Bastard Swordsman (Lu Chin-Ku, 1983)
Bastard Swordsman is the film version of TVB’s “Reincarnated,” a 1978 television series also starring Norman Chu that attained at least some notoriety with both its plot and its action scenes. Although, having never seen it nor having been in Hong Kong during its showing, I couldn’t hope to explain the significance of the television serial, I can examine this film update from director Lu Chin-Ku. Shaw Brothers released this film and its sequel in the wake of Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Ching Siu-Tung’s Duel to the Death. Buddha’s Palm, Shaw’s update of a fantastically inclined Cantonese serial from the previous year, was relatively successful and it is clear that the studio hoped to compete with the new wave of special effects driven wuxia films, helped by their audience’s familiarity with a respected property.
And so we have Bastard Swordsman: one part soap-opera revolving around family secrets and clandestine love affairs, one part standard Shaw Bros. wuxia, and two parts wild visual excess. Yun Fei Yang, the eponymous bastard, is the put-upon servant of the Wu Dang clan who learns martial arts in secret from an anonymous benefactor. The film starts with the clan’s students using him as a live target for their dart-throwing practice, all while taunting him about his uncertain parentage. When he complains at the behest of the clan chief’s niece, the elder members punish him for his temerity. The clan chief, Qing Song, plans to face Dugu Wu Di, the chief of the Invincible Clan, having lost two consecutive fights with him. Fei Yang really wants a chance with Qing’s niece, Lun Wan Er, as she treats him with some amount of respect, but his status as the clan’s least favorite servant prevents him from making his feelings known.
And all that is just a set-up. Less complicated than, for example, some of Chu Yuan’s adaptations of Gu Long’s novels, Bastard Swordsman still relates a hefty amount of familial intrigue amongst its feuding clans and secretive martial artists, but it never gets bogged down by them. Character relationships are clear and the movie moves at a brisk pace. Late in the film, a couple of plot points introduce some moral ambiguity, which is mostly glossed over as the movie never stops long enough for the characters to wax contemplative. That is not to say that Bastard Swordsman is poorly written -- it’s a coherent movie with some unusually deft characterization -- but for the most part, it’s a standard, if competent effort from writer/director Lu Chin-Ku.
But Lu Chin-Ku also served as an action director (along with Yuen Tak), and he continues the madness he started with Holy Flame of the Martial World. The first few fight scenes look fairly standard for the era, but as the movie progresses, the wire effects become a larger factor, the editing speeds up to match, and colored lighting gets put to use as a crude visual effect. By the finale, all of these elements combine with animated effects to create one of the most visually absurd fight sequences in the whole of the Shaw Brothers catalogue. Lu orchestrates overblown images of such the highest, most delightful order, seemingly banking on the weirdness and intensity of his visuals over the more technologically sophisticated special effects of his competitors.
So why did Bastard Swordsman -- and the Shaw studio system -- fail so hard? That question is a bit harder to answer. If one actually looks at the numbers, Duel to the Death hardly hit it big at the box office, and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain fared as poorly as most of the similar films from Shaw’s that year, and had a considerably larger investment behind it. The Shaw Brothers might not make a large profit on a film, but they developed a system so that they would never lose too much on their biggest flops.
That’s probably the real reason for the end of the Shaw Brothers: television. TVB production was low risk and profitable. The local audience had moved on, certainly, but their disinterest extended to wuxia movies generally, not just to those from the Shaw studio, and the genre had already become more popular on television and remains so to this day.
The sequel, Return of the Bastard Swordsman, followed its predecessor into theaters only six months later, and is actually more bombastic while less ambitious. But they make a fantastic duology of Hong Kong weirdness that are now freshly available on Region 1 DVD from Funimation.