Green Snake is set in a world between myth and reality. Zhao Wen-zhou stars as a young monk who spends his days hunting down demons and spirits who have crossed over from their own realm into the realm of mortals. Some of them come with malicious intent, but many of them seem only to want to run wild and free in the physical world for a brief time. The monk operates under the notion that the two worlds simply cannot cross paths, harmless intentions or not. The opening scene of the monk chasing an old wiseman who is actually a spider demon through a field as they both run through mid-air sets a beautiful but disturbing tone for the film. It’s incredibly lush and over-saturated with dreamlike color. The hallucinatory beauty seems eerie, however, not at all peaceful, sort of like those old fairy tales where things are actually creepy and sinister.
During the first half of the 1990s, Hong Kong was wire-fu crazy. It seems like all you had to do to get your movie made was show up at a studio waving around a napkin with “guys in robes fly around, then there’s a fart joke” scrawled on it. Even if the studio already had ten movies exactly like yours in production, producers saw no reason they couldn’t add one more to the pile. New Legend of Shaolin, starring Jet Li when he was the undisputed king of being hoisted around on wires, is the epitome of mediocre 1990s wuxia. It’s bad but not enragingly bad. It’s fight scenes are terrible but not “really terrible.” And as was almost always par for the course, the tone jumps wildly and without any transition from slapstick fart comedy to atrociously overwrought melodrama. It’s a textbook case of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making from Wong Jing, the master of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making.
New Legend of Shaolin is basically an adaptation of the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series, with a grim-faced, stoic Jet Li starring as Hung Hei-Kwun, a warrior supreme who is on the lam with his kungfu-powered son, played by 1990s martial arts wunderkind Xie Miao, who never became the star everyone assumed he would become, thanks to half-assed movies like New Legend of Shaolin killing off the martial arts movie market. Hung and Son spend their time wandering town to town, solving problems and stoically eating dinner. Meanwhile, in the background, an evil organization called the Heaven and Earth Society, lead by a crazed ex-monk named Poison Juice Monster (bald, eyebrowless Ji Chun-Hua, who played a screaming, crazy bad guy in roughly a trillion movies) — the very man who betrayed Shaolin to the Ch’ings and orchestrated the burning of the temple — is trying to track down five Shaolin pre-teens who happen to have pieces of a treasure map tattooed on their backs so that Wong Jing can put in a lot of jokes where little kids show their bare asses and fart in each others’ faces.
Needless to say, Hung and Son will end up protecting the kids and settling old scores with Poison Juice Monster, who is one of those kungfu bad guys whose every line is a scream or villainous laughter that goes on for like half an hour while he punches lumber or beheads people. 1990s wuxia villains love to yell and punch wood almost as much as they loved to laugh while beheading people to that weird “slicing flesh” sound effect that is used in like every kungfu film and sounds nothing like slicing flesh. It’s more like, I don’t know, someone scraping two pieces of metal together or something. You know the sound effect.
Because Wong Jing doesn’t like to make movies that don’t denigrate women in some way (this is a man who thinks rape is hilarious), we also have to endure harpyish con artists Red Bean (gorgeous queen of shitty Wong Jing movies, Chingmy Yau) and her even more grating and obnoxious mother (Hong Kong movie veteran Deannie Yip). Pretty much every single thing they do is reprehensible, but I guess in the eyes of Wong Jing, this is just women being women, and unrepentant greed, selfishness, extortion, narcissism, theft, and attempted murder is exactly the right combination of feminine charms Red Bean needs to melt Hung’s stony heart. The arrival of Red Bean and her mom allows Wong Jing to indulge in endless scenes of profoundly terrible slapstick comedy that are so unfunny that you’ll actually find yourself praying for the arrival of another sloppily executed scene of Jet Li or Xie Miao being swung around like marionettes — even though these fight scenes are sort of lame, even by lame 1990s wuxia standards.
The action was directed by Cory Yuen, who proved himself adept at directing hard-hitting, real-world martial arts/stunts movies as long as Sammo Hung or Jackie Chan was on hand to help him out. In the wuxia world, with a producer/director as sleazy and untalented as Wong Jing, Yuen flounders, serving up wire-fu antics that represent the very worst the wire-fu trend had to offer. People are flung around without any regard at all for realism — and by “realism,” I mean wuxia realism, a sort of realism where you can shoot lasers from your fists or jump up in the air, and in mid-air propel yourself off your own hand to somehow jump even further into the air. Even by those physics-free standards of realism, the fights in New Legend of Shaolin are ludicrous, jumbled, and boring. If you were new to wire-fu, maybe you could naively consider them outrageous and dazzling, but for anyone who has ever seen wire-fu done right — Once Upon a Time in China, Swordsman and Swordsman 2, to name just a few that all also starred Jet Li — or even adequately — Iron Monkey, Fong Sai Yuk — it’s easy to recognize the action in New Legend of Shaolin as particularly weak.
The acting is equally ham-fisted. Jet Li, who possesses an abundance of charisma when he’s allowed to show it, drifts through the movie playing the honorable stick-up-the-ass hero with almost no appeal. He could redeem himself with decent fight scenes, but a back injury suffered during the filming of Once Upon a Time in China meant that Jet spent the rest of the 1990s not being able to deliver the sort of action he did in that movie. Young Xie Miao was supposed to be another mainland China wushu prodigy, heir to the throne of — hey, Jet Li! Unfortunately, he arrived on the scene when the quality of martial arts movies was in decline. Although he’s obviously got skills, he spends this and most of his other movies doing nothing but being yanked around on wires while scowling.
Chingmy Yau also possesses an abundance of charisma, but she spent almost her entire career making terrible movies and so never really got a chance to be much more than a hot chick in shitty films. Both she and Deannie Yip try to out mug one another, whether it’s overplaying broad comedy or wailing and flailing around in tragic scenes. The bad guy? He just laughs and screams and punches timbers and, for some reason, tears around in a armored dune buggy. I guess that’s cool, sort of.
As for the writing — well, it’s a Wong Jing film. He usually craps out the script on his way to the shoot, concerning himself more with making sure everything trendy is crammed into the movie than he does with writing an even halfway coherent movie. The end result is a mish mash of Lone Wolf and Cub, generic period piece wire-fu, diarrhea jokes, and grossly overwrought melodrama that begs the audience for tears while deserving nothing but contempt for its clumsy hamminess.
New Legend of Shaolin is pretty much a terrible movie all the way around. It’s status as a cheap and shoddy rush job is evident in nearly every aspect. Wong Jing, as much as I find him a thoroughly loathesome film maker, could on occasion make really good movies. He just usually never bothered, because it was way easier and more profitable to just churn out junky nonsense like New Legend of Shaolin. Hong Kong was basically drunk on Hong Kong in the 1990s, and fans both in Hong Kong and abroad would pay to watch just about anything. When I first saw this in 1994, I was still excited to see just about anything from Hong Kong. As such, I was pretty lenient in my assessments of them. Even back then, though, New Legend of Shaolin struck me as crass, dull exploitation. If I don’t say that I hate it, it’s only because it’s such a lame movie that it’s not worth the effort of hating. It managed to be just barely watchable the first time, when I was young and forgiving. Revisiting it years later, I found that a half-remembered single viewing back in 1994 was probably more than this film deserved.
Release Year: 1994 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jet Li Lian-Jie, Chu Ko-Liang, Chingmy Yau, Ji Chun-Hua, Xie Miao, Chan Chung-Yung, Deannie Yip, Damian Lau, Wang Lung-Wei | Screenplay: Wong Jing | Director: Wong Jing | Cinematography: Tom Lau Moon-Tong | Music: Eckart Seeber | Producer: Helen Li, Jet Li, Wai Sum Shia | Alternate Title: Legend of the Red Dragon
To the martial arts cinema purist, the phrase “made in Taiwan” doesn’t exactly stand as a guaranty of quality. It was Hong Kong, after all, that played home to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest brands, as well as the galaxy of first rate talent that they attracted. Taiwan, on the other hand, appeared to have a lot of anonymous fields and quarries in which fights could be staged without any risk of expensive props or set elements being damaged. But what Taiwan’s martial arts cinema lacked in terms of budgets and top notch performers, it made up for in crazy. In other words, while the fighters in an old school Taiwanese kung fu movie were less likely to be as skillful as those in, say, a Liu Chia-Lang film, they were also much more likely to be wearing mangy gorilla suits.
As a connoisseur of such films, I’ve learned that there are certain performers who serve as a kind of signpost, indicating whether or not a Taiwanese martial arts film is likely to deliver on those elements I’m looking for. In fact, there are three actresses in particular, each of whose presence in a movie exponentially increases its likelihood of being head-scratchingly bizarre. You could refer to them as the high priestesses of Taiwanese weird fu. One of these priestesses is Polly Shang Kwan, who, despite tony beginnings as a discovery of King Hu, would, by the late 70s, be fighting giant rubber octopuses and projectile sharks with endearing verve in movies like Little Hero and Zodiac Fighters. Another is Lam Siu-Lau, who played young boy heroes in a series of kiddie-oriented fantasy wuxia films rich with animal costumes, heavy metal coiffure, and insanely profligate wire-assisted flying effects. And then there is “Pearl” Cheung Ling.
It is frustratingly difficult to find information about Cheung Ling, but here is what I’ve gleaned: She first came to fame as a star of the popular Taiwanese television serial Bodyguard, which spread over 256 episodes that aired almost nightly between 1974 and 1975. When that show ended, series producer Chen Ming-Hua set out to bring a feature version of Bodyguard to the big screen. The result was the 1976 film China Armed Escort, which marked Cheung Ling’s debut as a cinematic leading lady. Unfortunately, the film failed to meet expectations at the box office. Still, Cheung Ling and Chen Ming-Hua soldiered on, making six more features together over the next several years, all of which featured Cheung Ling as their star. During this time, Cheung Ling proved her merits sufficiently to go on to star as the heroine of films not produced and directed by Chen Ming-Hua. Many of these built upon the image of her that China Armed Escort established, that of a swordswoman with supernaturally assisted abilities. This served Cheung Ling well, for, unlike some of her female contemporaries in kung fu cinema –- like Shang Kwan or Angela Mao — she apparently lacked the martial arts training that would make her convincingly formidable as a fighter without the aid of wires, cartoon hand rays and other cheap special effects.
But it was not until the early 80s that Cheung Ling would write herself indelibly into the history of martial arts cinema — albeit in, perhaps, very tiny writing, and maybe just as a footnote, if undeservedly so. It was at this time that she took it upon herself to produce, write, direct and star in a pair of films that would make her that rarest of rarities in the male dominated kung fu genre: not only a female director, but a female auteur. One of those films, Dark Lady of Kung Fu, was a remake of the Shaw Brothers’ Mandarin language film The Black Butterfly — itself a period remake of Chor Yuen’s The Black Rose — that was rendered so claustrophobic by its tiny and repetitively used sets that it is barely watchable. But the other film was one that would cement Cheung Ling’s place as, not just a hero of her gender within the limited world of chop sockey, but also as the creator of a true landmark work of what-the-fu.
Cheung Ling’s Wolf Devil Woman is an adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s popular 1958 wuxia novel Baifa Monu Zhuan, which has served as the basis for numerous films over the years, likely the most famous being Ronny Yu’s The Bride With White Hair. But, shared source material aside, Wolf Devil Woman is worlds away from Yu’s masterpiece, being every bit as crude as Bride is elegant. But it is in its combination of poverty-driven minimalism and lysergic surrealism that Wolf Devil Woman really carves out its own unique niche.
From it’s opening moments, Wolf Devil Woman gives you a vivid taste of what’s in store, with a breathlessly brief, hyperactively edited sequence filled with barely glanced shock visuals, stock footage thunder and lightning, and weird, rudimentary special effects. It’s enough to make you think that you’ve accidentally popped Pyasa Shaitan into the player –- granted you even know what Pyasa Shaitan is, of course. When it’s all over, what your brain decides it has seen is a scene of ritual sacrifice in which a guy in a sparkly, skull-and-crossbones emblazoned KKK hood’s stabbing of a wax voodoo doll results in gouts of cell animated blood spouting out of the torso of a crucified man. We’ve also, we realize after the fact, caught a glimpse of one of the hooded guy’s monstrous minions, whose monstrousness is accomplished by the wearing of a store bought rubber fright mask. Could it be, then, that Pearl Cheung Ling is the Harinam Singh of kung fu?
Also among the spectators of this, um, spectacle are a young couple with baby in tow, who look very much like they’ve walked into the wrong party and are none too happy about it. These, we will later learn, are the parents of our protagonist-to-be, and the female half of the couple is, in fact, played by Cheung Ling herself. We will also learn that the hooded fellow is the villain of the piece, Red Devil, and that this couple are a pair of disciples who are only just now realizing that being a follower of the Red Devil entails quite a bit more than the new age healing rituals and spa days promised in the brochure. And so they flee, making their way across the snowy mountain terrain that will provide most of Wolf Devil Woman’s most opulent visuals, as well as most of what scant relief there is from it’s overall cramped and set-bound look.
Unfortunately, fright mask guy and a team of high-flying, red clad ninjas are close on the heels of the fleeing family. Cornered, the parents decide to sacrifice themselves for the life of their child, and so stab themselves with their swords, drenching the baby with their blood — the stated purpose for this being that the blood will hopefully keep warm and “preserve” her. And note that this is clearly an actual baby that we’re seeing showered with gore here, meaning that some parent signed off on having crew members of Wolf Devil Woman spray stage blood in their infant child’s face. This accomplished, the parents fall to their knees and begin to repeatedly and in unison slam their heads into a snow bank, eventually setting off an avalanche.
Once the bodies of parents and child alike have disappeared under the snow, a pack of wolves, played by dogs running in slow motion, appear over the horizon to chase off fright mask and his ninjas. The “wolves” then proceed to dig up the bodies of the young couple, after which –- in a nice introductory example of Wolf Devil Woman’s tendency to gleefully indulge in wanton extra-narrative gore –- they tear hungrily at and feast upon the limbs of the corpses. Elsewhere, a lighter colored dog/wolf digs up the still breathing infant and spirits her away to an expressionistically artificial looking indoor ice cave set that is complete with its own natural ice bridge crossing an unfrozen interior stream.
As with everything else in Wolf Devil Woman, quick work is made of the rearing of this young girl into an adult wolf devil woman. We get a brief scene of the toddler sloppily shoving bloody raw meat into her mouth as the members of the pack sit around barking encouragement, and then another one in which, after being injured in a fall, she is revived by the “White Wolf” after being fed something that looks like a red Christmas ornament. This results in her having a kind of seizure that makes her hair momentarily turn pure white, which sets the stage for those later scenes in which our heroine will be seen, in Hulk-like fashion, going from Brunette to Edgar Winter whenever agitated.
Finally we get our first glimpse of the Wolf Devil Woman in full bloom, as well as at the first of Pearl Cheung Ling’s astonishing outfits, which, in the early parts of the film, encompass the full range of pelt-based high fashion. This first get-up is without a doubt the film’s most iconic, topped off as it is with a plush dog toy worn as headwear. It should also be noted that our star sees being raised by wolves in a snowy wilderness as no excuse for foregoing glamour, as, despite all of her feral trappings, Pearl’s face remains heavily made up throughout, foundation, rouge, lipstick and all. Obviously her canine guardians fashioned cosmetics for her out of regurgitated roots and berries, or something.
Throughout Wolf Devil Woman, Cheung Ling does things that, in most circumstances, would cause me to pity the poor, debased actor doing them. That is, until I remember that Cheung Ling wrote, produced and directed Wolf Devil Woman, and thus has no one but herself to blame. That said, she seems to take to scrambling around on all fours, stuffing her mouth with raw meat, and spouting bursts of animalistic gibberish with a lot of gusto, and actually seems to be quite enjoying herself most of the time. Perhaps, then, she saw the film as her opportunity to prove herself as being more than just an ornamental leading lady, instead immersing herself in a down and dirty, glamour-free character. Perhaps this was her Nell, her Monster. In any case, what Cheung Ling chooses to do with that opportunity is deliver a performance that, while far from gritty, is undeniably eccentric, consisting of lots of twitching and scratching, accompanied by gestures and facial expressions so cartoonishly over-telegraphed that they would seem excessive even in a film from the early silent era.
Such is the case from even her earliest scenes in the film, during which we watch Wolf Woman struggle with trying to catch a rabbit. This involves a lot of trial, and even more error, as well as a lot of comical furrowing of brow and bouts of enraged grunting. The leaping and lunging required also provides the theater for some pretty haphazard wire work, which occasionally makes Cheung Ling look like she’s being dragged through the air by the seat of her pants. Finally Wolf Woman learns to burrow into the snow and surprise the rabbit in its hole from underneath, after which she is shown lustily tearing the little beast’s body in half.
And this might be a good time for me to discuss the one element of Wolf Devil Woman that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly: it’s animal cruelty. Like a lot of my otherwise hardened cult film reviewing brethren, real animal death and suffering is one of the few insurmountable obstacles to enjoyment of a film that I can encounter. As much as I love movies, there could never be any justification for any living thing sacrificing its life for one. I have, however, calloused myself somewhat toward the practice in old Hong Kong and Taiwanese films, due to what I perceive as a cultural tendency to sentimentalize animals to a comparatively much lesser degree than we Yanks do, coupled with the cold-eyed pragmatism of those country’s commercial film industries. (If you ever find yourself wondering whether an animal death in an old Hong Kong movie is real or faked, consider which of those options would have been the cheapest and most expedient at the time and you’ll have your answer –- a principle for which many a hapless snake has had its blood spilled on the Shaw Brothers back lot.)
The incidents of animal violence in Wolf Devil Woman, however, are particularly mean spirited and graphic. The movie, in particular, seems to have a real hatred for bunnies. And even if you might choose to defend those scenes as being at least an attempt at a realistic portrayal of how a woman raised as a wolf might actually fill her days –- i.e. with the killing and devouring of prey — that doesn’t excuse the way the camera lingers on the carnage, reveling in the mayhem for its own sake. It says a lot for Wolf Devil Woman as a whole that I have amped up my capacity for denial accordingly in order that I might savor it’s other, legitimately entertaining aspects. But it nonetheless makes it, along with The Cat, another one of those films that I — despite however much I find within it to love — can only recommend on an extremely conditional basis.
Anyway, as it inevitably must, Wolf Woman’s primitive idyll is eventually intruded upon by the arrival in her snowy environs of emissaries from the so-called civilized world –- in this case, a young knight (Sek Fung) and his servant (Pa Gwoh), who, in the English dub of the film, are confusingly referred to as “Young Rudolph” and “Rudy”, respectively. As we will learn from a later scene that might have been intended as a flashback — but which really seems like it was simply inserted into the movie out of sequence — Rudolph has been sent into the mountains by his father in order to retrieve the “thousand year old ginseng” that is the only antidote to the Red Devil’s weapon of choice, a deadly freezing spell. You see, we have immediately previous been treated to a potentially seizure-inducing montage of the Red Devil’s continuing reign of terror, which looks like a series of fraction-of-a-second long clips from about eight different movies stitched together.
By the way, the thousand year old ginseng turns up a lot in these movies. In the Lam Siu-Lau fantasy Magic of Spell, it’s portrayed as a little boy in an adorable, full-body ginseng root costume. And, in Legend of the Mother Goddess, it’s a creepy, root-shaped little flying baby. In Wolf Devil Woman, however, it turns out to have been that red Christmas ornament looking thing that the White Wolf fed to the young Wolf Woman at the beginning of the movie, which means that Young Rudolph and Rudy will have to go home empty handed.
Before that can happen, though, the story takes a momentary turn that could be described as “Pygmalion in pelts”, with Rudolph and Rudy, in very short order, teaching Wolf Woman to speak and behave like a comparatively civilized young lady. I think that this portion of the film is intended as comedy, with Rudy — him being a comic relief character and all — frequently calling Wolf Woman a “Stupid wolf guhl” in that affected British accent that so many characters in English dubbed 1980s kung fu films seem to have. Wolf Woman also bites Young Rudolph on a couple different occasions. Finally, Rudolph forcefully straightens Wolf Woman’s hunched spine in a bizarrely visualized scene that sees shots of Sek Fung wrestling with a frantically mugging Cheung Ling intercut with shots of what looks like a metal model of a human spine being violently twisted around.
Things ultimately take a somber turn when the boys have to inform Wolf Woman that, in the course of their entry into her domain, they killed the White Wolf, and that, given that, she hasn’t just been out shopping all this time like they’ve been telling her. This provokes Wolf Woman to Hulk-out and go all white haired, after which the knight and his aid skulk off back home, leaving Pearl behind to mournfully howl at the moon.
But, of course, the seeds of love have been planted, and when Young Rudolph and his father are captured by the Red Devil and his minions, Wolf Woman, hidden away in her faraway lair, senses trouble. At this, and without explanation, Pearl abruptly takes on the next of her many Wolf Devil Woman iterations, the one I like to call “Robin Tarzan”. (She also has a nice “Lawrence of Arabia” phase, where she travels through the desert in fashionable Bedouin attire while doing battle with sand ninjas.) This involves her wearing rough cut peasant clothes — albeit with huge hair adornments that make her head look like it wants to be a helicopter –- and swinging from tree to tree by a fur-covered rope. By this means she makes her way to a small town, where a drunken Hulk-out in a tavern leads to her being thrown into a well by the angry villagers.
After being washed out to sea, Wolf Woman conveniently ends up beached right at the feet of the very bearded sage (Sek Ying) who can fill her in on the Red Devil’s role as, not only her beloved’s captor, but also her real parents’ killer, and who informs her that it his her destiny to bring the villain down. This provokes Pearl’s final, jump cut-assisted and wholly unexplained transformation, this time into a resplendently coiffed, white clad wuxia heroine right out of a Chor Yuen movie. Her weapon of choice now — again unexplained to the point where we might as well be in a totally different movie altogether — is a furry rope with giant chicken claws on either end, which she uses to disembowel and decapitate her opponents with complete abandon. Gone is her swinging rope, now replaced by a charging white steed upon which she rides toward her destiny.
What that destiny entails, I will, for the sake of those interested in seeing this film for themselves, not divulge. But suffice it to say that there will be zombies, cartoon fire, and lots of Pearl Cheung Ling being haphazardly slung around on wires.
I realize that, if you’re reading this, it is likely nowhere near the first review of this type of film that you’ve read, and that, as a result, you’ve read endless claims –- some of them, most likely, from me –- about how this or that movie is the most “insane” or “WTF” thing ever. And while I’ll make no claims to it being the “most” of anything, I do ask that you grant me some authority when I say that, as far as strange movies go, Wolf Devil Woman is definitely the real deal. It is indeed the type of deeply strange film that can only result from a person who is themselves deeply strange attempting to make what his or her addled mind considers to be a perfectly straightforward and rousing piece of entertainment. It is furthermore that oddest of birds, a vanity project whose subject’s “vanity” seems to be best served by making her look as completely and relentlessly ludicrous as is humanly possible. Oh, and lest I forget, it is also one of those many 1980s kung fu films that is made exponentially weirder by its English dubbing job, which involves choices such as having the monstrous Red Devil talk like Yosemite Sam
This is all not to say that Wolf Devil Woman is a lone blip of strangeness on Pearl Cheung Ling’s long resume. In fact, it would seem that her Wolf Woman character would become an indelible part of her screen persona from this point on, and that, as a result, she would embody a number of similar “kung fu bag lady” types in subsequent films. She would also, in 1982, return to the director’s chair for what might be her true masterpiece, Matching Escort (released stateside as Fury of the Silver Fox), in which she is taken as a disciple by a kung fu master who lives in an underground fairy land, whose training methods involve rubbing caustic substances in Pearl’s eyes and forcing her to eat disgusting things, but no actual fight training. And then, of course, she would appear alongside Jackie Chan –- a high priestess of weird once again — in 1983’s Fantasy Mission Force, a film of near legendary bizarreness.
And then, after that — perhaps feeling that, by starring in a film that featured Abraham Lincoln fighting World War II with the aid of 1970s muscle cars, she had finally topped herself — Pearl Cheung Ling disappeared from the screen, the details of her activities ever since becoming as mysterious to us as those preceding her appearance on the scene in the mid 70s. While I respect her desire to shun the spotlight –- if that is indeed the case –- I do truly hope that, wherever she is, she understands the uniqueness of her contribution to world cinema. And that she has perhaps learned to be more tolerant towards those poor bunnies.
Release Year: 1981 | Country: Taiwan | Starring: Pearl Cheung Ling, Sek Fung, Wang Hsieh, Ho Hing-Nam, Wan Siu-Man, Sek Ying, Philip So Yuen-Fung, Clement Yip Chiu-Yuk, Woo Chung, Pa Gwoh, Cheung Yue-Cheung, Wong Pui-Yee, Pui Tak-Wan | Screenplay: Pearl Cheung Ling | Director: Pearl Cheung Ling | Cinematography: Chan Sin-Lok | Music: Tseng Chung-Ching | Producers: Pearl Cheung Ling, Alan Wu Yu-Ling | Also know as: Wolfen Ninja
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.
It wouldn’t be difficult to interpret The Web of Death — the third in director Chor Yuen’s long cycle of films adapting contemporary popular wuxia novels — as something of a cold war parable. In it, a Martial World clan by the name of The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of a super-weapon so powerful that the clan’s leader has decreed that it should be put under wraps and hidden away for the good of the Martial World as a whole. That weapon, the Five Venom Spider, is revealed to us in the film’s opening minutes, and that’s a good thing; while definitely kind of neat in a cheeseball sort of way, the Five Venom Spider is not the kind of thing that could live up to an extended build-up. What it is, in fact, is a normal-sized tarantula that, when released from its ornate cage, glows green, emits the roar of a raging elephant, and then shoots a deadly, electrified web to the accompaniment of much billowing of smoke and flying of sparks. It’s a weapon that will be deployed to amusing effect throughout Web of Death, but which has the unfortunate side effect of saddling Chor with a conclusion in which a room full of fighters who have been established as the Martial World’s bravest and most accomplished cower away from a spider. But more about that later.
As the films opens, a number of the Five Venom Clan’s chiefs — including the Snake Chief, Liu Shen, played by Lo Lieh — are beseeching its leader to allow that the Five Venom Spider be brought out of mothballs. It seems that, since the weapon was taken out of play, the clan has fallen somewhat in the eyes of its peers, which is not surprising. You see, the clan has sort of made the Five Venom Spider its whole “thing”. This is evident not just from the clan’s name, but also from the fact that both their palatial lair and their garments are covered with spider and web motifs. So the whole situation is similar to if the United States’ flag, rather than being covered with stars and stripes, was instead covered with atomic symbols and mushroom clouds, and then we tried to present ourselves as a model of restraint. In that case I think even the most lily-livered country would be justified in snickering at us behind its hand a little bit.
Of course, the Five Venoms leader, being a man of principle, refuses to back down. This turns out to be of no matter, however, because, as we will soon learn, Liu Shen is screwing the leader’s wife (Angela Yu Chien), and is secretly plotting with her to obtain the spider for himself so that he can rule the Martial World. Now, I’m unclear whether, in the universe of these wuxia stories, the Martial World comprises the entire world, or is just a discreet part of the larger world. I mean, is there still a Europe and an Africa, for instance, with just a large chunk of Asia delineated as the Martial World? If this is the case, the greater, non-martial world has nothing to fear from the Martial World, because its inhabitants are way too busy warring amongst themselves for dominance to bother with anything going on beyond its borders. This is what they’re all about, you see.
Coming at this early stage, Web of Death is something of a transitional film in Chor’s wuxia series. It lacks the rough, exploitation movie edge of his earlier Killer Clans — which I think was the result of Chor being influenced by the types of films that were coming out of Japan at the time — and, to a much lesser extent, The Magic Blade, while at the same time being not quite as mannered and dreamlike as his next feature, the more distinctly Chinese-feeling Clans of Intrigue. That latter film would set the tone for all of Chor’s wuxia adaptations to come, one that would be crystallized by the time of films like Murder Plot, and would approach the point of self parody with the ridiculously convoluted and stylized-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber movies. While, like those later films, Web is not without its elements of romance and tragedy, those elements are not as heady and enveloping as they would become, nor is the world that the director creates on screen so completely sealed off from reality. Yes, the set-bound exteriors with the conspicuously phony-looking painted-on moon and clouds are still there, but not at the expense of a certain amount of actual location and back lot shooting.
This is not to say that all of those thing that would become hallmarks of Chor’s swordplay films are in short supply in Web of Death. To the contrary, I think that fans of his films will be more than satisfied with the number of beautiful and atmospheric sets, Bava-esque green and red lighting schemes, frequent and often spectacularly staged fight scenes, and the abundance of exotic weaponry on display. After all, in this last regard alone, there is not only the Five Venom Spider itself, but also the centipede-shaped sword wielded by the Centipede Clan’s chief, the Venom clan’s array of poisonous darts and vapors, Lo Lieh’s snake-shaped bazooka (for lack of a better word), and an entire clan of fighters equipped with flaming metal gloves. To my mind, the most interestingly conceived of these death-dealers is the Venom Clan’s “Poisonous Nether Flower”, which is capable of turning a person’s actual blood into a weapon against the spider — although once that blood is released, it will not stop flowing until its owner is completely drained.
Added to this is the fact that Web of Death compensates for the comparative lack of its successors’ swoony romanticism with a surfeit of something fairly unique to the series: the type of cheap “B” horror movie thrills seemingly derived more from 1950s American drive-in fare than from the Chinese folklore that martial arts films typically look to for their spook-show elements. This is again, of course, largely due to our friend the Five Venom Spider. Both the whirlwind of crude special effects he stands at the center of and the rigors that cast and crew alike put themselves through to convince us that he’s scary make this whole enterprise seem like spiritual kin to the work of shlockmeisters like Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon. As a result, the movie is lent a sort of ragged, three-legged-dog charm that’s far from what Chor’s other more stately and genteel offerings typically convey.
Another thing that sets Web of Death apart from most of the other films in Chor’s wuxia catalog is the fact it is one of a very few of those films not to star either Ti Lung or Derek Yee as its hero. Instead we here get Shaw mainstay Yueh Hua, who also had a prominent role in Killer Clans that same year. Probably Hua’s earliest claim to fame was starring opposite Cheng Pei Pei in King Hu’s game-changing martial arts classic Come Drink With Me. He would go on to become a prolific Shaw player, appearing in dozens of the studio’s productions. And while Web of Death marked the last time he would take top billing in one of Chor’s wuxia movies, he would take substantial supporting roles in a number of those that followed, including Clans of Intrigue with Ti Lung and Death Duel with Yee. While an adequate performer, Hua lacks the charisma of Ti Lung — as well as the striking, teen idol good looks of Derek Yee — and, because of that, largely fails to register in Web of Death. Of course, to give the actor his due, it takes a star with an extraordinarily forceful presence to stand out in one of these movies, given the small army of characters they have to compete with for attention, as well as the distractions provided by the relentless, rapid-fire convolutions of the plot.
In any case, Yueh Hua’s low-impact performance has the effect of handing the film over to his leading lady, an actress who would prove to be a constant and legitimizing presence in Chor’s swordplay epics, Ching Li. Ching’s character here is one of the female archetypes of wuxia cinema: the “headstrong” girl who, despite her noble upbringing, insists on being part of the action — all the better to put in practice her formidable martial arts skills. In this case she is Susu, the daughter of the Five Venom clan’s leader, who enacts her rebellion by way of a ruse that is also archetypal in wuxia cinema. She masquerades as a man, albeit in a manner that makes it more than obvious to the viewing audience that she is anything but, while everyone else on screen, despite this evidence, takes it as a given. Granted, Susu’s guise as a grubby male beggar, while not convincing at all, is a lot more so than the typical wuxia movie version of cross-dressing, which simply involves a glamorous actress in full makeup wearing pants and being referred to as “lad” and “sir” by everyone she encounters. It also helps that these sequences are contrasted with those in which Susu appears in her undisguised form, as a radiant beauty made even more so by Chor’s employment of all the old school glamour-imbuing tricks of his trade, swathed in a series of diaphanous gowns. However, it is not just by virtue of her enchanting presence that the actress ends up taking charge of Web of Death, but also as a result of the fact that, at the film’s close, it is her character’s actions, more than those of any other in the film, that prove to be the most heroic.
First in her beggar drag, and then as herself, Ching’s Susu ends up assisting Yueh Hua’s swordsman character, Fei, in his mission to find the truth regarding the Five Venom Spider. Liu Shen and the master’s wife, in their quest for the weapon, have spread a rumor that the Five Venom Clan is again contemplating its use, hoping that, by doing so, they will incite members of the rival clans to try to track it down for themselves, thus doing the hard work of divining the weapon’s hiding place for them. It is for this very reason that Fei, the eldest student at the Shaolin Temple, has been sent forth by his master. Over the course of the film, his journey will have him continually crossing swords with those rival clans — both in dreamlike, fog-enshrouded marshes and cavernous, surrealistically-lit tombs fraught with elaborate booby traps — while fending off all of the depredations that Lo Lieh at his cackling bad guy best can visit upon him. At some point, Fei’s younger brother, Yingjie (Wong Chung), also joins in the search, joined by a young female disciple, Quixin (Lilly Li Li-Li), who makes no secret of her affection for Fei. As might be expected, all of the rivalries, jealousies and complex betrayals that we’ve come to count on from the denizens of Chor’s Martial World will come into play to make sure that the road to Web of Death’s conclusion will be far from a straight and narrow one.
If this all sounds complicated, it is. But to be truthful, Web of Death‘s narrative is actually one of the more transparent ones as far as Chor’s wuxia movies go. If you pay attention, it’s relatively easy to keep track of who’s who, who’s doing what to whom, and why they’re doing it, which, in the case of, say, the aforementioned Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, would be a truly Sisyphean task. Of course, because this is a Chor Yuen film we’re talking about, you can also just choose to abandon any efforts to follow what’s going on and simply immerse yourself in all the gorgeous art direction and well-staged action. Honestly, you’ll probably end up enjoying it just as much. It’s a win-win, really.
In Web of Death‘s final act, Lo Lieh and his minions finally get their hands on the film’s much ballyhooed doomsday device, putting it to its ultimate test at a summit held by their rivals at the headquarters of the Wudang clan. And, as I alluded to before, it is here, in the film’s conclusion, that Web of Death runs up against its biggest flaw. You see, the typical Chor Yuen wuxia movie rewards you for the effort of keeping track of its many characters by giving you a climax in which you get to see almost all of those characters fighting each other in a wild and protracted sword battle, complete with lots of crazy acrobatics and people spitting up candy-apple-red blood. Here, we indeed get to see all of the characters brought together, but instead of fighting, they’re all cringing and clawing at their faces in terror as a little spider crawls across the floor toward them. And keep in mind that this is the Martial World we’re talking about, and that all of these characters’ lives are defined by both their constant proclaiming and demonstration of their fighting prowess — which, furthermore, we have paid more than ample witness to over the previous eighty-or-so minutes.
Granted, all of this is amusing for its unintentional absurdity, but Chor Yuen isn’t Ed Wood. That kind of campy hilarity isn’t normally what I turn to his films for. As a result, I expect that this sequence might make the film a little bit of a disappointment for anyone coming to it with expectations based on the director’s other work. For those coming to it unburdened by expectations, however, it’s actually kind of awesome, filled with cheap gore effects, a spider roaring like an elephant, and lots of people shooting lightning bolts out of their hands via crude, drawn-on animation.
So, ultimately, The Web of Death is one of those martial arts films in Chor Yuen’s catalog that is inessential, but nonetheless enjoyable. It provides a nice break for completists like myself, who have had to suffer through far worse in their mission to watch every single one of the man’s films. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to his movies, I think it’s well worth checking out for those who have already made their way through all of his top tier works. Especially those who felt that those works didn’t bare a strong enough resemblance to Earth vs. The Spider.
Release Year: 1976 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Yueh Hua, Ching Li, Lo Lieh, Ku Feng, Wang Hsieh, Angela Yu Chien, Wong Chun, Lilly Li Li-Li, Cheng Miu, Kong Yeung, Chan Shen, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Heo Li-Jen, Lee Sau-Kei, Wang Han-Chen, Norman Chu Siu-Keung | Writer: Ni Kuang | Director: Chor Yuen | Action Directors: Tong Gai, Yuen Cheung-Yan | Cinematographer: Wong Chit | Music: Frankie Chan Fan-Kei | Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw
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.
1983 was an exceptionally big year for Hong Kong cinema. Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the Death, Tsui Hark’s Zu, and Project A featuring the first major on-screen teaming of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, all hit the screens during that year. So did Aces Go Places II, a sequel to the wildly popular Sam Hui-Karl Maka action comedy of the previous year. It was a good time to be the Hong Kong film industry. Things were up in the air to be sure, as they often are during a rebirth, but there was no getting around that this was a year of incredible, ground-breaking films.
Lost somewhere in the mix was a more modest offering called Bastard Swordsman from the Shaw Brothers Studio. By 1983, The Shaw Brothers studio that had ruled Hong Kong since the 1960s, was all but dead and buried. By the time they figured out their approach — both on-screen and off — was no longer viable, it was too late, and Golden Harvest had become the dominant player on the field, with Tsui Hark’s upstart Film Workshop providing an alternative outlet for film makers who had more ambitious artistic visions or, like Tsui Hark himself, simply couldn’t get along with other people.
Bastard Swordsman wasn’t a bad film. In fact, it was rather exceptionally fun. But it was also decidedly old-fashioned at a time when the New Wave was beginning to roar with full force. There were attempts to graft some of the look and feel of the New Wave onto the film, but while they may have succeeded in some spots (just as many New Wave films still had bits that looked old-fashioned, at least in terms of special effects), the overall result was a martial arts fantasy film that belonged to the previous decade. Despite the merits of the film, and perhaps because of longstanding legal wrangling over release of the Shaw Brothers library onto home video, Bastard Swordsman all but disappeared from the public consciousness while other films from the same year — especially those mentioned above — were revered as classics of Hong Kong action cinema.
A number of things conspired to bring the end of the Shaw Brothers studio, and once again in the spirit of drawing comparisons across genres and countries so as not to become exclusively focused on one aspect of film at the expense of seeing its connection to other aspects, it pays to compare the final days of the Shaw Bros to those of Hammer Films in England and, curiously enough, to the career of Elvis Presley.
With the glut of martial arts films that flooded the 1970s in the wake of Bruce Lee’s popularity, and with the increasingly slapdash production values of many of those films, it was inevitable that an eventual backlash against — or at the very least, complete boredom with — the genre would bubble to the surface. This began to happen at the end of the 1970s, and it was only through the innovations of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and action-comedy luminary Michael Hui, that the kungfu film found a new approach and continued to flourish. Unfortunately for the Shaws, all this flourishing was happening over at rival studios like Golden Harvest and Cinema City. Young, innovative film makers were unwilling to sign on to work with the creaking Shaw Brothers studio, opting for freedom and more artistic control rather than locking themselves into an outdated and oppressive studio system. With their old guard too old to deliver they way they used to, and no new guard lined up to inherit the mantle, the Shaw Brothers studio found itself floundering without direction or much hope for the future.
Hammer Studios, with whom the Shaw Brothers had collaborated in the past (on, among other things, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires starring Peter Cushing and David Chiang), had undergone almost the exact same crisis a decade before. When Hammer released a trio of horror films in the late 50s — Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy — they revolutionized and revitalized horror cinema almost over night. And while the studio produced a wide variety of movies, it was horror that defined them and became their bread and butter. When one mentions “Hammer films,” one invariably thinks of the horror films rather than their pirate or war movies. Hammer’s horror formula was so effective, however, that they never bothered to tinker with it, and as the 1960s wore on, Hammer found themselves suddenly losing ground. Where they had once been the controversial trendsetters, they were fast becoming the out-of-date fogies. They were unwilling to change the look or the formula, and rather than attempting to create new properties, they relied excessively on Frankenstein and Dracula and on their two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
By 1970, Hammer’s unwillingness to revise its way of doing business and presenting pictures was doing the company in more effectively than any stake through Christopher Lee’s heart. New audiences, wrapped up in the social turmoil and upheaval of the Vietnam era, saw Hammer films as nothing more than their parents’ square old movies. Hammer execs were, by and large, square and old, and their last-ditch attempts to make the studio relevant again met with all the success you would expect from sixty-year-old British guys trying to write hip, counter-culture lingo into a Dracula film. No one was buying it, and by the middle of the 1970s, Hammer was dead.
For the first few years of that decade, however, their desperate attempts to right the ship and remain afloat produced some of their best films, though very few people recognized them as such at the time. But Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Vampire Circus, Twins of Evil, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter — these are all, in my opinion anyway, exceptionally good films. Vampire Circus and, to an even greater extent, Captain Kronos, represent everything that was right and wrong with Hammer. In Captain Kronos, they found the new direction the studio was seeking. Boasting a more action-packed, swashbucking approach, with more wit and comedy courtesy of a writer who was best known at the time for the quirky British spy-fi series The Avengers, it’s entirely possible that Captain Kronos could have been the life preserver that kept Hammer from drowning.
Unfortunately, studio executives showed no faith in the potential of the film, and a sequel was never made. Instead, they returned to Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Dracula, preferring to sink on a familiar boat than risk an unfamiliar life raft. Their attempts to graft a hip, young face onto the hoary old Dracula franchise was met with indifference and derision from both critics and the young audiences so vital to the survival of horror films. And while Dracula A.D. 1972 has its entertaining aspects in retrospect, it’s hard not to imagine how laughable all the woefully out-of-date “cool” lingo would have been to young viewers at the time.
Ten years later, the Shaws were finding themselves in almost the exact same dire straights, and they handled it in exactly the same way. With more faith and more money, and with a willingness to give young film makers a freer artistic and business related reign, it’s possible that the studio could have found a new direction and continued, if not to thrive, than at least to exist. But they didn’t do this. They stuck to the same old system, and the same old formula. By this time, Chang Cheh films could practically write and direct themselves, and the venerable old master was hardly up to the challenge of trying to reinvent himself or his films this late in the game. If there was any hope for the studio, it was in the form of Chu Yuan and Liu Chia-liang, but both were increasingly uncomfortable within the confines of the Shaw system.
Still, as with Hammer, this dark period at the end of the Shaw saga resulted in some of the very best films they ever produced, particularly courtesy of Liu Chia-liang, whose frenetic choreography and more character-driven films provided the vital step between the old and new, between the Shaw and Golden Harvest style. Many of his films, especially those from the tumultuous 1980s, are regarded today as masterpieces of kungfu cinema. But it was too little too late, and although Liu was an exceptionally gifted film maker, the weight of the whole of the Shaw Brothers machine was too great for him to support on his own.
By 1985, it was all over. Runrun Shaw didn’t see any hope in sticking things out, and in the end, he was happier to see the ship go down than try any more reconstruction. Unable to support the lavish budgets that had been the calling card of past productions, the Shaw output started to look more and more like television productions — which was fitting, as studio head Runrun Shaw had himself all but given up on theatrical releases and was investing his money in TV production.
It would have been fitting, back in the 1970s, if the last film Hammer produced had been something like Captain Kronos or even Twins of Evil. Both of these films were quite good, and even if the end of the studio was unavoidable, at least people would be able to look back and say that Hammer went out with a good movie. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the case. Disregarding forays into comedy, the last horror film Hammer produced was the astoundingly dismal To the Devil, a Daughter, starring a completely uninterested Richard Widmark who kills the high priest of the Antichrist by throwing a rock at him. It was a sorry, sorry nail to be the final one in the coffin. Similarly, the Shaw Brothers could have ended on a high note if Return of the Bastard Swordsman had been their final film, because it retains all the charm and energy of the first film but packs in even more action and weirdness. And it feels a lot like a last film, with Lo Lieh and Chen Kuan-tai returning to play memorable roles alongside many other Shaw stars, including some of the Venoms (though Ti Lung and David Chiang are missing).
Unfortunately, release schedules conspired against the Shaws going out on a high note, and the last kungfu film released by the Shaw Brothers as an independent entity was the perhaps too aptly titled Journey of the Doomed, a dismal (but not without entertainment value) and seedy failure of a film that is very much the Shaw equivalent of To the Devil, A Daughter, relying on sleaze, titillation, and a couple recognizable stars to keep audiences from noticing what a dreary, tedious, mess their final genre film was. It didn’t work for Hammer, and it didn’t work for the Shaw Brothers.
Both studios made the cardinal mistake that can kill any pop culture phenomenon and is perhaps best embodied by the career of Elvis Presley — because I love making wild and seemingly ridiculous comparisons of that nature. Elvis, like Hammer and the Shaw Brothers films, came to pop culture prominence as the dangerous rebel, the rule-breaker and the hip-shaker. His rock and roll and on-stage pelvic antics were to pop music what the Shaw Brothers gory swordsman films of the 1960s were to Hon Kong cinema, and what Hammer’s gory monster films were to British and American cinema. They outraged censors, befuddled critics, but enthralled young audiences.
But all three of them refused to move forward. Elvis remained the 50s icon throughout the 60s and 70s, but society moved on around him. Stuck in time, Elvis became increasingly square looking as pop culture evolved around him. Before he knew it, he was singing for middle aged housewives in Vegas while the youth market mocked and ridiculed him. The same things happened to Hammer and the Shaw Brothers. Entertainment and tastes evolved. They did not. Any attempt to recreate themselves was short-circuited by fear of the unknown, and no sooner would they try something different than they would retreat into the cobweb-strewn familiarity of a Chang Cheh film, or a Dracula film. In the end, it killed them all. Elvis’ swansong was as an overweight drug addict in a sequined jumpsuit. To the Devil, A Daughter and Journey of the Doomed were the sequined jumpsuits for Hammer and the Shaws respectively. Amid the ugliness of their demise, it’s hard to notice sometimes that there was still a lot of worthwhile material in those final hours.
Because the story for Bastard Swordsman was so sprawling, the production spanned two films, so although the series was unable to compete with the New Wave, the second part, Return of the Bastard Swordsman hit screens a year later. By this time, the Shaw Bros. were almost completely moribund, and indeed according to some sources, although the official date for the closure of production at the studio is given as 1985, the actual date may have been as early as 1983 or 1984, with the films coming out after that being things that were already in the can. It certainly seems likely that Return of the Bastard Swordsman was in production at the same time as the first film, as they share the same cast, crews, and sets. Indeed, Return of the Bastard Swordsman would have been a fitting close to the Shaw era, for while it may have been dated, it was still a ridiculously enjoyable movie.
The story picks up pretty immediately after the end of the first film. Having mastered the powerful Silkworm technique and saved Wudong from a would-be usurper, Yen-fei (Norman Chu) has retired to a life of contemplation alongside his wife (played again by Lau Suet-wah), the daughter of the late master of the Wudong school. I must have missed something here, because as is revealed to absolutely no one’s surprise in the first film, the Wudong master is also Yen-fei’s father (and mysterious hooded teacher), with the mother being the wife of the leader of Invincible Clan. Which would mean Lau’s character is Yen-fei’s half-sister, which isn’t all that cool for a marriage even within the screwy universe of the Martial World. I must have gotten confused at some point, or maybe there was so much stuff going on that no one making the film noticed. I’m sure there was a line that would explain away their potential blood relationship. Right?
Since Yen-fei’s departure, things have been relatively quiet, at least by Martial World standards. But that’s not going to last for long, as a story about quiet and relaxing times in the Martial World would not be very much fun. For starters, the Wudong school still pretty much blows. There only seem to be a few competent students, and the cowardly, sniveling old elders are still hanging around. And the leader of Invincible Clan (Alex Man, once again) is still lurking about out there and presumably still has it in for Wudong. At this point, I really can’t blame him. Those guys are worthless. But the big problem looming on the horizon is the fact that a ninja clan from Japan has noticed all this complicated Martial World squabbling, and they’ve decided that this sort of convoluted nonsense full of backstabbing and shenanigans is perfect for ninjas. They’re pissed that it’s been an all-China affair up to this point.
The leader of the ninja clan is played by none other than Chen Kuan-tai, one of the venerable old stars from the glory days of the Shaw Brothers kungfu film, on hand no doubt to lend a little fading star power to the proceedings (though I’m not sure Chen Kuan-tai was that big a draw by 1984). Just as the Invincible Clan has Fatal Skills and Yen-fei has Silkworm Technique, the ninjas have their own bizarre magical style that they think entitles them to rule the Martial World. The style allows Chen Kuan-tai to use his heartbeat to take over the heartbeat of his opponent, allowing him to wreak havoc with their pulse until they finally cough up their own heart. Using the power also causes Chen Kuan-tai to glow red while his chest inflates, because, you know, whatever man. Ninjas.
In order to prove the superiority of his chest-burtsing technique, Chen Kuan-tai takes his most trusted and weird ninjas to China, where he intends to kill both Yen-fei and the leader of Invincible Clan. Faced with challenges from the almighty Invincible Clan and these seemingly unbeatable ninjas, the elders of Wudong dispatch a young student (Lau Siu-kwan) to track down the only man who could possibly beat these guys: Yen-fei. Along the way, Lau meets up with a fortune teller (Philip Ko) whose kungfu seems to be at least as powerful as that of all the other ultra-powerful guys we’ve seen flying around and shooting beams out of their hands. While they’re all out looking for Yen-fei (is this movie ever going have a bastard swordsman who returns?), Wudong assembles the leaders of all the remaining Martial World clans in hopes that together they might successfully defend themselves from Invincible Clan, although again, once you meet all these backstabbing, cowardly leaders, it’s hard not to sympathize with the Invincibles. Before this coalition of the sniveling can get much done in the way of fighting the Invincible Clan, however, the ninjas show up to slaughter everyone and pin the blame on Invincible Clan in hopes that this will expedite Yen-fei’s emergence from his reclusive lifestyle.
Yen-fei does eventually show up, though to be honest, this movie is a lot like Ivanhoe in that it spends a lot of time talking about the title character while the title character spends a lot of time resting and recuperating from various wounds. The bulk of the action is carried by Philip Ko, and later by Philip Ko and Anthony Lau as a noble doctor who also seems to have near invincible kungfu. Exactly how these two guys achieved such great power is never really explained, and they just sort of wander onto the scene and help Yen-fei out. Yen-fei, for his contribution to the story, doesn’t seem capable of beating either Invincible Leader or the Ninja, at least until he spends a good long while hibernating in a cocoon in a cave.
Very little changes between this film and the first. The look and feel are identical, and the production values are the same. Some characters are out — we never see the wife or daughter of Invincible Leader again — while new ones are in, including the fortune teller, the doctor, and another more conniving doctor played by Lo Lieh. Return of the Bastard Swordsman has less character development, as most of that was accomplished in the first film, leaving room for more action in the sequel. This is neither good nor bad, as the characters helped make the first film compelling. If you watched this one without watching the first one, you’d probably be able to figure most things out (it’s all summarized for you anyway), but it wouldn’t be nearly as good. Chen Kuan-tai shows up with his magical ninjas to fulfill the role of full-blown villain that was left vacant when Yen-fei reduced that wandering swordsman to a pile of bloody bones at the end of the first film, and Invincible Leader remains a complex and interesting quasi-villain with whom we can still side when he’s faced with an even greater villain. In fact, the showdown between Invincible and the ninjas is not the film’s finale, but it is far and away the best fight scene in the film, with the end being both heroic and melancholy, and a great way to resolve the story of the Invincible Clan.
By comparison’s Yen-fei’s quest to attain the supreme level of Silkworm Technique is less intriguing, but that’s not to say Norman Chu doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, even if his bastard swordsman is reduced to supporting character for much of the film. The finale is still his, or at least it’s his and Philip Ko’s. Perhaps taking a page from Jackie Chan’s playbook, the finale sees Yen-fei realize that, in all likelihood, he can’t beat Chen Kuan-tai (a nod, perhaps, to Chen Kuan-tai in Executioner from Shaolin, in which he was the hero engaged in an equally hopeless battle against a superior foe) and so must rely on cleverness, endurance, and the assistance of his friends. Their system for beating Chen Kuan-tai recalls another great Shaw Brothers film, Crippled Avengers, and once again someone discovers that a drum-based defense is best foiled by, you know, breaking all the drums.
Return of the Bastard Swordsman is a superb conclusion to the story that began in the first film. Thanks to the inclusion of ninjas, we get even more bizarre fights than in the first film, and we get them more frequently. I would have preferred maybe a little more involvement from our bastard swordsman, and maybe some explanation as to how some of the supporting characters manage to be just as powerful as the principals, but in the end, I am also pretty happy to let those small quibbles be washed away in the tide of just how much fun this movie is. It’s good to see old hands like Lo Lieh and Chen Kuan-tai coming out for another go-round, and Norman Chu once again manages to infuse humanity and vulnerability in a character that becomes ever-closer to a God. The real show, however, is as it was with the first film, Alex Man as the leader of the Invincible Clan. He shows a voracious appetite for the scenery and plays everything wildly over the top, which is a style perfectly suited for this type of film. Movies full of magical ninjas, wizards, and guys shooting laser beams out of their hands really aren’t well suited for subtlety. His final fight really makes the movie for me, and Norman Chu’s actual finale seems almost to pale in comparison.
Yuen Tak’s action choreography is once again a solid mixture of straightforward sword fighting and kungfu placed alongside fanciful supernatural skills realized with the same crude but entertaining effects as the first film. As I said at the beginning of this article, the effects were cheap and behind the times, but it’s not like, looking back from our vantage point today, the effects of movies like Zu don’t look just as crude. They may have been a major leap forward compared to Return of the Bastard Swordsman in the early 1980s, but now they all look rather archaic, and that makes it easier to appreciate the two Bastard Swordsman films without getting hung up over how old-fashioned they seemed at the time of their release. Return of the Bastard Swordsman is sort of like Clash of the Titans, a film that used Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects after George Lucas style effects had put such things out to pasture. Past their prime or not, though, the effects in Clash of the Titans are still a lot of fun, as are the effects in Return of the Bastard Swordsman. Wires, jump cuts, garishly colorful animation — considering how insane the whole world presented to us in these movies is, I don’t really see much point in saying, “Nuh-uh, that’s not how shooting crackling energy beams out of your palm looks like in real life.”
Since this really is just the second half of one long film, I wouldn’t recommend seeing Return of the Bastard Swordsman without or before Bastard Swordsman, just as there’s not much point to Bastard Swordsman unless you move on to Return of the Bastard Swordsman. Although neither film was the final curtain for the Shaw Brothers studio, they never the less serve as an excellent note on which to pretend things ended. As far as anything-goes martial arts mayhem may go, the Bastard Swordsman saga may indeed not measure up to the films of the New Wave. It may lack the breakneck choreography of Jackie Chan and Ching Siu-tung, or the technical ambition of Tsui Hark, but none of these short-comings really matter in the long run, because Bastard Swordsman and Return of the Bastard Swordsman are still spectacularly fun wuxia fantasies with a comprehensible — albeit somewhat loony — plot and solid characters. It wasn’t the movie that stemmed off the end for the Shaw Brothers martial arts film, but as far as “end of an era” free-for-alls go, you’d be hard-pressed to find another one with this much unbridled entertainment value.
This is one of those movies that, upon completion, I can’t wait to sit down and write a review of. And then, when I do sit down, all I can do is stare at the blinking cursor on a blank screen as I wrack my brain mercilessly for some way to encompass in words the absolutely bonkers display of sheer lunacy I’ve just watched. This often happens to me when attempting to write about especially weird kungfu films, because as fans of kungfu films know, nothing — and that includes Alexandro Jodorowski movies — is quite as weird as a really weird kungfu film. With Jodorowski, one can at least ask oneself “what the hell was this director thinking?” then engage in all sorts of research and philosophical debate pertaining to the meaning of his films. Yes, they are excessively weird, but they are not undecipherable. With enough thought, you can attain some degree of understanding as to his purpose and message.
With a film like Young Taoism Fighter or Fantasy Mission Force, or the film up for discussion here, Bastard Swordsman, divining a comprehensible reason behind the lunacy is far more challenging. It’s not that these films suffer from some insurmountable cultural barrier; though they may be based upon or reference classic and contemporary Chinese stories and comic books, such things, especially in the age of the Internet and a globally connected tangled web of shared pop culture, are hardly inaccessible to fans in the West. Many classic works have been translated, and many more have, at the very least, been well summarized and explained in English. The same goes for modern works of fantastic fiction, specifically the Hong Kong comic books and martial arts novels from which so many films draw their inspiration. They are not common knowledge, perhaps, but neither are they arcane secrets locked away in some box that can only be opened by someone who tests positive for Chinese citizenship, a national identity that is verified using such questions as, “Do you like to spit?” and “How do you feel about cleaning your ears in public?” Incidentally, although my relatives are American Southerners of Scottish decent, a good many of them manage to test positive for Chinese citizenship.
Neither, do I think, is this a symptom of filmmakers who are so deep and complex that it becomes a lifetime chore just to unravel their meaning. There is little of James Joyce in Jimmy Wang Yu. Although I have been wrong about some things in the past, I am firmly placed in my opinion that Jimmy Wang Yu did not have any deep-rooted meaning or message embedded in the random ghost houses, flying Amazons, and kidnapping of Abraham Lincoln by Chinese Nazis in Buicks that comprises much of the running time of Fantasy Mission Force. Nor do I think that the people who make these films are throwing weird stuff up on screen just for the sake of being weird, because in general, people who do that never come up with anything quite this weird. There is a twisted, feverish imagination at work in many of these films, and the situations and characters that are borne of these imaginations are possessed of a weirdness quite unlike any other type of cinematic weirdness. Maybe it comes from having multiple people dashing off different parts of the script mere minutes before each scene is scheduled to be filmed. Maybe it comes from taking one too many punches to the head. Maybe there is liberal consumption of Bruce Lee’s old hashish brownies during scriptwriting sessions. Whatever the reasons, anyone who submerges themselves in the weird world of kungfu cannot emerge as the same person. Like facing the abyss, you come away both scarred and enlightened. Like witnessing one of H.P. Lovecraft’s hideous otherworldly monstrosities, sometimes to merely gaze upon them is enough to drive you completely and utterly insane.
Throughout the 1970s, and the first couple years of the 1980s, the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong was cranking three distinct types of martial arts films: there were the films of Chang Cheh and those who followed his style, all about brute force, heroic bloodshed, and male bonding between archetypal characters. There were the films of Liu Chia-liang, featuring more intricate, technically accomplished fight sequences, complex characters, and comedic touches. And though these two directors were the sole definitions of Shaw Bros. martial arts films in the West until very recently, current DVD releases of the Shaws’ voluminous libraries finally turned hungry fans on to the third type of Shaw Bros. martial arts film: the artfully designed, lyrical, almost supernatural swordsman fantasies of Chu Yuan.
In previous reviews of Chu Yuan films, I’ve discussed some of the elements that comprised his style. You could argue, pretty accurately, that Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-liang made kungfu films, while Chu Yuan made martial arts films. The films of the two formers were based on real weapons, real styles, and real historical periods (albeit historical periods that might not be realized with complete authenticity). Chu Yuan, however, based his martial arts films almost exclusively within the realm of fantasy, confined them to the mythical “Martial World,” a fairytale version of ancient China populated by secret sects, supernatural styles, and fighters with mystic skills and fighting ability that bore very little resemblance to any form of actual fighting — though I have a friend whose mother swears that there are some monks who really can fly and shoot bolts of concentrated chi energy from their palms. Chu Yuan shot almost entirely on sets, using highly stylized and extremely detailed art design to conjure up a world that was recognizable yet distinctly fantastic. You knew that the normal rules did not apply.
As the years wore on, Chu Yuan began to incorporate more and more special effects into his films. Relatively straight-forward films like The Bastard gave way to his successful run of swordsman films, many of which featured Shaw superstar Ti Lung navigating his way through a world populated by esoteric clans and secret societies hiding out in underground lairs stuffed to the gills with hidden chambers, trap doors, and wild Mario Bava-esque lighting. And the fighters in his film were increasingly likely to possess otherworldly martial arts skills that enabled them to fly and vanish into thin air. By the end of the 1970s, spilling into the 1980s, Chu Yuan went hog wild and indulged every artistic excess. His later films are crammed with even more characters, even more elaborate lairs, more stylized sets, and now the martial artists could do more than just fly; they could shoot multi-colored rays, spin webs, grow or shrink, and perform all sorts of other insane feats of a superhuman nature. They were Hong Kong’s answer to American superheroes and Mexican luchadores.
Several directors followed in the footsteps of Chu Yuan, especially toward the end of the Shaw Bros. run at the top, when a faltering studio and the general sense that the Shaw product was outdated and stuffy when compared to what they were doing over at Golden Harvest (home of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao, among others) meant that desperate producers and directors were throwing every zany thing they could think of onto the screen in a last-ditch attempt to salvage some portion of the public interest. The slapdash desperation, dwindling budgets, and speedy shooting schedules, coupled with the fact that many filmmakers were trying to cram sprawling epic novels and comic book series into hundred minute movies meant that much of what was produced at the end of the studio’s lifespan was as wildly imaginative and insane as it was completely incomprehensible and convoluted.
Somewhere amid the maelstrom of this “anything goes” free for all, we find director Lu Chin-Ku’s delirious martial arts fantasy Bastard Swordsman, two films that are really just one long film split into two parts for easier consumption. Lu began his directing career in the 1970s with a series of generally nondescript, low-budget kungfu films. As an actor, he appeared in a whole passel of Shaw Bros. productions, including some of their more infamous titles, such as Bruce Lee and I, the softcore Bruce Lee biopic starring Danny Lee (John Woo’s The Killer) and Bruce’s real-life possible mistress, Betty Ting Pei. In the 1980s, however, probably as a result of studying Chu Yuan’s films as well as attempting to mimic the special-effects laden films of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung that helped usher in the Hong Kong New Wave, Lu decided to dabble in films of a similar nature. In 1983, he directed a duo of such over-the-top fantasy films for the Shaw Bros.: Holy Flame of the Martial World and Bastard Swordsman.
Bastard Swordsman started out as a 1978 television series under the title Reincarnated, starring Norman Chu and female lead Nora Miao, who appeared alongside Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon and Fist of Fury, as well as appearing in Chu Yuan’s classic Clans of Intrigue. Norman Chu had been steadily working his way up through the ranks of Shaw Bros. martial arts stars, appearing in just about all of Chu Yuan’s martial arts fantasies during the 1970s (including Killer Clans, Magic Blade, Legend of the Bat, Web of Death, Clans of Intrigue and, well, more than there’s a point to list right now) as well as films directed by Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-liang. The action in the Reincarnated television series was directed by Ching Siu-tung, who would himself go on to pair with producer (and sometimes overbearing co-director) Tsui Hark to usher in the Hong Kong New Wave with films like Zu and Duel to the Death — both of which happen to feature Norman Chu. Chu also appeared in Patrick Tam’s The Sword alongside Adam Cheng (who would himself go on to play one of the other major roles in Zu), regarded by many as the first film of the Hong Kong New Wave — a dubious claim at best, dependent entirely on how you define the Hong Kong New Wave.
Sorry, I know I’m throwing out more names per paragraph than Chu Yuan himself. If you’ve been a fan of Hong Kong films for a long time, at least since the early 1990s, or if you are a more recent but well-read (and watched) fan, then a lot of these terms and names — the Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, Ching Siu-tung, the Hong Kong New Wave, so on and so forth, are going to be familiar, if not common knowledge. But if you’re all new to this, and I know a good many of you are because you ended up at this site due to other genres, then I might be sounding as esoteric as a Lung Ku novel. So allow me, if you will indulge me in such things, to derail this review just a bit longer so I can sum up, in as few paragraphs as possible the gist of the Hong Kong film chronology and why it is important to understanding Bastard Swordsman.
Even if you aren’t a kungfu film fan — and Lord help you if you aren’t — you probably at least know what the heck they are, and more than likely, your image of them is rooted in the ultra-cheap, often shoddy productions that were dumped en mass into the United States grindhouse, drive-in, and television markets during the 1970s. Although kungfu films had been around in Hong Kong, in one form or another, pretty much since the birth of the film industry there (and Hong Kong has traditionally had the third largest film industry in the world, falling short only of India and the United States, though production dropped off substantially when the industry collapsed in the mid-late 1990s), they were strictly regional products until the 70s. The earliest kungfu films were little more than filmed Peking Opera plays (and in an effort to keep myself at least somewhat reeled in, I’m not going to explain Peking Opera to you — that’s what the rest of the Internet is for), and it wasn’t until a man by the name of Kwan Tak-hing stepped into the role of local folk hero Wong Fei-hung that the kungfu film as we know it started to take shape. Kwan and his frequent co-star Shih Kien (who would play Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon, making him present at both the birth and rebirth of the kungfu film) still relied on the stylization and acrobatics of Peking Opera, but they also began to integrate fight choreography and purer martial arts styles into their films, as well as more stories structured more for the screen rather than stage.
The result was a thunderous success, at least in Hong Kong. Kwan Tak-hing became so famous for his role that people pretty much thought of him as Wong Fei-hung; certainly he achieved more fame than the actual Wong Fei-hung, and the only other actor at the time who could boast such staggering success was an Italian actor named Bartelomo Pagano, who had appeared as the towering slave Maciste in the early Italian silent film epic Cabiria. Like Kwan, Pagano was so famous for the role and played it so many times that, in effect, the actor became synonymous with the character (Pagano eventually dropped his real name and simply went by Maciste even in his daily life). El Santo in Mexico would be another, later example of a similar phenomenon. Unfortunately, no one ever had the means or the desire to put Kwan Tak-hing and Bartelomo Pagano (or El Santo) together in a film.
Once Kwan and Shih Kien established modern kungfu fight choreography, it wasn’t long before studios started making fewer and fewer staged opera play movies and more and more legitimate kungfu films. The Shaw Brothers studio, one of the earliest production houses in all of Asia, labored away at these martial arts films until, in the mid 1960s, they hit the jackpot with a string of swordsman melodramas that relied heavily on the rhythmic fight choreography pioneered by Kwan Tak-hing, the melodrama and emotion of Chinese operas and plays, and the Grand Guignol spectacle of onscreen bloodshed and mayhem. These early swordsman films — wu xia pian as they were known — often starred a guy named Jimmy Wang Yu, usually alongside other early stars like Lo Lieh and one of the first female action stars, Cheng Pei-pei (still going strong today, with among other things, a substantial role in Ang Lee’s wu xia revival film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Men like Chang Cheh and King Hu were often the go-to directors for these types of films, which upped the ante considerably both in terms of technical fight choreography and violence.
As the 60s progressed, certain producers, stars, and directors started looking for something other than the wu xia epics that had served them so well but obviously couldn’t last forever. It was the early luminaries of the wu xia films — Chang Cheh, Lo Lieh, and Jimmy Wang Yu — who would be among the first to return to the kungfu of the Kwan Tak-hing films. It was a moment of perfect timing. In 1970, the “final” film in Kwan Tak-hing’s Wong Fei-hung series was released. He would go on to reprise his role again and again, but always as a supporting cast member. The core Wong Fei-hung series, however, lasted for ninety-nine films, which means it is still the reigning international champion for longest film series. Even James Bond and Godzilla cower in the shadow of Kwan Tak-hing and Wong Fei-hung.
Just as the Kwan films were going out of production and the public was getting tired of gruesome swordsman melodramas, the Shaw Brothers studios and Jimmy Wang Yu (who split ways with the studio) were kicking the kungfu film concept into high gear. In 1970, the “Iron Triangle” of director Chang Cheh and stars David Chiang and Ti Lung debuted together in the film Vengeance. It is partially a kungfu film, but it’s obvious that Chang couldn’t entirely divorce himself from the previous decade. Much of the fighting actually takes place with blades and knives, and the story is classic swordsman revenge melodrama. For pure kungfu, fans and historians split hairs over which was the first, but Jimmy Wang Yu’s Chinese Boxer generally claims the title of “first modern kungfu film.”
But what they were doing was being done against the backdrop of a rising storm. The wu xia films proved wildly popular in Hong Kong, but the martial arts movie remained a solidly local product. Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Chang Cheh — these were huge names in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but outside of the region, they were relatively unknown. In 1971, however, the Hong Kong born co-star of the American television show The Green Hornet returned to his native city-state, where he was considered the star, rather than the sidekick, of the TV show. Lo Wei, a former director at the Shaw Bros. studio, was working for an upstart studio called Golden Harvest, and he was anxious to nab this talented, charismatic Chinese-American to star in one of his films. The film was called Fist of Fury, and the star, as most of you probably already know, was a guy named Bruce Lee.
Stick with me, because yes, eventually this will all circle back around and connect to Bastard Swordsman. It’s just been a really long time since I got to write about Hong Kong films, and I’m pretty excited. So forgive me if I get carried away. My first professional writing job was about Hong Kong cinema, and it occurs to me that while many of these films are as familiar to me as a family member, I sometimes forget that something like Jackie Chan’s Police Story is over twenty years old now, and that some of our younger readers — heck, some of our college age readers — weren’t even born the first time I saw that movie. Because I was young once, too, and because I always found it fun to uncover tidbits of information and understand how films and film industries connect with one another, I thought I’d run down the basics for those who weren’t around when this was all big news.
Fist of Fury wasn’t the first kungfu film, and Bruce Lee wasn’t the first kungfu film star. Heck, he wasn’t even the first kungfu film star to break in America. That honor goes to Lo Lieh and Five Fingers of Death, which found its way onto American grindhouse screens while Lee was still toiling away in Hong Kong, all but forgotten in the United States. But people in Hong Kong knew what was up, and they could see that Bruce Lee represented another quantum leap forward in the evolution of martial arts and fight choreography. He gathered more and more steam, and when he finally exploded onto American screens in the Warner Brothers-Golden Harvest co-production Enter the Dragon, an unstoppable phenomenon had been created.
And by that time, Bruce was already dead.
But there’s no denying he kicked open the floodgates, allowing kungfu films to finally stream across the pacific and into the United States (among other countries, of course). Audiences, especially in crowded urban areas, went nuts for this new style of film. Plagued by skyrocketing crime rates and social unrest, the largely minority audiences found in kungfu films heroes to whom they could relate: often poor, often down-trodden, and never Caucasian. But heroes none the less, even in the face of insurmountable odds. It’s no pop culture coincidence that kungfu films and blaxploitation films arrived on the scene at roughly the same time and played to roughly the same audiences.
Unfortunately, Bruce Lee only made a few films before his death, so American distributors were hungry for absolutely anything they could get their hands on. Hong Kong, still very much in the grips of the kungfu film craze as well, was full of quality productions, and while Golden Harvest may have opened the door in the form of Bruce Lee, it was the venerable Shaw Brothers studio that became the respectable and lavish face of the kungfu film. Anchored by studio directors like Chang Cheh and good-looking, solidly trained contract stars like Ti Lung and David Chiang, Shaw Brothers became to the kungfu film what Hammer Studios was to the horror film in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were the dominant force, and their films boasted the best stars, the biggest budgets, the most lavish sets, and the most intricate fight choreography.
But even the Shaw Brothers output wasn’t enough to satiate the hunger of American distributors, and so dozens upon dozens of production companies sprung up to crank out kungfu cheapies that could keep audiences across the world doped up on kungfu mayhem. Some of these films were quite good; many of them weren’t, and often the cheaper and shoddier the film, the better it became known in the United States since whole stacks of the cheap ones could be bought for the price of a single quality production. As a result, these lower budget, more slapdash kungfu films eventually became the face of kungfu in the United States.
But we aren’t really interested in the United States right now. Back in Hong Kong, the Shaw Brothers studio was discovering, like Pony Boy, that nothing gold can stay. As the 70s trudged on, the studio struggled to stay at the top of its game and supplement its veterans with a steady supply of fresh faces — Alexander Fu Sheng, Liu Chia-hui, the group of actors known collectively as the Venoms — and new directors — like Liu Chia-liang and Chu Yuan.
At the dawn of the 1980s, the Shaw Brothers were finding it almost impossible to fend off attacks on its dominance from Golden Harvest, who had floundered about for much of the 70s as they searched for “the next Bruce Lee.” They finally found him — or them, rather — in the late 1970s. A group of former Peking Opera brats looking to make it in the kungfu movie business found homes at Golden Harvest. Among them were Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao. Chan, who had been toiling away in lackluster though occasionally entertaining low-budget films directed by Lo Wei’ sindependent production company, hooked up with Taiwanese director and choreographer Yuen Wo-ping, whose entire family was involved (and still is, as even many non-Hong Kong film fans know his name these days) in doing stunt work, directing, acting, and kungfu choreography. With two films — Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master — Jackie went from second-string ham ‘n’ egger to mega-star.
Meanwhile, his classmates Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao were working over at Golden Harvest on films like Knockabout and Magnificent Butcher, often alongside none other than Kwan Tak-hing, still playing Wong Fei-hong after all those decades. Both Sammo and Yuen Biao had appeared in much better films than Jackie Chan, including several high-profile Shaw Brothers productions, but Biao was always a nameless extra hired for his acrobatic skills, and Sammo was always a second-string henchman and behind-the-scenes choreographer. With films like Knockabout, however, they got to move to center stage, and just as Jackie Chan was doing, they wasted no time ushering in the next era of martial arts choreography, highlighted by absolutely breathtaking stunts, fights that were faster and more intricate than anything anyone ever dreamed of trying, and films that were peppered with as much comedy as violence. This was the birth of the Hong Kong New Wave.
And the New Wave was beating mercilessly at the storied shores of the Shaw Brothers studio. Locked into an old and out-of-date frame of mind, the studio simply couldn’t keep pace. They were still making good films, and even quite a few great ones thanks to Liu Chia-liang (who represents the essential middle step between the early 70s choreography of Chang Cheh and his stars and the New Wave choreography of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung) and Chu Yuan, but it was obvious as the 70s fell away and the 80s began, that the Shaw Brothers and their style of filmmaking was a thing of the past. Once Sammo, Jackie, and Yuen Biao united alongside other former classmates at Golden Harvest, it was the end for Shaw Brothers.
But Jackie and Sammo only represent a third of what comprised the Hong Kong New Wave. The second third was comprised of the aforementioned wu xia revival films by Ching Siu-tung, Patrick Tam, and Tsui Hark. Their films grew directly out of the style of films Chu Yuan was making throughout the 70s, and Bastard Swordsman represents one of the the Shaw Bros. attempts to keep pace with the changing face of Hong Kong cinema.
The final third of the New Wave came to us courtesy of Tsui Hark as producer and former Chang Cheh protoge and second unit director John Woo as director. Working with the king of Shaw Brothers films during much of the 1970s, Ti Lung, as well as the more-or-less obscure (at the time) Chow Yun-fat, Woo and Hark made A Better Tomorrow, a film that grafted the heroic bloodshed, over-the-top violence, and male bonding of the Chang Cheh films and the frenetic action choreography that was pioneered by Hung and Chan onto the world of Hong Kong triads and gangsters. Although there are plenty of connections between Woo’s heroic bloodshed gangster films and his teacher’s similar kungfu films from a decade before, the connection most important to Bastard Swordsman exists within the realm of the fantasy films made by guys like Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung.
Ironically, this revitalizing revolution in Hong Kong filmmaking, which has been likened to a similar revolution in the United States during the 70s, failed to ever make much of an impact outside of Hong Kong. Jackie Chan tried and failed several times to break into the U.S. market a la Bruce Lee or Five Fingers of Death, but for the most part, these films remained all but unheard of in the United States until cult film fans started in the early 1990s getting a hold of bootleg copies of Jackie Chan’s Police Force and John Woo’s The Killer.
Still with me? No? OK, I can deal with that. That’s an awful long way of saying that Reincarnated represents one of the very first attempts to create the Hong Kong New Wave, thanks largely to the involvement of Ching Siu-tung. Which means that the guy who was ultimately partially responsible for the series that gave birth to the Bastard Swordsman films is also the guy partially responsible for the New Wave revolution that killed off the Shaw Brothers studio and caused them to start making desperate movies like Bastard Swordsman.
See? See? Everything is connected.
The unique thing about Reincarnated — the Chinese title for which translates literally to “Transformation of the Heavenly Silkworm” — was that, unlike the Chu Yuan films that inspired it, it was not based on a previously existing novel. In fact, the success of the original television show inspired subsequent novels, as well as a sequel series and, finally, the Shaw Bros. produced two-part Bastard Swordsman movie, the Chinese title for which is the same as that of the Reincarnated television series.
For the films, and because he was already an established hand at the studio, they were able to once again cast Norman Chu (he did not appear in the sequel television series, and I doubt very seriously that, given the incompatibilities between paperback books and human anatomy, he ever appeared in any of the novelizations, though if he did, that would have been quite a surprise for whoever opened the book and found him stuffed in there) as orphan Yen-fei, the constantly bullied servant at the Wudong school, one of the most revered pillars of the Martial World. Despite the rep, it seems very few of the students at the school are all that great, and while they should be practicing their martial arts, they instead taunt Yen-fei like a bunch of elementary school bullies, surrounding him and calling him names while they all point at him, and throwing daggers at him — just like in elementary school, like I said. It’s hard to believe any of these students are grown men. I mean, seriously. Surrounding him and chanting names while they all point at him? Shouldn’t these guys have outgrown that by the time they turned ten years old? Hell, though it’s not featured in the film, it seems like they probably also made him eat bugs.
Yen-fei can find no relief from his childish tormentors. The school elders constantly judge in favor of the students, and the school master (Wong Yung), has a curiously zealous grudge against the harried orphan. Only the master’s daughter (Lau Suet-wah, who has awesomely sexy eyebrows) treats Yen-fei with any sort of kindness, but being the abused black sheep of the school, he’s forever too shy to pledge his love to her.
Yen-fei’s not the only one with problems, though. The master and his brother (the superior martial artist and sort of the shadow master of the school) must soon show up for their regularly scheduled duel with the ruthless master of the rival Invincible Clan, who can’t let a day go by without having his henchmen cart him over in a palanquin so he can laugh in everyone’s face and toss some of the useless Wudong students around. I really wish the villains of the world were more like the villains in martial arts movies. Instead of just threatening us via Internet video, imagine what it would be like if the leaders of al-Quaeda instead arrived at the steps of the Capitol building to belt out evil laughter and point a lot, thus requiring members of Congress to file down the stairs in formation while wielding staves. The world went wrong the day our despots and villains stopped sitting in thrones surrounded by henchmen. Now Stalin — I bet that guy would have shown up and cut loose with the evil laughter if he’d had the chance. It would have worked, too, because no American President ever looked more like a Shaolin monk than Eisenhower.
Although this Invincible Clan guy is kind of a prick, he also has good reason to laugh. The Wudong master knows there is no way he can possibly beat the guy. In fact, in all their assorted duels, they’ve never beat him, probably because his secret kungfu style is the Fatal Skill, which is a pretty direct and to the point skill that gets the job done and allows you to glow green. By contrast, the Wudong secret skill is the Silkworm Technique. Now how is the Silkworm Technique going to stand a chance against The Invincible Clan’s Fatal Skills? Especially when no one in the Wudong school has actually ever mastered the Silkworm technique! To make matters worse, the Invincible Clan has decided that this year, if Wudong loses the duel, the Invincible Clan is just going to kill them all because, frankly, who the hell needs Wudong around anyway?
Meanwhile, we learn that Yen-fei has secretly been training in kungfu under the guidance of a mysterious masked man who has turned the youth into the greatest fighter Wudong has ever produced. However, in exchange for his training, Yen-fei has to swear that he will never let any of his fellow Wudong students know he knows kungfu. This becomes increasingly difficult to comply with as the Invincible Clan comes down on Wudong and a wandering swordsman (Anthony Lau) appears who also seems to have it in for Yen-fei and his school. In the end, Yen-fei is forced to flee while the Invincible Clan, his own Wudong students, and the members of a couple other martial arts clans from around the Martial World all seek to kill him and each other before Yen-fei can perfect his skills, unlock the secret of the Silkworm Technique, and sort out the piles and piles of intrigue and deep, dark secrets.
Compared to the wuxia mysteries of Chu Yuan, the first Bastard Swordsman movie is pretty straight-forward. There are a lot of characters, but it’s pretty easy to keep everyone straight, as they all have distinct traits and personalities and, for the most part, play fairly major roles in the plot of the story — as opposed to Chu Yuan films, where there are likely to be twice as many characters, many of whom appear and disappear with little or no explanation, and many of whom are so aloof and remote that it becomes a chore to tell them apart. The plot of Bastard Swordsman is the basic “innocent man must prove his innocence” plot made more complicated by the fact that no one can ever finish a simple sentence before someone else yells, “Shut up! I don’t want to hear your lies!” and flies at them through the air while shooting brightly colored beams. If there is one fault to be found with the film, this is it, and while I understand that it helps propel us directly into the fight scenes, there are times when I wish someone would just take the ten seconds to say the one sentence or one word that would avert all this bickering. But I guess that’s sort of the point, that people in the microcosm of the Martial World are too wrapped up in squabbles and power plays to do the one simple thing or say the one simple sentence that would eliminate so much tragedy.
None of what I’ve written so far in attempting summarize the basic plot sounds all that weird, and I guess few things do when they are boiled down to their essential components. The weirdness comes in the embellishments, and make no mistake about it, Bastard Swordsman is embellished with so much weirdness that it’ll damn near blow your mind. We’re not talking the sheer level of pandemonium attained by Buddha’s Palm (another late-era Shaw Bros. martial arts fantasy), but make no mistake about it, this films is plenty crazy and derives its craziness not from astoundingly confounding plots (by wuxia standards, these films are very straight-forward), but from the supernatural nature of the martial arts and the special effects employed in realizing these powers on screen.
The same year Bastard Swordsman was released also saw the release of Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the Death, another film stuffed with magic ninjas, wizards, and flying swordsman, directed by the man who had worked on the original Reincarnated series and starring Norman Chu. Duel to the Death broke new ground and served as a massive leap forward in the quality of special effects presented in Hong Kong movies, thanks largely to the information brought back from America by producer-director Tsui Hark, who applied his newfound knowledge (he spent considerable time in the States studying Industrial Light and Magic special effects techniques) in excess in his own Norman Chu-starring film, Zu.
Bastard Swordsman, on the other hand, relied almost entirely on somewhat outdated, low budget tricks. Where as Duel to the Death was produced at Golden Harvest, then overflowing with cash from the success of upstart stars and directors like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung and only just emerging as the dominant force in Hong Kong filmmaking, the ambition of Bastard Swordsman is foiled by the limited resources available at the Shaw Studio, which was waning just as fast as Golden Harvest was rising. All the hot actors, directors, and choreographers were at Golden Harvest (and later, at Tsui Hark’s offshoot Film Workshop). Shaw Bros. movies still had their audiences, but they were increasingly out of date and unpopular, and the few young stars the studio had were no longer under exclusive contract the way they had been in previous decades. Like England’s Hammer Studios a decade before, the Shaw Bros. had gone from leader of the pack to creaky artifact. By the time Bastard Swordsman went into production, the once-illustrious studio was all but a thing of the past.
As such, none of the technical innovation that went into Duel to the Death or Zu found its way into Bastard Swordsman, which instead had to rely on the archaic methods that had served them in the 70s — wirework and crude animation. Of course, now the sands of time have swept multiple eras up into one uber-era, and Zu and Duel to the Death are scarcely recognizable to newer fans as being any more or less crudely realized than Bastard Swordsman and Return of the Bastard Swordsman, and as things get mixed into a big ol’ stew of “old stuff,” it becomes a lot easier to look back on the special effects in Bastard Swordsman as over-the-top, colorful, and fun than it must have been to look at them in 1983 and see anything but cheap crap pumped out by a dying studio.
Naturally, everyone glows and has colored lights shining on them. Most everyone can fly, and a more accomplished martial artists can shoot colorful glowing beams out of their hands. Norman Chu’s Yen-fei is drenched in animated blue energy when he summons his power, looking a bit like that Lightning guy from Big Trouble in Little China. Once he becomes a master of Silkworm technique, he can spin webs, toss his enemies about, and imprison them in a cocoon he can then kick and bash around until his foe is little more than a pile of rattled bones. But that’s nothing compared to Chen Kuan-tai’s secret ninja skill in Return of the Bastard Swordsman, which allows him to inflate his chest and use his heartbeat (while he glows, naturally) to take over the pulse of his opponent, which in turn allows him to make them cough up their own heart. But we’ll get to that later.
That’s all just the tip of the iceberg, as both Bastard Swordsman films are crammed with esoteric rites, rituals, and fighting techniques all wielded by a cast of increasingly outlandish characters. While Chu Yuan films were prone to stop from time to time for bouts of exposition and philosophizing, Lu’s Bastard Swordsman rarely take a break from the ridiculous, over-the-top action. Very few and far between are the scenes free of guys shooting lasers at each other, or flying around engaging in sword duels. But while other such wuxia fantasies rely almost entirely on wild special effects-driven fighting, the Bastard Swordsman duo strike a healthy mix between supernatural martial arts shenanigans and genuine fight choreography. With action direction by Yuen Tak (one of those Yuens, the ones who adopted the name of their Peking Opera master, a group that also includes Yuen Wah, Cory Yuen Kwai, and Yuen Biao — not to mention the guys who didn’t change their names, like Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan — but not the clan of Yuens that included Yuen Wo-ping. what is it with that surname, anyway?), both Bastard Swordsman films boast excellent hand-to-hand and sword fights that don’t rely on wires or glowing animation of crackling blue energies.
Although people come for the weirdness and spectacle, Bastard Swordsman offers plenty of other elements that make it worth staying around. For starters, taking a note from Chu Yuan, Lu’s film is packed with complex, well-developed characters. Chang Cheh always dealt in symbols and archetypes, while Chu Yuen favored more human (though still supernaturally powerful) characters. The cast of Bastard Swordsman falls somewhere in the middle, and much of the film’s power comes from the quality job done by the actors inhabiting the characters. Norman Chu makes a compelling and empathetic lead. We root for him when he’s the abused underdog, and we cheer for him once he begins to discover his true potential as a fighter.
But the real complexity is manifest in the leader of the Invincible Clan. He’s sort of evil, sort of not. He definitely has a grudge against the Wudong, but we never really have a clear picture of whether or not Wudong is all that heroic by contrast. We never see them out defending the poor or performing kind acts, and frankly, what we see of most of the members sort of makes them out to be dicks. Who knows if they are really any more or less “evil” than the Invincible Clan? Invincible Leader is mostly considered evil because he does that laugh. But when he defeats the master of Wudong, he grants leniency in carrying out the death sentence, going so far as to issue a command that no one in the realm should lay a finger on any member of the Wudong Clan until he himself has time to kill them. When yet another rival clan attacks the Wudong and claims to be from the Invincible Clan, it’s the Wudong who refuse to listen to explanation or investigate the situation, while the Invincible Clan vows to get to the bottom of who wronged the Wudong and violated the proclamation.
There’s also the estranged wife (Yuen Qiu) and daughter (Candy Wen Xue-er) of the Invincible Clan leader, both of whom have secret connections to Wudong and Yen-fei, and both of whom are far deeper characters than “evil dragon lady” or “damsel in distress.” Along with the daughter of the Wudong leader, they each play vital roles in helping Yen-fei unlock his skills and, with any luck, put an end to all the squabbling in the Martial World. That they play such significant, developed, and heroic roles in the film is definitely something Lu picked up from his Shaw Bros. peers Chu Yuan and Liu Chia-liang, both of whom were well known for featuring women in substantial roles while Chang Cheh couldn’t wait to get the dames off the screen and get back to a shirtless Ti Lung being stabbed in the gut.
The rest of the Invincible Clan seems pretty noble as well, especially compared to the cowardly, squabbling, whining Wudong students and elders. Yen-fei definitely has more in common with the Invincible leader than he does with his own clan. Both men are striving to attain a level of martial arts prowess that will elevate them beyond the human sphere and grant them near godlike powers. If the Invincible Leader is a dick, if he tends to laugh a lot, if he sits with rakish casualness in his sparkly throne, it’s probably because he is so dedicated to the attainment of the ultimate level of martial arts that he almost ceases to be human or relate to human morality. Yen-fei is similar, but his upbringing and his relationship with the three women keep him from becoming disconnected from his humanity.
Lu’s direction is gorgeous, aided greatly by the cinematography which takes full advantage of the widescreen format. Along with the bright glowing beams of light, Lu splashes each scene with vibrant colors. The art design definitely owes a debt to Chu Yuan, but where as he likes to keep his films almost entirely set-bound, Lu Chin-ku mixes stylish sets with outdoor locations, reflecting perhaps his penchant for alternating between supernatural special-effects fights and more authentic sword fights and kungfu. Although Bastard Swordsman ultimately falls short of the elegance of Chu Yuan at his best, it’s still a breathtakingly beautiful and meticulously constructed adventure.
Part one of the film resolves some of the major plot points it introduces — specifically the sorting out of the Wudong intrigue and the appearance of the mysterious swordsman. However, it leaves plenty of other plot threads — specifically the conflict between Yen-fei and Invincible Clan’s leader — dangling to be wrapped up in the sequel, which, conveniently, picks up right where the first film leaves off.