Return of the Bastard Swordman picks up where the first film left off in the manner of a television serial (fact: the two films are adapted from a television serial). Wudang is in trouble again, with both Dugu Wu Di planning to attack the Wudang temple and an interloping group of martial artists from Japan waiting in the background to take on whichever martial clan remains intact after the ensuing battle between the Invincible Clan and the Wudang.
The Wudang clan dispatches a student to find Yun Fei Yang, who has retreated to a life of contemplation and companionship with Wan Er, so that he can set everything right. Illiterate and lost, the pupil contacts the fortune-teller Li Bu Yi, who foresees a great deal of turmoil in the martial world. And sure enough, the Japanese fighters ambush Wudang while they host the leaders of the other martial sects, killing them all, and framing Dugu Wu Di in the process. Angry and bereaved, Yun Fei Yang decides to duel Dugu Wu Di before the appointed date.
Dugu Wu Di, seeing one of the Inivincible Clan’s strongholds in ruins, with a corpse signed in blood by Yun Fei Yang, agrees, although his advisors warn him that the perpetrators of the assault were likely foreigners and not Fei Yang, a suspicion later confirmed when one of the Japanese warriors attempts to ambush the Invincible Clan in disguise.
The duel takes place. Animated rays, wire-work, and blistering fast fight-choreography take flight. And the duel ends inconclusively with Yun Fei Yang injured and Dugu Wu Di coughing blood. Li Bu Yi sees his fortune, and warns Wu Di that he will die unmarried and childless, at which Wu Di scoffs. Given that the film has established the efficacy of Li Bu Yi’s divinations, this seems like a bad move. Sure enough, the Japanese fighters ambush Wu Di while he is ill and kill him.
Meanwhile, Li Bu Yi and Wan Er transport the incapacitated Yun Fei Yang to receive treatment from the legendary physician Lai Yao Er. But Lai Yao Er needs a ginseng root that has aged for a thousand years to treat Yun Fei Yang, and the only person who has one is Ghost Doctor Lan Xin Zu, who had previously thrown his lot in with the Invincible Clan. They fight, and Doctor Lai gets the ginseng. So Yang Yun Fei and Li Bu Yi set out to right the wrongs committed by the Japanese fighters, facing off against the “Vital Skill” of their leader, Mochitsuki Soryu Han.
The fight against Mochitsuki is the showpiece of Return of the Bastard Swordsman, and given the chaos of the preceding fight sequences, it has a lot of show to stop. And it does. This fight showcases some of the strangest visuals in Lu Chin-Ku’s considerably strange career at Shaw Brothers. Mochitsuki makes himself invincible by controlling his heart beat, utilizes ninja tricks that involve costume changes, explosives and tumbling; and when he really gets going with his special skill, his whole chest begins to expand and contract with his heart beat. Li Bu Yi attempts to distract him by beating drums asynchronously to his heart beat, while Yun Fei Yang shoots darts and flies about on wires, conjuring animated silkworms.
The fight choreography in this scene holds up under the prodigious use of visual effects, and, like the film’s less fantastical set pieces, is well performed. If Lu Chin-Ku and Yuen Tak had set out to make a standard wuxia film in the style of, say, Chu Yuan, their action design would more than adequately compliment the film. As seen in the first film, as well as the same year’s The Lady Assassin, Lu Chin-Ku could easily utilize the classical style of Shaw Brothers martial arts films while synthesizing newer techniques pioneered in films produced by rival studios.
My review of Bastard Swordsman asked the question of why, with films like these, which bridged much of the gap between the staid and conservative production style which built the Shaw cinema empire and the wild creativity of the young new wave headed by directors like Tsui Hark, the Shaw Brothers studio eventually imploded. I think now, even more so than earlier this year, when I reviewed Bastard Swordsman, that the reason must be more complicated than somebody so removed from the situation can grasp.
But it is true that even with Lu Chin-Ku and Yuen Tak’s astonishing creativity in both shooting and choreographing their films, and even with the appropriation of editing and cinematographic techniques from the new wave, Return of the Bastard Swordsman still looks very similar to the old style of Shaw Brothers movies. It reuses the familiar sets and costumes; the principle members of the cast, like Chen Kuan-Tai, Norman Chu, and Lau Wing, were hardly fresh faces in 1984.
Even though I would rate the film’s fight choreography at the same tier as, say, Ching Siu-Tung’s Duel to the Death, Ching’s film simply looks, for lack of a better description, more real. Its location shooting outmatches the sometimes garish look of the Shaw sets, which had already appeared in countless films since the late sixties. Even the costuming in Duel to the Death, though hardly exemplary in this sense, is more authentic – particularly when it comes to the depiction of the Japanese characters – than that of Return of the Bastard Swordsman.
But if there is any real problem in the film itself, not as a symbol of where its studio failed to go, but in and of itself, it is that Yun Fei Yang is so powerful that the script has to sideline him until the finale in order to generate any tension. The first Bastard Swordsman was tightly plotted; Return of the Bastard Swordsman is bloated, first with the Wudang pupil wandering about, then with the flight to Doctor Lao, then with the conflict between Lao and Ghost Doctor Lai.
That said, it’s still coherent, at least, which puts it ahead of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain on one account. And for its problems, Return of the Bastard Swordsman is still one of the looniest wuxia films that Shaw Brothers ever cranked out. Taken together with Bastard Swordsman, it is the perfect blend of fun characters, byzantine plotting, and old-school fight choreography mixed with then-new school special effects. Easily required viewing for fans of the Shaw Brothers and wuxia films.