “We’re going to go get Dharma and make him tell us the secret of the eternal fire!” Everyone cheers, but we the viewers have no idea what the hell she’s talking about.
Nor will we for a while, as the next portion of the movie is taken up with the stories of two different wanderers, each of whom is set upon by a gang of profoundly inept and unfunny comic relief brigands lead by Philones (Riccardo Pizzuti). And here in lies the most significant problem with the whole movie. Had it been played as a straight but weird sword and sandal adventure, as Brescia did with Conquerors of Atlantis, the movie probably would have been a lot easier for me to enjoy. Instead, there is a near constant indulgence in woefully unfunny slapstick comedy and shenanigans. Even when the movie is playing it straight, as with its action scenes, they’re accompanied by “wacky hi-jinks” music that make them impossible to regard as anything other than more dumb comedy — which is kind of a shame, because the action scenes on their own are not without merit. But very few things, no matter how well mounted, can survive “diddle-dee-doo” comedy music and slide whistle sound effects every time someone jumps or falls down. As an experiment, try this: watch one of the big fight scenes in Gladiator, and alter nothing else about it, but instead of Hans Zimmer’s rip-off of “Mars, God of War,” dub in “Yakkety Sax.”
The first of the three wanderers set upon by the comical criminals is a hulking strongman named Moog (Mark Hannibal). When Philones and his wormy sidekick wander into a tavern (while holding their cloaks over the faces like Bela Lugosi’s stand-in in Plan 9 from Outer Space) and see Moog enjoying a bowl of stew, they decide that this is “the man they’ve been looking for,” then promptly call in their “hilariously” incompetent goon squad. Exactly why they’re looking for Moog is unexplained. It’s not like they’re working for some king that Moog offended, nor do they seem to have any prior experience with the man. No, they just decide that in the entire movie, the one guy they want to pick to randomly fuck with is the gigantic super-strong guy enjoying a bowl of soup. That’s like walking up to spindly ol’ Steve Buscemi and Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, neither of whom you know anything about, and going, “Roethlisberger, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Needless to say, Moog beats the tar out of his attackers, including punching one them repeatedly on the top of the head so that he bounces up and down like a basketball. he whole fight scene is, naturally, accompanied by wacky sound effects. He also has a golden ball that he throws at people. It has the magic power to ricochet off of things until it has taken out like ten bad guys. Deciding that this was perhaps the wrong target to shake down, Philones and his crew head out to the woods, where they stage an equally inept attack on a passing Chinese guy, Chung (Yueh Hwa, on loan as part of the Shaw Bros. co-production deal). Once again, Philones is on the receiving end of a beat down. The bulk of the bandits high tail it, but one — a Chinese woman (minor Shaw Bros. actress Karen Yeh Ling-chi) — stays behind for a little extra fighting. Sadly, no one that Yueh Hwa fights was very good at fight scenes, and so you don’t really get to be all that excited about his inclusion in the film. You might even hope that pitting him against another Shaw Bros. talent would result in at least a few thrills, but Karen Yeh Ling-chi wasn’t an action star. Aside from 14 Amazons (no relation to this movie), she did mostly dramas, romantic comedies, and a few sex movies. She was, however, no stranger to the Shaw Bros. cross-over experiment, having appeared in 1974′s spaghetti western-meets-kungfu film co-production The Stranger and the Gunfighter, which starred Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh.
Having spent a considerable amount of time watching Philones and his sidekick fall out of trees and trip over things, we finally get back to the plot in which the Amazons appear. A gang of the scantily clad women warriors ride into a nearby village and demand to know the whereabouts of local god Dharma It seems that Dharma is the immortal protector of the village, and the Amazons want to wring the secret of him immortality out of him. No sooner do the ladies start sticking spears in the faces of old men then there’s a big explosion and puff of magical smoke announcing the appearance of Dharma — the aforementioned man in a bondage mask and chain mail mini-skirt. He doesn’t so much protect the people and fight off the Amazons as he simply does lure the women away with a sort of “Run, run fast as you can; you can’t catch me; I’m the gingerbread man” taunt. He leads them on a chase and manages to lose them using his superior “jumping while accompanied by slide whistle sound effects” skills.
The villages dutifully march down to Dharma’s mountain throne (Brescia is really getting his money’s worth from this rock quarry he rented for the day) to sort of half-heartedly pay homage to him and thank him for, I guess, sort of rescuing them from the Amazons, even though they never would have had trouble with the Amazons if it hadn’t been for Dharma’s secret immortality fire. Dharma, however, is confused, though he manages to cover his confusion long enough to be a dick about the quality of the offerings being laid at his feet (“No peppers, no protection!”). Also, it looks like Dharma has transformed from a buff, fleet-footed lad into a spindly-legged old dude with a mustache. Luckily, the fact that Dharma always seem to appear off in the distance make it difficult for the cloddish peasants to catch onto the obvious fact that this is not the same Dharma who just rescued them.
It turns out that Dharma isn’t immortal at all. Like the comic book hero The Phantom, Dharma is simply a mask, passed down through the generations from one man to another. The current Dharma (Aldo Bufi Landi, nearing the end of an epic career in Italian exploitation film) has been training a buff replacement named Aru (Aldo Canti), who looks like a somewhat terrifying mix of Jack Nicholson and John Saxon. It was the young apprentice who donned the costume and bravely ran away from the Amazons. And while current Dharma is impressed with his chosen replacement’s enthusiasm and ability to leap mightily off hidden trampolines scattered around the countryside, he’s also worried that people might get suspicious if there are too many Dharma sightings involving too radically different looking Dharmas.
Aru soon meets and falls in love with a wounded Amazonian warrior named Akela (Alfonso Brescia company player and occasional sex film starlet Malisa Longo), though the severity of her sprained ankle is suspect since we see Aru and Dharma bandaging it in one scene, then later that day the bandage is off and she’s frolicking half nude in the local swimmin’ hole with Aru. Having known each other for several minutes, the two healthy young kids fall in love. Alas that they are from different worlds. Just as Aru looks as though he’s going to get some, he hears a shout. Amazons find Akela and bring her back home, while Aru discovers that Dharma has been fighting with the persistent women and now has a spear in the chest. It’s time for Aru to become Dharma full-time and put an end to the Amazon scourge once and for all.
Reading all that back, I confused myself (a surprisingly easy thing to do). “This can’t be right,” I thought. “This sounds awesome, but I distinctly remember the movie being so incredibly boring that I almost gave up on finishing it.” But then the fog cleared, and I remembered that part of what makes Amazons vs. Supermen such a colossal disappointment is that, in summary, it sounds like so much fun. But it isn’t. I can’t even put my finger exactly on why it’s so awful, though deferring to unfunny comedy hijinks certainly goes a long way in explaining things. Even when the action comes — and this movie does have a lot of action — it’s just not paced right. Star Aldo Canti was a stuntman, and he certainly throws himself into the physical aspect of the movie with reckless gusto. He spends nearly every moment of his screen time running, jumping, throwing things, flipping around, and bouncing up and down on hidden trampolines. He certainly gets an A for effort and even execution, but his zest for jumping over things is undercut by by indifferent direction, bad pacing, and too many comical sound effects.
Brescia mishandles all three of the film’s biggest action scenes, though to his creative credit, he manages to mishandle them in different ways. The first really big action setpiece comes when Moog the Strongman, Chung the Martial Artist, and Aru-Dharma meet for the first time in the local city. For starters, after establishing Dharma as some sort of local god (even if we know he’s a false one), it seems odd that the guy could stroll into the city and have no one give a crap or even recognize him. So I guess he’s a god local to that one village, but even so, if there’s a city within an easy walk from the village, you’d think word would get around that there was an all-powerful immortal guy living a mile away. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of scale. The speed with which people travel from one location to another seems to imply that Dharma’s village, the city, and the Amazon’s beautiful rock quarry are like a mile away from each other at the most.
Anyway, never minding Dharma’s lack of celebrity status in town, the scene in which he, Moog, and Chung meet and beat the crap out of yet another bunch of Philones’ goons should be pretty exciting. And it does have its moments, mostly thanks to Aldo Canti’s willingness to fling his body around with total disregard for his own well-being. Yueh Hua should be impressing us, but once again, there’s no one on hand who has any idea how to choreograph martial arts, and there are no stuntmen well suited for engaging in such choreography with Hua. That leaves him little to do other than wave his arms in people’s faces and swing a sword around a bit. As Moog, big Mark Hannibal has even less to do. The scene’s biggest problem is that in its best moments, it is only decent, and yet it seems to go on forever. If you are a gang of villains, and you are trying to take down a masked hero who is standing on a picnic table and jumping up every time you lunge at him, does it really take like ten times for you catch on to what he’s doing? I mean, if you really enjoy watching muscular men jump over a low angle camera (and I know some of you do) over and over for no discernible reason, I reckon this scene will be more interesting. For the rest of us, though, it gets old.
The movie’s second big action scene is the rescue of villagers from the Amazon stronghold by Moog, Chung, and New Dharma. Once again, our heroes take on the Amazons mostly by frantically running away from them and umping off of high places. There’s not a lot to this one really. It’s the third and final action scene that is the film’s most frustrating. In the tradition of Seven Samurai, the three supermen teach the local villagers how to defend themselves against the marauding women — ignoring once again the fact that the only reason the Amazons are attacking this village is because they want to capture Dharma. The final battle is a flurry of sword fighting and trampoline jumping — and there are even those wooden flame throwing tanks! I think the finale is actually pretty exciting — but I can’t be sure, since it’s set at night and Brescia fails to light the scene in a way that makes it possible to see anything that’s happening. The whole thing is a black, muddy mess. About the only thing you can be sure of is when an Amazon is on screen, since they were wearing white. It’s a shame, because like I said, the finale might have otherwise salvaged the film. As it’s presented, though, it’s just the final flip of the bird at the end of an entirely unsatisfying parking lot carnival ride.
Brescia applies the same degree of disinterest to the characters as he does to the action and the lighting. Normally, I wouldn’t claim that one comes to a sword and sandal film, even a Johnny-Come-Lately production like this, looking for sterling examples of intelligent characterization. That’s not what these movies are about. But what the peplum stars of the 60s had (well, some of them), and what is sorely lacking here, is charisma. It didn’t matter if Mark Forest’s character was thinly sketched. It didn’t matter if Kirk Morris was a wooden actor. Both men, and many of the others, brought charisma to the screen, and that helped you roll with their other short-comings. Aldo Canti was, as I said, a game physical performer, but he has absolutely no charisma. Dharma is a terrible bore, even when he’s doing his best somersaults an slide whistle jumps. And Yueh Hua? The dude doesn’t even speak Italian, so he pretty much does nothing but smile and stare at his co-stars lips in an effort to pick up his next cue.
Mark Hannibal, whose previous credits were bit parts in television shows, has a slightly more complex character. Well, it’s an effort to give him a slightly more complex character. It’s executed with such woodeness that one doesn’t really care, but it’s nice that the two only black people int he whole ancient whatever country this is supposed to be managed to find one another and fall in love. Dharma has his Amazon love interest, too, but they have almost no interaction after their initial romp in the waterfall, and I guess maybe there was supposed to be a hint of romance between Yueh Hua and Karen Yeh’s character, but that’s even less developed than Dharma’s love story. I know, I know — who cares about the love story? Well, I say if a movie is going to spend time on it, then the movie should at least try not to make it so boring.
As wooden and uninteresting as Aldo Canti is, at least Alfonso Brescia had the good sense to surround him with experienced hands. Unfortunately, none of them are really given much meat to work with, since the movie seems happiest when it’s spending time with Philones and his hammy cohorts. Seriously, if you don’t like plodding, idiotic attempts at comedy, this movie is going to be as bad for you as it was for me. Still, it’s nice to see some familiar faces.
Magda Konopka, who here plays the Amazon queen obsessed with possessing the secret of Dharma’s immortality, is a beauty you might remember from the equally disappointing Satanik. But we can forgive her that crappy film, since she was also in Hammer Studio’s prehistoric blowout, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and that movie is great. Malisa Longo is another world class Eurocult starlet. She appears in pretty much all of Alfonso Brescia’s sci-fi films except, predictably, The Beast in Space. However, it’s not appearing in an hilariously sleazy XXX space adventure was above her. She also appeared in Tinto Brass’ ham-fisted Nazi-sexploitation film Salon Kitty, as well as the cheap and sleazy Salon Kitty/Ilsa She Wolf of the SS rip-off (yes, I know the implications of that statement) Elsa Fraulein SS. She would star in another Ilsa rip-off, Helga, She Wolf of Spilberg, then go on to appear in skin flicks like Black Emanuelle, White Emanuelle, so I don’t know why she wouldn’t have shown up in the buff, even in a non-hardcore role, when Brescia decided to pack up all his War of the Robots props and costumes and use them to make a deliciously daft porno movie. When she wasn’t busy flying around in space or taking off her clothes, she managed to pop up in a bit part in Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon, and around the same time as Amazons vs Supermen, appeared in War Goddess (aka Le guerriere dal seno nudo), another early 70s Italian sword and sandal film that, through some bizarre deal I can’t fully comprehend, was directed by Britain’s Terence Young — who you might remember as the director of Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball. Sadly, as with Magda Konopka, this movie doesn’t really have any idea what to do with her, other than hustle her off-screen as quickly as possible so we can split our sides laughing at the latest shenanigans involving Philones.
Karen Yeh was, like Yueh Hua, talent on loan from the Shaw Bros. studio in Hong Kong, who had decided for some reason to partially finance this slapdash snore of an adventure film. I don’t really know too much about her, other than the fact that she wasn’t one of the studio’s major stars. She appeared in a few action films, like the gritty The Teahouse starring Chen Kuan-tai, and Shaolin Handlock starring David Chiang, a few comedies and romances, and the saucy, sleazy Sexy Girls of Denmark. Without a seasoned Shaw Bros. action director on hand (they should have traded one of those as part of the production deal as well), even her scenes with Yueh Hua are slow and awkward. As a character, she’s non-existent otherwise, with only a few lines and no real point.
Fairing slightly better is the last of the film’s bevy of beauties (if this film did nothing else right, it cast a lot of very pretty women and then put them in very tiny togas), American actress Lynne Moody. As Moog’s love interest, she really has little more to do than wander in and hug the big guy, but her character is interesting in part because it’s she who pursues the big man. He’s happy to look at her ass as she walks away, but when it comes to actually making a move, it’s all Lynne Moody. She also appeared in Scream Blacula Scream alongside Pam Grier, the mini-series Roots, and had a number of successful runs on television shows, including recurring characters on Hill Street Blues, That’s My Mama, Soap, E/R, and her longest running role, Knots Landing. She’s a classic sword and sandal starlet — not given a lot to do, but she has such a palpable charm and easy charisma that, as a performer, she rises above the rest. And that smile — my God, that smile!
Amazons vs Supermen came at a time when Shaw Bros., flush with cash and arguably the most powerful production company in the East, was spreading its wings and attempting to find success with overseas productions. Having missed the boat on Bruce Lee, and thus the international success that came to his studio with him, the Shaw Bros. were anxious to make a name for themselves outside the Asian market they already dominated. Five Fingers of Death was a huge success on the American grindhouse circuit, even before anyone had heard of Fist of Fury or The Chinese Connection, so maybe the Shaw Bros. felt like they deserved a higher profile.
Unfortunately, while their co-productions with overseas studios have found fans among cult film aficionados, to mainstream eyes they were shoddy affairs. The Shaws never seemed to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff when it came to selecting partners. So you get things like them teaming up with England’s Hammer Studios for Shatter and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires — impressive, except that Hammer was a dead man walking at that point, nearly out of business and with a devalued reputation beyond repair. At the same time, the Shaws were getting involved with Italian productions like this movie and The Stranger and the Gunfighter, cranked out on the cheap and with little regard for quality (though The Stranger and the Gunfighter, at least, remembered to be entertaining).
As a result, the Shaw product never got the respect they wanted overseas. The precision, energy, and exquisite quality of the Hong Kong productions just never carried over to their co-productions, in which they all too often trusted the quality of the final product to men like Alfonso Brescia. If nothing else, the studio could take solace in the fact that, other than Enter the Dragon, no other Hong Kong studio fared much better entering into co-productions with American and European studios.
Shortly after this movie, Brescia would turn his attention to the slew of space adventures I love so dearly. Now those I will defend. But Amazons vs. Supermen? No, you did me wrong. It’s a lifeless bore, cooked up by a director who didn’t care and even forgot to light the big finale. Hey man, if you can’t afford to shoot at night, then set your finale during the daytime. No one will really care about the time change; they’ll all be too happy they can just see the movie. It’s a shame such an opportunity was wasted and that a potentially fun adventure film got shafted because Brescia wanted to make a sub-Franco and Ciccio style slapstick comedy.
And hell, even if he wanted to make a sword and sandal comedy, all he really needed to do was copy Colossus and the Amazon Queen. That movie already had amazons and was already a comedy. The difference, I suppose, is that Vittorio Sala apparently had some idea how to make a comedy (that idea: “point the camera at Rod Taylor and let him ham it up”). Alfonso Brescia did not.
You let me down, Brescia. After all the time I spent defending your oddball space movies, you served me up a movie with everything I should like, but in a dish that was impossible to swallow. I forgot what I was watching where people were confronted with something that sounded awesome but ended up being terrible, and they summarized it with the question, “I don’t know! Why does cheese taste great on Italian food but it sucks on Chinese food?” Amazons vs. Supermen is definitely cheese on Chinese food.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: Italy, Hong Kong | Starring: Aldo Canti, Mark Hannibal, Yueh Hua, Malisa Longo, Aldo Bufi Landi, Magda Konopka, Genie Woods, Kirsten Gille, Riccardo Pizzuti, Lyn Moody, Karen Yeh | Screenplay: Alfonso Brescia, Aldo Crudo | Director: Alfonso Brescia | Music: Franco Micalizzi | Producer: Ovidio G. Assonitis, Giorgio Carlo Rossi | Original Title: Superuomini, superdonne, superbotte | Alternate Titles: Barbarian Revenge, Return of the Barbarian Women, Super Stooges vs the Wonder Women
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.
When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.
Ti Lung is on hand to reprise the role of Chu Liu-hsiang, the cool-as-ice, sexy-as-all-get-out swordsman who can beat any man, woo any woman, and lives in a floating boat-palace where his every need is attended to by three hot female assistants. Once again, it’d be remiss of me as both an espionage and martial arts film fan if I didn’t note just how similar Chu is to American super-spy and all-around Renaissance man of mystery, Derek Flint. Both of them are tended to by a bevy of beauties who not only look good, but can also kick your ass or get taken hostage if the need ever arises. Both of them live in high-tech (for their respective times) ultra-cool bachelor pads. And of course, they can both out-fight, out-think, and just plain out-cool any villain who gets in their way.
Also returning for another dose of wu xia action is Chu’s mysterious and not altogether righteous sidekick, the killer for hire Li Tien-hung, played once again by the steely-eyed and grim Ling Yun. Our two heroes, or rather our hero and that really pissed off guy who hangs out with him and stabs people, are once again drawn into a winding, twisting plot when they investigate a gathering of martial arts clans and find everyone dead save for one lone man in white who has no memory.
They soon meet up with a kungfu couple in search of a potion that will cure the wife’s terminal illness, and they also discover that someone has put a price on the head of Chu Liu-hsiang. All roads lead to a mysterious masked man known only as The Bat, who lives on a secret island in a cave-palace filled with elaborate and outlandish booby traps. The Bat is in the business of granting wishes – some noble, most diabolical. Chu and Li must first brave a ship full of “people who are not what they seem to be” where they will make a variety of enemies and allies. Then they must traverse the truly mind-blowing caverns of Bat Island in search of the man who seems to be the root of much of the evil plaguing that ever-plagued-with-trouble Martial World.
The sequence on the ship feels like it’s Agatha Christie meets Shaw Bros. swordsman action. For the first half of the film, we meet one character after another who is not what they seem, and then in many cases after that character’s secret is revealed, we find out later that they’re still not what they seem and have a whole new set of secrets to reveal that will once again realign them in the plot. It’s classic Chor Yuen – Lung Ku storytelling, and once again, while it might not always make sense, and while it sometimes seems to be twisting the plot just for the hell of it, it’s a wonderfully enjoyable ride that is much more interesting than just sitting down to a movie starring Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Wang Lung-wei where you have to guess which character will eventually be exposed as evil, given the fact that Wang Lung-wei has eventually been exposed as evil (or simply started out evil and stayed that way) in roughly 99% of the movies in which he ever starred. For all the convolution that gets thrown onto the screen, Legend of the Bat truly keeps you guessing as to the motives of most of the characters involved. Only Chu himself is a certainty. We know he’s a stand-up guy. Everyone else, even his sidekick Li, keep their motives up in the air for the first half of the film. It’s fun stuff.
By the time we arrive on Bat Island, most of the loyalties of the main characters have been sorted out. There are still plenty of ancillary characters to show up during the finale and throw things for a loop, but at least we know who our core group of heroes will be as they begin to challenge the labyrinth of mazes and pitfalls that comprise the island’s defenses. It’s here that Chor Yuen really goes all-out with the stylized set design and turns the surrealism up to eleven. The caverns are awash in Mario Bava-esque multi-colored lighting and mists, with rocks and waters glowing green, purple, blue, red, and yellow. It all looks very much like some of the sets from Hercules in the Haunted World. The Bat’s henchmen wear outlandish “wild man” uniforms, and before they manage to reach the inner sanctum of his compound, our heroes must escape from a cage suspended over a pit of bubbling acid, traverse a raging pool of fire, and overcome a room full of icy glaciers all while fending off spear-wielding goons.
I’ve always wondered where villains go to hire construction crews to build their fabulously ornate and intricately booby-trapped lairs. Can you get union workers to build a lake of fire, or do you have to sneak off and hire the Mexican guys hanging out on the corner looking for work? Is there a firm that specializes in converting networks of caves and volcanoes into lavishly-lit secret compounds? And who sews the zany costumes for all the villain’s henchmen? Where can you buy silver foil jumpsuits, or in the case of this movie weird wildman duds, by the gross? Legend of the Bat finally gives us a glimpse, albeit superficially, into the logistics of constructing ridiculously complex evil lairs when the original architect of the Bat Island caves shows up for part of the action.
He is, of course, a brilliant man who let his fascination with fashioning fire pits and acid pools blind him to the fact that the strange masked man who placed the order might end up using them for evil purposes. I guess guys who build hollowed-out volcano bases and caves of death are sort of like all those guys on the Manhattan Project who were so happy to be working on crazy scientific and mathematical quandaries that they didn’t realize until too late that they’d just created the most devastating weapon in the history of the world and would thus have to come up with some sort of prophetic and deep thing to say upon witnessing the fiery fruition of their labors. By my reckoning, if we hadn’t kept Oppenheimer and the others busy with inventing the atom bomb, they would have probably just gone off and outfitted Hitler’s bunker with an acid pit and one of those rooms where spikes pop out of the wall and close in on you.
Today, would be designers of evil lairs spend most of their time drawing little dungeon maps so elaborate that they have to use that scientific graph paper instead of the regular stuff. Imagine how much weirder the conflict in Afghanistan would have been if the first time we got reports from inside one of Osama bin-Laden’s cave hide-outs, the soldiers had said, “Well, the lake of fire with the giant snake in it was rough, but we were able to throw Geraldo Rivera in to distract the monster. Still, it was rough going once we got to room that filled with molten lead and the tunnel that was illuminated by strobe lights and lava lamps.” That was always bin-Laden’s big problem. He spent all his money on that Al Quaeda gymboree we saw those guys practicing on whenever they replayed that “Al Quaeda training video,” apparently concerned that international terrorists may have to negotiate monkey bars and track hurdles when performing their evil deeds. As far as evil masterminds go, his cave lairs were a disgrace. Compare them to our own secret underground city where we plan to send our leaders in the event of an emergency. Now that’s an underground lair fit for a Bond villain.
As far as lairs go, The Bat’s pad is pretty sharp. Of course, in a Chor Yuen film almost everyone lives in luxurious digs. Even peasant dwellings look surreal and beautiful. This movie gives us not one, but three boat-palaces. You have Chu’s place, which is quite nice, and you have the transport ship, which looks like it was inspired by all the intrigue on board the Orient Express of old. And then you have the yacht that comes by to pick up our heroes after a big battle, and that one’s just as ornate as Chu’s place. None of them reminded me in the least of my grandpa’s bass boat, and at the time I always considered that to be one hell of a vehicle. The Bat’s lair not only has all those booby trapped chambers and places where the architect seemed to be able to manipulate the powers of geology itself to form ice mountains and rivers, but he has a cool misty throne room full of wild lighting, various treasure chambers, and other alcoves and nooks where strange and beautiful things are placed.
As with Clans of Intrigue, every scene takes place on a Shaw Bros. studio set, allowing Chor Yuen total control of every aspect of the appearance of his film. And once again he drapes each frame in flower blossoms, flowing silks, lattice work, secret chambers, and grand banquet halls. Every inch is meticulously designed and detailed in the extreme. At no point does Yuen skimp on a set simply because we’re not there for very long. He’s never happy to go with the simpler, faster sets that many directors settled for. Even in the most inconsequential of places, Yuen goes to extravagant lengths to create overwhelming eye-candy.
But you can’t build a movie on eye candy sets and a cool villain’s lair alone. As with the first film, Legend of the Bat is carried by the complexity of the plot and the charisma of the leads. Ti Lung is grand as always, though in all honestly, he almost seems to be along for the ride this time around, content to simply hang around while all the other characters indulge in machinations and Machiavellian schemes. When the time is right, he steps up and doles out some sword-swinging justice, but since his character is the only one free of hidden agendas, he is in some ways the least interesting of the bunch. Clans of Intrigue had the same phenomenon – and I hesitate to call it a “problem” since the actions of all the other characters are so thoroughly engrossing. Chu’s job is to cruise along, smirk, and do some killing when the time is right.
The rest of the characters are a wild bunch. Once again, we have the filial daughter out to save or avenge her father. We have the kungfu couple with noble hearts driven to commit evil deeds by the desperation of their situation. We have the unkempt guy who could be a vile thief or a noble hero. There’s the mute guy, the amnesiac, a bunch of kungfu masters and clan leaders with dubious intentions, the mysterious Bat, and a glorious gang of butt-naked female assassins. With all those people running around and flying through the air, it’s no surprise that our hero Chu is satisfied with just sitting back and watching it all unfold, allowing himself to get lost in all the insanity. We also have Derek Yee on hand, the good-looking younger brother of Ti Lung’s frequent co-star David Chiang. Yee would go on to a lead role in Chor Yuen’s Death Duel a few years later, as well as a starring role in the phenomenally bizarre Buddha’s Palm, beore settling down to become a director of some acclaim with movies like Viva Erotica and C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri to his name. Yueh Wah returns from the first film as a different character, this time as one half of the doomed kungfu couple opposite Ching Li, also returning as a different character.
Unlike Clans of Intrigue, messing around with gender roles isn’t a key ingredient. There are plenty of interesting female characters, but none as complex or engrossing as Betty Tei Pi from the first film. Ching Li is on hand to play the “pure” female hero (one of two, actually), though she’s less active and entertaining than her more fight-active character Black Pearl from the first film. Still, she’s one of my favorite Shaw leading ladies, so it’s always a pleasure to see her in action. With Chor Yuen, we usually get multiple female leads, at least one “ice queen” villain and one “pure” heroine. The ice queen, of course, is the one most likely to shimmy out of her robes and give the fellers a show, while the pure heroine, conversely, keeps her clothes on and fights sometimes for justice, but usually out of a filial obligation to right some injustice done to her family. While Legend of the Bat has its fair share of women with questionable motives, it lacks any real, strong female antagonist. The female protagonists, on the other hand, are in abundance but not quite as complex or disturbed as heroines from other films. Not a bad thing, necessarily. I know Chu Liu-hsiang was probably tired of female heroes who spent the first half of the film trying to kill him (they only try to kill him a few times), and the women on hand are hardly poorly realized characters. The lack of any dynamically complex female characters on par with Betty Tei Pi’s tragic queen of the martial underworld, Princess Yin-Chi, does keep this one just a notch below Clans of Intrigue in terms of characterization.
The story, however, is just as confusing and twisted as the first film. Characters pop up and disappear with frightening frequency, a carry-over trait from many works of Chinese literature where we not only got dozens of main characters, but also had many of them come and go with little or no warning. Ultimately, it’s a more realistic portrayal of how people drift in and out of events and lives, often without fanfare or resolution to whatever conflicts involved them. On the minus side of things, however, you need a flow chart to keep track of who showed up when and jumped out of which window only to show up again at the very end with some grand revelation. The question is never who has something to hand or who will unveil an aforementioned grand revelation – everyone but Chu has at least a couple, even the seemingly minor characters. The question is always what the revelation will be, and just how zany is it? While the mysteries at the core of Lung Ku’s stories – which are essentially detective novels dressed up in a swordsman’s flowing robes – may lack focus, they certainly don’t lack for entertainment value. Legend of the Bat is, like its predecessor a wonderfully written, if not totally believable, mystery-adventure. But then, are you going to worry about it being illogical for Character A to turn out Way C in a movie where old guys can chop their own arm off and then carry on a conversation as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened to them?
The martial arts action, which is after all what draws many people to these movies, is on par with that from Chor Yuen’s other accomplished films, though as with those, it is also not the central focus of the movie. We are, once again, set in the Martial World, which is always plagues with tumult. Some reviewers have commented that the concept of the Martial World, this bizarre intangible association of boxers and swordsmen, heroes and rakehells, is what keeps the films of Chor Yuen more inaccessible to Western audiences than those of Chang Cheh, where most of the plots involved revolting against evil government officials or avenging someone’s death – stuff to which everyone can relate, or at least stuff everyone can understand. The Martial World, on the other hand, with all its secret societies and esoteric kungfu styles, is a concept more difficult to grasp.
I don’t entirely agree. While it’s true that there’s nothing quite like the concept of the Martial World with its blend of intrigue and supernatural powers, it’s also not entirely unlike the equally esoteric secret societies that comprise the Mafia underworld. And Mafia films are, needless to say, hugely popular and very well understood in the West. As with the Martial World, the underworld is full of sects and clans and families fighting each other for dominion over things that entirely understandable to the outside world, such as extortion turf and linen service rights. Like the heroes and villains of the Martial World, the underworld is full of tricky characters, double-crosses, and violent battles. The concept of the Martial World, then, is not so foreign as some might make it seem. The only real difference is that there was always a very low probability than Don Corlione would leap up from his leather chair, fly across the room, and blast some low level Mafioso with energy beams flowing from his palms. But he did have a pretty keen lair.
Chor Yuen’s film usually focus on swordsman action, drawing as they do their inspiration from the classic wu xia films of the 1960s. The martial arts on display in Legend of the Bat are a wild and wonderful mixture of sword fights and kungfu clashes with plenty of supernatural abilities on display. People can punch through walls, jump over buildings, fight off dozens of attackers, and chop off their arm without giving it a second thought. Chu can walk without making any noise, and there’s a blind character who can see and fight in the dark as well as his sight-gifted adversaries can in the light. There’s nothing entirely over-the-top. No one shoots laser beams out of their eyes, and no one can really fly, but if you’re looking for authentic, realistic martial arts action, a Chor Yuen film as about the last place you should be snooping around. His action pieces are as artfully crafted and highly stylized as his sets, and they are more things of grace and beauty than knock-down, drag-out acts of pugilism. Even with that said, the final duel is pretty brutal, and there are some wonderful, no-nonsense sword fights, particularly the one between Ti Lung and a whole gang of masked assailants.
If you liked Clans of Intrigue, or if you like any of Chor Yuen’s mid/late 1970s swordsman films, then you’re not going to be disappointed by Legend of the Bat. Byzantine plots, swordfights galore, beautiful women, handsome men, and exquisite sets make for another mind-blowing martial arts mystery. Ti Lung is wonderful, and he’s the least interesting thing about the movie. It’s a worthy follow-up to the first film, and it’s a thoroughly pleasing slice of clever martial arts mayhem.
If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
Chor Yuen came to Shaw Brothers with deep roots in the Cantonese language cinema of Hong Kong. His father, Cheung Wood-Yau, had been a popular actor in Cantonese film, which makes it no surprise that Chor, as a young student, turned to performing in films himself when he needed to make ends meet. Being a quick learner, and well aware that he lacked the qualifications of a successful leading man, Chor turned his attention to work behind the camera, and soon went from being an assistant director to directing his own films. During this period in his career, while working for the studio Kong Ngee Co. — as well as through an independent company that he established with his wife, the actress Nam Hung — Chor specialized in social realist dramas and romances, mostly small-scale films that focused on characters and relationships rather than action. But he also broke new ground with his 1965 hit The Black Rose, one of Hong Kong’s first contemporary action films to incorporate modish elements inspired by the Bond films and TV series like The Avengers.
As the sixties neared their close, the Cantonese language film industry was in steep decline. Given that its product was mostly limited to a local audience, it simply couldn’t compete with the comparatively lush production values seen in the Mandarin productions coming out of Cathay and Shaw. In addition to that, the new style of action films being created over at Shaw — specifically the violent, fast-paced and decidedly male-driven films of Chang Cheh — had come to be favored by audiences who’d grown weary of the strictly female-centered films that had previously dominated Hong Kong’s screens, and which were the bread and butter of the Cantonese industry. Given that the figure of the female warrior is even today still something of a kinky novelty in Western pop culture, this is something that’s hard for me to get my head around, but it seems that HK audiences of the sixties were basically saying, “Aw Jeez, not another heroic female swordsman, for Christ’s sake! How about a guy for a change?” And so, out went the chaste and chivalrous ladies of the sword played by Connie Chan Po Chu and Josephine Siao, and in came the shirtless, glistening torsos of Wang Yu, Ti Lung and David Chiang, all ready to display their gory contents in response to an opponent’s sufficiently savage blows.
Chor, rightly or wrongly, always considered himself above all a commercial director, one who survived by following the prevailing trends. And so, despite having a no doubt deep affection for the industry that raised him, he read the writing on the wall and headed over to the Mandarin language studios. His first stop was Cathay, where, in 1970, he would make his first swordplay film, Cold Blade. Then, later that same year, he went on to begin his long and prolific relationship with the Shaws. His first effort for that studio, Duel For Gold, was another swordplay drama, but one that made a distinctly gritty departure from the displays of honor and nobility that had characterized wuxia cinema up to that point, possessed instead of a cynical, morally ambiguous tone that was more in keeping with the new cinema being made in the States by the young mavericks of the new Hollywood. The film impressed Shaw Brothers boss Run Run Shaw — as it also did, reportedly, Chang Cheh — and went on to modest box office success. After next ushering Cantonese film superstar Connie Chan Po Chu both into Mandarin cinema and out of her film career with The Lizard, Chor delivered a more resounding hit with his Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, a film very much in the vein of the “one part art, one part exploitation” type of female-driven period revenge films that were coming out of Japan at the time.
Despite having tasted some success with his early forays into Mandarin cinema, Chor had not forgotten his roots, and when it came time, in 1973, to adapt the popular stage play The House of 72 Tenants for the screen, he insisted, over Run Run Shaw’s objections, that it be shot in its original Cantonese. The film went on to become one of the years’ biggest hits in Hong Kong, out-grossing Enter The Dragon, and in the process performed the seemingly impossible task of reviving Cantonese cinema at a time when no production in the language had been made for over a year. Now an acclaimed director with a major hit on his hands, Chor was in a position to do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted to do, apparently, was spend the next two years filming a series of tearjerkers adapted from popular television dramas that would all prove to be miserable failures at the box office.
After capping off this string of duds with nine months of inactivity, Chor was desperate to get his career back on track again. Deciding to try his hand at swordplay films again, he began work on a series of screenplays based on the popular wuxia novels of Ku Long. Ku Long, like Chor, was known for spicing up his works within the traditional genre by incorporating contemporary elements, and so his tales of swordsman heroes in the vaguely medieval setting of the mythical Martial World were marked by James Bond-inspired gimmickry and noirish notes derived from contemporary detective thrillers. He was also very prolific, churning out more than sixty novels before drinking himself to death at the age of 48, which gave Chor plenty to work with. Despite this, however, Run Run Shaw was unimpressed with Chor’s efforts. Fortunately, an even more prolific scribe, Shaw Brothers’ screenwriting dynamo Ni Kuang, steered Chor toward a more recent book of Ku Long’s, the 1974 novel Meteor, Butterfly and Sword, which the author had based on The Godfather. Chor turned the novel into Killer Clans, a massive hit that resulted in Shaw Brothers putting him on permanent Ku Long duty for the next several years.
By the time of making Murder Plot — the film I’m addressing here — in 1979, Chor Yuen had already filmed a full thirteen adaptations of Ku Long’s novels. As a result, his approach to these films had become what some might uncharitably describe as “formulaic” (Chor himself has as much as said so, saying in an interview that “Without the maple leaves and dry ice, I’d be lost”). To me, however, that phrase is misleading, because it suggests something routine — and Chor’s approach, while consistent from film to film, is something uniquely his own, utterly distinct from what anyone — apart from his imitators — was doing at the time. So let’s just settle for saying that Chor’s style — at least in terms of his wuxia films — had “crystallized” by this point, which indeed it had. At the same time, Chor had yet to weary of his subject matter to the point that he would by the early eighties, at which point some signs of laxness began to creep into the work, along with some grasping attempts to mix things up with new gimmicks (for instance, an increased — and overmatched — reliance on special effects in response to the success of Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain), a trend which wasn’t helped by the reduced budgets he had to work with as a result of the Shaw studio’s declining fortunes during that decade. All of these factors, then, make Murder Plot an excellent example of that style at its peak, when it was at its most refined and time-tested.
Trends being what they are, audience interest in Chang Cheh’s testosterone-fueled punch-fests had begun to wane by the late seventies, and, as such, Chor Yuen, through his Ku Long films, came to emerge as sort of an anti-Chang Cheh. Where Chang’s films could be technically sloppy and homely in appearance, Chor’s were meticulous, even fussy in their detail, and exhibited an unerring dedication to the presentation of visual beauty in every shot. Where Chang’s action highlighted power, speed and violence, Chor’s, while equally frenetic, showed an emphasis on elegance and grace that blended suitably within the dreamlike settings he created. Chor, perhaps in allegiance to his background in Canto cinema, also to some extent reasserted the primacy of the female in his films by having richly drawn female characters fight against and alongside his male heroes on equal footing – an aspect of HK film that Chang had effectively tried to banish via his arguably misogynist filmmaking ethos. In fact, the mere presence of dimensional characters — as well as the aspiration to emotional resonance beyond simply the clanging reverberations of vengeance and bloodlust — put Chor’s martial arts films at odds with most of Chang’s work, and would be a hallmark of his style throughout the Ku Long films.
Another aspect of Chor’s style in regard to these films is a result of the source material, as well as the manner in which that material collided with the restrictions that Chor had to work within. Among the defining characteristics of Ku Long’s wuxia novels are that they are generally lengthy (The Untold History of the Fighting World, the 1965 book on which Murder Plot is based, comprises 44 chapters), dense with back-story, filled with an astonishing number of characters, and feature plots rich in complex intrigues, frequent switching back-and-forth of allegiances, and layered identities. To a film, each of Chor’s adaptations shows the strain of having to compress these narratives to fit within the standard Shaw ninety minute format — while, of course, at the same time having to include the requisite heavy amount of martial arts action, which in Murder Plot‘s case translates into a rollicking, intricately-staged swordfight at least every five minutes. As a result, these films — despite the languid exterior that Chor’s fog-drenched, and unnaturally-lit art direction presents — appear to be flying by in fast motion, with the actors spitting huge chunks of expository dialog at each other with tongue twisting alacrity, and scenes careening into one another as if in a rush to the finish line. In the case of Murder Plot, I was taken by surprise when it became clear that the film’s events were meant to be taking place over the course of several months, because their presentation made it seem as if they could just as likely have taken place in an afternoon.
While such hurried pacing provides the films with a crackling energy, it also in some instances makes it tempting to throw up your hands and give up on following their plots altogether. It’s even advisable in some cases, given that some necessary connective tissue was occasionally stripped away in the course of the narrative downsizing. And even so, these films still offer more than enough to enjoy. With their beautiful sets, intoxicating atmospherics, engaging characters, eccentric gimmickry, and exquisitely staged action set pieces, they are a standout example of the type of cinema that one can immerse oneself in without having to resort to the brute mechanics of comprehension. That said, in the case of Murder Plot, the effort is worth making, because among Chor’s wuxia films it is actually one of the more linear and transparent in terms of story — a fact that, once you’ve watched it, might scare you off of ever dipping into any of the others.
As I alluded to earlier, Chor liked to infuse his wuxia films — just as Ku Long did with his novels — with elements gleaned from contemporary pop culture, and among the sources that he drew from on more than one occasion were the Spaghetti Westerns. The Magic Blade in particular owes a special debt to Sergio Leone’s Dollar films, in that it presented Ti Lung as basically a Martial World incarnation of The Man With No Name, replicated right down to his ragged poncho. Murder Plot‘s opening pays tribute to this source in equal measure, showing us a shadowy, black clad figure, hat brim pulled low over his face, leading his horse into a seemingly deserted town under the cover of night, a corpse draped across the animal’s back. As he nears a large manor, the figure stops at a wall on which a number of wanted posters are displayed, tearing down the one that pertains to his recent prey.
Soon we will learn that this man is the hero Shen Lang, and the fact that he is portrayed by Shaw superstar David Chiang sets Murder Plot apart from all other of Chor’s wuxia films. Of course, Chiang had an at least tangential connection to the other films, thanks to Ti Lung, his frequent co-star in Chang Cheh’s films, and his younger half-brother Derek Yee both being frequently cast as their leads, but Murder Plot was to be the only one that he starred in himself.
Having had the requisite brief scuffle with the guards outside Man Yi Mansion (judging from these movies, the Martial World custom is for everyone, upon first meeting, to immediately engage in a sword fight, often for no apparent reason and regardless of the parties’ allegiances), Shen Lang is ushered inside, where we learn that he has been summoned, along with the six top heroes of the province’s main schools, by the master Li Chang Chun. Li Chang Chun addresses the group, speaking of a battle that occurred fifteen years previous in which 900 of the Martial World’s top heroes died fighting for possession of an apocryphal manual containing the secrets to an allegedly invincible fighting style. The rumor of that manual, it turns out, was spread with the very intention of provoking such a battle (a battle that, by the way, is described in the novel in harrowing detail, but here dispensed with in a couple of rushed lines of dialog), and as a result, the perpetrator, through eliminating a large number of his competitors in one go, has come that much closer to dominance over the territory. That perpetrator, according to Li Chang Chun, appears to be a mysterious figure known as The Happy King, who, in the years since the battle, has displayed knowledge of secret techniques previously known only to certain of the battle’s vanquished combatants.
Soon after this revelation is presented, a young woman barges into the meeting and, as is the custom, engages in a brief sword fight with all present except Shen Lang. It turns out that she is Shen Lang’s fiancé, Zhu Qi Qi, the daughter of a wealthy tycoon. Shen Lang, we learn, at some earlier point left Zhu Qi Qi behind, saying only that he had to go on a mission to “find someone” and that he would be gone for several years, and Zhu Qi Qi, having grown impatient for his return, decided to come after him. Shen Lang will later, with an amusing combination of weariness and resignation, describe Zhu Qi Qi by saying that she is “unruly, headstrong, and likes to create trouble”. But in addition to conforming in some respects to the stereotype of the pampered, tantrum-prone rich girl, Zhu Qi Qi is also a brave and accomplished sword-wielding hero in her own right. As portrayed by Chor’s favorite leading lady, Ching Li, she is also Murder Plot‘s most endearing character. You get the sense that she’s exactly the kind of woman that a guy like Shen Lang, who comes off as a bit smug and humorless, needs in his life, and you can’t help liking and respecting him all the more for loving her. Their relationship, despite a lot of playful bickering, is clearly one of mutual respect, and with the two of them sharing equally in pursuing the mystery at the film’s center, Murder Plot ends up playing out as sort of a martial arts version of The Thin Man, a conceit which ends up being one of the films most appealing aspects.
It’s true that many of Chor’s wuxia films are infused with a sense of melancholy, a reflection of the tragic web that the Martial World’s heroes, honor bound to an eternal struggle for dominance, find themselves trapped in. Probably the most stark examples of this are the Sentimental Swordsman films, in which Ti Lung portrays a consumptive, alcoholic hero unable to escape his gloomy past. On the other end of the spectrum are films like Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, which feature the worldly, swashbuckling hero Chu Liu-hsiang — also played by Ti Lung — that, despite having some dark, supernatural undercurrents, play out more as rollicking adventures yarns. Murder Plot fits in comfortably alongside these last mentioned films, and serves as a fine example of this strain in Chor’s work. While other of his attempts to meld elements of detective story and swordplay drama were less successful, here he does so to great effect, while at the same time providing an enveloping atmosphere of mystery and romance for those elements to play out in. From interviews with Chor you get the clear impression that he never considered himself anything more than an entertainer, and — whether you agree with that or not — in that sense he is here at the top of his game.
Having introduced its main characters and central conflict in record time, Murder Plot proceeds to really kick its action into gear when Shen Lang, Zhu Qi Qi, the master Li Chang Chun and the six heroes travel to Yi City. They have heard reports that the Happy King’s ill-gotten treasure is stashed there, and upon arriving are shocked to find the streets clogged with a procession of coffins. They are told that a rumor had spread of a fabulous treasure housed in a nearby tomb, and that the many swordsmen who rushed to plunder it were killed by way of poison painted on the tomb’s door. Shen Lang, Zhu Qi Qi, and the six heroes go to the tomb and, immediately upon entering, see a number of their entourage killed by a series of booby traps hidden within. Shen Lang pushes further into the crypt, where he encounters and fights with Jin Wu Wang (Wong Chung), who is the Happy King’s treasurer by title, but, of course, also a master swordsman. Though they are apparently on opposite sides, the two express a mutual respect, and forge a temporary truce when they find themselves, along with Zhu Qi Qi, momentarily trapped inside the crypt. Upon emerging they find that the six heroes are nowhere to be seen and, since they were the only ones known to be in the tomb with them at the time, are accused of foul play by Li Chang Chun. Shen Lang asks that Li Chang Chun grant him a month’s time to prove his innocence, and the master agrees.
Later that night, Zhu Qi Qi trails a procession of ghostly, white-garbed women to the cavernous lair of the mysterious Madam Wang, where she finds the six heroes suspended in some kind of comatose state. This is the result of the exotic secret weapon — and every one of these movies has at least one — wielded by Madam Wang’s son Lian Hua, the “Enticing Ice Arrow”, which is a finger-sized shard of ice that Lian Hua tosses like a dart. (Alert viewers will note that Goo Goon-Chung, the actor playing Lian Hua, looks to be about the same age as Chen Ping, the actress playing his mom, the result of Shaw Brothers apparently not having any actresses over thirty-five contracted to them.) After briefly mixing it up with Lian Hua, Zhu Qi Qi escapes without having found out exactly why Madam Wang wanted to kidnap the six heroes in the first place. Shortly thereafter, she comes upon an old crone (played again by an actress obviously still in her prime) who, for reasons I was never really able to sort out, drugs her with poisoned smoke, ties her up, and throws her into a coffin with another bound young women named Bai Fei Fei (played by Chor regular, Candice Yu On-On, who is simultaneously super cute and kind of weird looking). Luckily, Zhu Qi Qi has around this same time had a chance encounter with Panda, the sooty, rag-wearing chief of the Beggars Clan (as played by Danny Lee, forever beloved by Teleport City readers for his starring roles in such singular Shaw Brothers ventures as Inframan, The Mighty Peking Man and The Oily Maniac). Panda took the opportunity to nick Zhu Qi Qi’s family pendant — sort of a Martial World ATM card enabling him access to her family’s wealth — and when, later, Shen Lang and Jin Wu Wang catch him with it, he leads them to where Zhu Qi Qi is imprisoned.
After yet another frenetic scuffle, Panda, Shen Lang and Jin Wu Wang make peace and cooperate to free Zhu Qi Qi and Bai Fei Fei. Bai Fei Fei tells them that she was sold to the old woman after being taken from outside the territory, and that she is now far from home as a result. Shen Lang tells her that they will escort her back, as they are going that way in their pursuit of the Happy King, a pledge which leaves the jealous Zhu Qi Qi audibly displeased. Panda, having become immediately smitten with Bai Fei Fei, also offers to come along. And at this point, with Shen Lang and Zhu Qi Qi traveling the road on the way to meet with a yet unseen ruler of mythical power, gathering up forces from among a ragtag band of characters with disparate motives within a phantasmagorical setting, Murder Plot really started to remind me of The Wizard of Oz. Danny Li, in particular, with his combination of bravery, affable goofiness and canine loyalty struck me as an all-in-one stand-in for all three of Dorothy’s companions. And while Zhu Qi Qi is definitely no Dorothy, Bai Fei Fei, as a wide eyed innocent trying to find her way back to a home that circumstances beyond her control have taken her away from, fits the bill quite well.
After Jin Wu Wang takes his leave of the crew — giving Shen Lang the standard “next time we meet, it may not be as friends” speech — Zhu Qi Qi leads the rest to Madame Wang’s lair, where another fast-paced fight is engaged with Madame Wang and Lian Hua. Madame Wang remains mysterious about her motives, but does allow that she kidnapped the heroes in order to draw Shen Lang to her, though without saying for what purpose. Before being routed, Lian Hua manages to make off with Zhu Qi Qi’s family pendant and, after freeing the heroes, the group heads off toward Fen Yan City, the home of Zhu Qi Qi’s family, to intercept him before he can drain her family’s fortune. Once there, Zhu Qi Qi, acting on her own, tracks down Lian Hua and, after a furious fight, manages to temporarily paralyze him by striking one of his “pressure points” (another practice that you will get very used to seeing after watching a few of these movies). Despite this, Zhu Qi Qi gets a dressing down from Shen Lang, because he had asked her to stay with Bai Fei Fei at the family mansion and protect her. In a fit of jealous pique, Zhu Qi Qi takes off on her own with the frozen Lian Hua in tow, telling her brother in law that she is doing this so that Shen Lang will “know he should have me in his heart”. This leaves Shen Lang, Panda and Bai Fei Fei to trail after her, trying to guess at her ultimate destination.
After a roadside ambush by the Happy King’s wine master and his acrobatic, jug-balancing bodyguards, a scene follows in which Bai Fei Fei, apparently feeling responsible for driving a wedge between Shen Lang and Zhu Qi Qi, tells a stricken Panda that she will be following her own course from this point on. By this time, Chor was shooting his films exclusively on interior sets, even going to the extreme of sometimes using miniatures for establishing shots to avoid the chance of anything conspicuously natural interfering with the fully enclosed world that he was creating. It was in this manner that he provided an environment in which the dream-like logic of his stories could play out unconstrained by any reference points to the “real world”. It also allowed him to, in painterly fashion, use his settings to express mood – a practice of which Bai Fei Fei’s farewell scene is a stirring example. The scene plays out more as one idealized in memory than an actual occurrence, with the impossibly deep autumnal hues of the rural surroundings rendered gilt-edged by the dying light bleeding through the gauzy veil of mist above. It would be incredibly sad even if Danny Lee and Candice Yu-On On were to do absolutely nothing, because the landscape they inhabit itself is an expression of heartbreak.
After Bai Fei Fei’s departure, Shen Lang and Panda finally catch up with Zhu Qi Qi at Shanghai Gate. Unfortunately, once they have reunited, Lian Hua — who has been subjected to the humiliation of being dressed up as Zhu Qi Qi’s old granny — escapes from his paralysis and overpowers the three. Upon finding themselves back at Madam Wang’s lair, they are finally filled in on the Madam’s true motives. It seems she is the Happy King’s ex-wife, and that she wants Shen Lang to protect the king from the other Martial Heroes who are after his head, so that she alone can enjoy revenge against him for some unspecified wrong. To insure Shen Lang’s compliance, Lian Hua renders Panda and Zhu Qi Qi comatose with his Enticing Ice Arrows, saying that he will not provide the antidote until Shen Lang has completed his mission. Having no other choice, and at Madam Wang’s direction, Shen Lang tracks the Happy King to a gambling house called the Happy Forest — and he’s Lo Lieh! A very James Bond-inspired scene follows in which Shen Lang and the King size one another up over the gaming table, after which David Chiang gets to show off his empty-handed kung fu skills in a sequence where Shen Lang defends the King against a gang of attackers who storm the casino.
After this, Shen Lang makes the case for the King to hire him on as a bodyguard, and soon finds himself within the walls of the palace. There he is surprised to find that the concubine the King is on the eve of marrying is none other than Bai Fei Fei. Bai Fei Fei will then be the first of many of Murder Plot‘s characters to reveal that she is not what she had previously represented herself to be. In fact, the final fifteen minutes of the movie — in classic Chor Yuen/Ku Long fashion –render false much of what I’ve recounted so far. But for me to reveal more than that would spoil the fun — or the frustration, depending on how you tend to react to having a laboriously-woven narrative rug pulled out from under you at the last moment. In either case, what really matters is that Murder Plot puts paid to its real obligations by seeing out it’s final moments with a lavish sword and kung fu battle — choreographed by Chor’s regular collaborator, the great Tong Gai — that sees all of the characters whirling and flipping across the screen at a pace that makes the rest of the movie seem stately by comparison. If you have lost the thread of the plot by this point, chances are that you won’t end up caring. And if you do, a painless remedy is at hand, because Murder Plot is so crammed with nuance and detail that a second viewing can only yield further enjoyment.
I imagine that it’s pretty obvious that I love Murder Plot. It looks beautiful, the actors and the characters that they play are incredibly appealing, the action is wonderfully staged and literally non-stop, and the atmosphere is so rich with romance and intrigue that it’s enough to send you into a ninety minute swoon. Still, it’s far from my favorite of Chor Yuen’s wuxia films, which should give you some idea of just how deep the damage goes with me when it comes to these movies. The world that Chor creates in them is, simply put, one that I never tire of visiting, and I’m happy that his prolific output has provided me with ample opportunities to do so.
So, upon consideration, maybe I do agree that, with time, Chor Yuen’s Ku Long films became somewhat routine and predictable. And by that I mean that they are routinely awesome and predictably rewarding, much like a visit to a beloved old friend – which, last I checked, was not a bad thing at all.
It was not an unusual practice for Hong Kong’s powerhouse Shaw Brothers studio to participate in international co-productions during its heyday, and the result of that practice was often some fairly unique screen pairings. For instance, there was British horror icon Peter Cushing teaming up with kung fu badass David Chiang in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and the Sentimental Swordsman himself, Ti Lung, trading lines with American TV movie staple and Night of the Lepus star Stuart Whitman in Shatter. But the 1967 spy thriller Asia-Pol stands out in particular for being a potential wet dream for fans of 1960s Asian action cinema. This participation between Shaw and Japan’s Nikkatsu – the studio that trademarked its own distinctive brand of hardboiled action cinema during the late fifties and sixties – boasts two stars who have, respectively, come to represent more than any others the identity of each of those studios at that moment in their histories.
1983 was an exceptionally big year for Hong Kong cinema. Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the Death, Tsui Hark’s Zu, and Project A featuring the first major on-screen teaming of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, all hit the screens during that year. So did Aces Go Places II, a sequel to the wildly popular Sam Hui-Karl Maka action comedy of the previous year. It was a good time to be the Hong Kong film industry. Things were up in the air to be sure, as they often are during a rebirth, but there was no getting around that this was a year of incredible, ground-breaking films.
Lost somewhere in the mix was a more modest offering called Bastard Swordsman from the Shaw Brothers Studio. By 1983, The Shaw Brothers studio that had ruled Hong Kong since the 1960s, was all but dead and buried. By the time they figured out their approach — both on-screen and off — was no longer viable, it was too late, and Golden Harvest had become the dominant player on the field, with Tsui Hark’s upstart Film Workshop providing an alternative outlet for film makers who had more ambitious artistic visions or, like Tsui Hark himself, simply couldn’t get along with other people.
Bastard Swordsman wasn’t a bad film. In fact, it was rather exceptionally fun. But it was also decidedly old-fashioned at a time when the New Wave was beginning to roar with full force. There were attempts to graft some of the look and feel of the New Wave onto the film, but while they may have succeeded in some spots (just as many New Wave films still had bits that looked old-fashioned, at least in terms of special effects), the overall result was a martial arts fantasy film that belonged to the previous decade. Despite the merits of the film, and perhaps because of longstanding legal wrangling over release of the Shaw Brothers library onto home video, Bastard Swordsman all but disappeared from the public consciousness while other films from the same year — especially those mentioned above — were revered as classics of Hong Kong action cinema.
A number of things conspired to bring the end of the Shaw Brothers studio, and once again in the spirit of drawing comparisons across genres and countries so as not to become exclusively focused on one aspect of film at the expense of seeing its connection to other aspects, it pays to compare the final days of the Shaw Bros to those of Hammer Films in England and, curiously enough, to the career of Elvis Presley.
With the glut of martial arts films that flooded the 1970s in the wake of Bruce Lee’s popularity, and with the increasingly slapdash production values of many of those films, it was inevitable that an eventual backlash against — or at the very least, complete boredom with — the genre would bubble to the surface. This began to happen at the end of the 1970s, and it was only through the innovations of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and action-comedy luminary Michael Hui, that the kungfu film found a new approach and continued to flourish. Unfortunately for the Shaws, all this flourishing was happening over at rival studios like Golden Harvest and Cinema City. Young, innovative film makers were unwilling to sign on to work with the creaking Shaw Brothers studio, opting for freedom and more artistic control rather than locking themselves into an outdated and oppressive studio system. With their old guard too old to deliver they way they used to, and no new guard lined up to inherit the mantle, the Shaw Brothers studio found itself floundering without direction or much hope for the future.
Hammer Studios, with whom the Shaw Brothers had collaborated in the past (on, among other things, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires starring Peter Cushing and David Chiang), had undergone almost the exact same crisis a decade before. When Hammer released a trio of horror films in the late 50s — Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy — they revolutionized and revitalized horror cinema almost over night. And while the studio produced a wide variety of movies, it was horror that defined them and became their bread and butter. When one mentions “Hammer films,” one invariably thinks of the horror films rather than their pirate or war movies. Hammer’s horror formula was so effective, however, that they never bothered to tinker with it, and as the 1960s wore on, Hammer found themselves suddenly losing ground. Where they had once been the controversial trendsetters, they were fast becoming the out-of-date fogies. They were unwilling to change the look or the formula, and rather than attempting to create new properties, they relied excessively on Frankenstein and Dracula and on their two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
By 1970, Hammer’s unwillingness to revise its way of doing business and presenting pictures was doing the company in more effectively than any stake through Christopher Lee’s heart. New audiences, wrapped up in the social turmoil and upheaval of the Vietnam era, saw Hammer films as nothing more than their parents’ square old movies. Hammer execs were, by and large, square and old, and their last-ditch attempts to make the studio relevant again met with all the success you would expect from sixty-year-old British guys trying to write hip, counter-culture lingo into a Dracula film. No one was buying it, and by the middle of the 1970s, Hammer was dead.
For the first few years of that decade, however, their desperate attempts to right the ship and remain afloat produced some of their best films, though very few people recognized them as such at the time. But Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Vampire Circus, Twins of Evil, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter — these are all, in my opinion anyway, exceptionally good films. Vampire Circus and, to an even greater extent, Captain Kronos, represent everything that was right and wrong with Hammer. In Captain Kronos, they found the new direction the studio was seeking. Boasting a more action-packed, swashbucking approach, with more wit and comedy courtesy of a writer who was best known at the time for the quirky British spy-fi series The Avengers, it’s entirely possible that Captain Kronos could have been the life preserver that kept Hammer from drowning.
Unfortunately, studio executives showed no faith in the potential of the film, and a sequel was never made. Instead, they returned to Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Dracula, preferring to sink on a familiar boat than risk an unfamiliar life raft. Their attempts to graft a hip, young face onto the hoary old Dracula franchise was met with indifference and derision from both critics and the young audiences so vital to the survival of horror films. And while Dracula A.D. 1972 has its entertaining aspects in retrospect, it’s hard not to imagine how laughable all the woefully out-of-date “cool” lingo would have been to young viewers at the time.
Ten years later, the Shaws were finding themselves in almost the exact same dire straights, and they handled it in exactly the same way. With more faith and more money, and with a willingness to give young film makers a freer artistic and business related reign, it’s possible that the studio could have found a new direction and continued, if not to thrive, than at least to exist. But they didn’t do this. They stuck to the same old system, and the same old formula. By this time, Chang Cheh films could practically write and direct themselves, and the venerable old master was hardly up to the challenge of trying to reinvent himself or his films this late in the game. If there was any hope for the studio, it was in the form of Chu Yuan and Liu Chia-liang, but both were increasingly uncomfortable within the confines of the Shaw system.
Still, as with Hammer, this dark period at the end of the Shaw saga resulted in some of the very best films they ever produced, particularly courtesy of Liu Chia-liang, whose frenetic choreography and more character-driven films provided the vital step between the old and new, between the Shaw and Golden Harvest style. Many of his films, especially those from the tumultuous 1980s, are regarded today as masterpieces of kungfu cinema. But it was too little too late, and although Liu was an exceptionally gifted film maker, the weight of the whole of the Shaw Brothers machine was too great for him to support on his own.
By 1985, it was all over. Runrun Shaw didn’t see any hope in sticking things out, and in the end, he was happier to see the ship go down than try any more reconstruction. Unable to support the lavish budgets that had been the calling card of past productions, the Shaw output started to look more and more like television productions — which was fitting, as studio head Runrun Shaw had himself all but given up on theatrical releases and was investing his money in TV production.
It would have been fitting, back in the 1970s, if the last film Hammer produced had been something like Captain Kronos or even Twins of Evil. Both of these films were quite good, and even if the end of the studio was unavoidable, at least people would be able to look back and say that Hammer went out with a good movie. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the case. Disregarding forays into comedy, the last horror film Hammer produced was the astoundingly dismal To the Devil, a Daughter, starring a completely uninterested Richard Widmark who kills the high priest of the Antichrist by throwing a rock at him. It was a sorry, sorry nail to be the final one in the coffin. Similarly, the Shaw Brothers could have ended on a high note if Return of the Bastard Swordsman had been their final film, because it retains all the charm and energy of the first film but packs in even more action and weirdness. And it feels a lot like a last film, with Lo Lieh and Chen Kuan-tai returning to play memorable roles alongside many other Shaw stars, including some of the Venoms (though Ti Lung and David Chiang are missing).
Unfortunately, release schedules conspired against the Shaws going out on a high note, and the last kungfu film released by the Shaw Brothers as an independent entity was the perhaps too aptly titled Journey of the Doomed, a dismal (but not without entertainment value) and seedy failure of a film that is very much the Shaw equivalent of To the Devil, A Daughter, relying on sleaze, titillation, and a couple recognizable stars to keep audiences from noticing what a dreary, tedious, mess their final genre film was. It didn’t work for Hammer, and it didn’t work for the Shaw Brothers.
Both studios made the cardinal mistake that can kill any pop culture phenomenon and is perhaps best embodied by the career of Elvis Presley — because I love making wild and seemingly ridiculous comparisons of that nature. Elvis, like Hammer and the Shaw Brothers films, came to pop culture prominence as the dangerous rebel, the rule-breaker and the hip-shaker. His rock and roll and on-stage pelvic antics were to pop music what the Shaw Brothers gory swordsman films of the 1960s were to Hon Kong cinema, and what Hammer’s gory monster films were to British and American cinema. They outraged censors, befuddled critics, but enthralled young audiences.
But all three of them refused to move forward. Elvis remained the 50s icon throughout the 60s and 70s, but society moved on around him. Stuck in time, Elvis became increasingly square looking as pop culture evolved around him. Before he knew it, he was singing for middle aged housewives in Vegas while the youth market mocked and ridiculed him. The same things happened to Hammer and the Shaw Brothers. Entertainment and tastes evolved. They did not. Any attempt to recreate themselves was short-circuited by fear of the unknown, and no sooner would they try something different than they would retreat into the cobweb-strewn familiarity of a Chang Cheh film, or a Dracula film. In the end, it killed them all. Elvis’ swansong was as an overweight drug addict in a sequined jumpsuit. To the Devil, A Daughter and Journey of the Doomed were the sequined jumpsuits for Hammer and the Shaws respectively. Amid the ugliness of their demise, it’s hard to notice sometimes that there was still a lot of worthwhile material in those final hours.
Because the story for Bastard Swordsman was so sprawling, the production spanned two films, so although the series was unable to compete with the New Wave, the second part, Return of the Bastard Swordsman hit screens a year later. By this time, the Shaw Bros. were almost completely moribund, and indeed according to some sources, although the official date for the closure of production at the studio is given as 1985, the actual date may have been as early as 1983 or 1984, with the films coming out after that being things that were already in the can. It certainly seems likely that Return of the Bastard Swordsman was in production at the same time as the first film, as they share the same cast, crews, and sets. Indeed, Return of the Bastard Swordsman would have been a fitting close to the Shaw era, for while it may have been dated, it was still a ridiculously enjoyable movie.
The story picks up pretty immediately after the end of the first film. Having mastered the powerful Silkworm technique and saved Wudong from a would-be usurper, Yen-fei (Norman Chu) has retired to a life of contemplation alongside his wife (played again by Lau Suet-wah), the daughter of the late master of the Wudong school. I must have missed something here, because as is revealed to absolutely no one’s surprise in the first film, the Wudong master is also Yen-fei’s father (and mysterious hooded teacher), with the mother being the wife of the leader of Invincible Clan. Which would mean Lau’s character is Yen-fei’s half-sister, which isn’t all that cool for a marriage even within the screwy universe of the Martial World. I must have gotten confused at some point, or maybe there was so much stuff going on that no one making the film noticed. I’m sure there was a line that would explain away their potential blood relationship. Right?
Since Yen-fei’s departure, things have been relatively quiet, at least by Martial World standards. But that’s not going to last for long, as a story about quiet and relaxing times in the Martial World would not be very much fun. For starters, the Wudong school still pretty much blows. There only seem to be a few competent students, and the cowardly, sniveling old elders are still hanging around. And the leader of Invincible Clan (Alex Man, once again) is still lurking about out there and presumably still has it in for Wudong. At this point, I really can’t blame him. Those guys are worthless. But the big problem looming on the horizon is the fact that a ninja clan from Japan has noticed all this complicated Martial World squabbling, and they’ve decided that this sort of convoluted nonsense full of backstabbing and shenanigans is perfect for ninjas. They’re pissed that it’s been an all-China affair up to this point.
The leader of the ninja clan is played by none other than Chen Kuan-tai, one of the venerable old stars from the glory days of the Shaw Brothers kungfu film, on hand no doubt to lend a little fading star power to the proceedings (though I’m not sure Chen Kuan-tai was that big a draw by 1984). Just as the Invincible Clan has Fatal Skills and Yen-fei has Silkworm Technique, the ninjas have their own bizarre magical style that they think entitles them to rule the Martial World. The style allows Chen Kuan-tai to use his heartbeat to take over the heartbeat of his opponent, allowing him to wreak havoc with their pulse until they finally cough up their own heart. Using the power also causes Chen Kuan-tai to glow red while his chest inflates, because, you know, whatever man. Ninjas.
In order to prove the superiority of his chest-burtsing technique, Chen Kuan-tai takes his most trusted and weird ninjas to China, where he intends to kill both Yen-fei and the leader of Invincible Clan. Faced with challenges from the almighty Invincible Clan and these seemingly unbeatable ninjas, the elders of Wudong dispatch a young student (Lau Siu-kwan) to track down the only man who could possibly beat these guys: Yen-fei. Along the way, Lau meets up with a fortune teller (Philip Ko) whose kungfu seems to be at least as powerful as that of all the other ultra-powerful guys we’ve seen flying around and shooting beams out of their hands. While they’re all out looking for Yen-fei (is this movie ever going have a bastard swordsman who returns?), Wudong assembles the leaders of all the remaining Martial World clans in hopes that together they might successfully defend themselves from Invincible Clan, although again, once you meet all these backstabbing, cowardly leaders, it’s hard not to sympathize with the Invincibles. Before this coalition of the sniveling can get much done in the way of fighting the Invincible Clan, however, the ninjas show up to slaughter everyone and pin the blame on Invincible Clan in hopes that this will expedite Yen-fei’s emergence from his reclusive lifestyle.
Yen-fei does eventually show up, though to be honest, this movie is a lot like Ivanhoe in that it spends a lot of time talking about the title character while the title character spends a lot of time resting and recuperating from various wounds. The bulk of the action is carried by Philip Ko, and later by Philip Ko and Anthony Lau as a noble doctor who also seems to have near invincible kungfu. Exactly how these two guys achieved such great power is never really explained, and they just sort of wander onto the scene and help Yen-fei out. Yen-fei, for his contribution to the story, doesn’t seem capable of beating either Invincible Leader or the Ninja, at least until he spends a good long while hibernating in a cocoon in a cave.
Very little changes between this film and the first. The look and feel are identical, and the production values are the same. Some characters are out — we never see the wife or daughter of Invincible Leader again — while new ones are in, including the fortune teller, the doctor, and another more conniving doctor played by Lo Lieh. Return of the Bastard Swordsman has less character development, as most of that was accomplished in the first film, leaving room for more action in the sequel. This is neither good nor bad, as the characters helped make the first film compelling. If you watched this one without watching the first one, you’d probably be able to figure most things out (it’s all summarized for you anyway), but it wouldn’t be nearly as good. Chen Kuan-tai shows up with his magical ninjas to fulfill the role of full-blown villain that was left vacant when Yen-fei reduced that wandering swordsman to a pile of bloody bones at the end of the first film, and Invincible Leader remains a complex and interesting quasi-villain with whom we can still side when he’s faced with an even greater villain. In fact, the showdown between Invincible and the ninjas is not the film’s finale, but it is far and away the best fight scene in the film, with the end being both heroic and melancholy, and a great way to resolve the story of the Invincible Clan.
By comparison’s Yen-fei’s quest to attain the supreme level of Silkworm Technique is less intriguing, but that’s not to say Norman Chu doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, even if his bastard swordsman is reduced to supporting character for much of the film. The finale is still his, or at least it’s his and Philip Ko’s. Perhaps taking a page from Jackie Chan’s playbook, the finale sees Yen-fei realize that, in all likelihood, he can’t beat Chen Kuan-tai (a nod, perhaps, to Chen Kuan-tai in Executioner from Shaolin, in which he was the hero engaged in an equally hopeless battle against a superior foe) and so must rely on cleverness, endurance, and the assistance of his friends. Their system for beating Chen Kuan-tai recalls another great Shaw Brothers film, Crippled Avengers, and once again someone discovers that a drum-based defense is best foiled by, you know, breaking all the drums.
Return of the Bastard Swordsman is a superb conclusion to the story that began in the first film. Thanks to the inclusion of ninjas, we get even more bizarre fights than in the first film, and we get them more frequently. I would have preferred maybe a little more involvement from our bastard swordsman, and maybe some explanation as to how some of the supporting characters manage to be just as powerful as the principals, but in the end, I am also pretty happy to let those small quibbles be washed away in the tide of just how much fun this movie is. It’s good to see old hands like Lo Lieh and Chen Kuan-tai coming out for another go-round, and Norman Chu once again manages to infuse humanity and vulnerability in a character that becomes ever-closer to a God. The real show, however, is as it was with the first film, Alex Man as the leader of the Invincible Clan. He shows a voracious appetite for the scenery and plays everything wildly over the top, which is a style perfectly suited for this type of film. Movies full of magical ninjas, wizards, and guys shooting laser beams out of their hands really aren’t well suited for subtlety. His final fight really makes the movie for me, and Norman Chu’s actual finale seems almost to pale in comparison.
Yuen Tak’s action choreography is once again a solid mixture of straightforward sword fighting and kungfu placed alongside fanciful supernatural skills realized with the same crude but entertaining effects as the first film. As I said at the beginning of this article, the effects were cheap and behind the times, but it’s not like, looking back from our vantage point today, the effects of movies like Zu don’t look just as crude. They may have been a major leap forward compared to Return of the Bastard Swordsman in the early 1980s, but now they all look rather archaic, and that makes it easier to appreciate the two Bastard Swordsman films without getting hung up over how old-fashioned they seemed at the time of their release. Return of the Bastard Swordsman is sort of like Clash of the Titans, a film that used Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects after George Lucas style effects had put such things out to pasture. Past their prime or not, though, the effects in Clash of the Titans are still a lot of fun, as are the effects in Return of the Bastard Swordsman. Wires, jump cuts, garishly colorful animation — considering how insane the whole world presented to us in these movies is, I don’t really see much point in saying, “Nuh-uh, that’s not how shooting crackling energy beams out of your palm looks like in real life.”
Since this really is just the second half of one long film, I wouldn’t recommend seeing Return of the Bastard Swordsman without or before Bastard Swordsman, just as there’s not much point to Bastard Swordsman unless you move on to Return of the Bastard Swordsman. Although neither film was the final curtain for the Shaw Brothers studio, they never the less serve as an excellent note on which to pretend things ended. As far as anything-goes martial arts mayhem may go, the Bastard Swordsman saga may indeed not measure up to the films of the New Wave. It may lack the breakneck choreography of Jackie Chan and Ching Siu-tung, or the technical ambition of Tsui Hark, but none of these short-comings really matter in the long run, because Bastard Swordsman and Return of the Bastard Swordsman are still spectacularly fun wuxia fantasies with a comprehensible — albeit somewhat loony — plot and solid characters. It wasn’t the movie that stemmed off the end for the Shaw Brothers martial arts film, but as far as “end of an era” free-for-alls go, you’d be hard-pressed to find another one with this much unbridled entertainment value.