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.