Exploring the history of martial arts movies through the lens of the final days of the Shaw Brothers studio
Although kung fu films had been around pretty much since the birth of the Hong Kong film industry, though the earliest examples were little more than filmed Peking Opera play. 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 kung fu film truly began to take shape. Kwan and his frequent co-star Shih Kien (who later played Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon) still relied on the stylized acrobatics of Peking Opera, but they also integrated purer martial arts and fight choreography, as well as stories structured more for the screen rather than stage. The result of their pioneering work was a thunderous success with audiences in Hong Kong Kwan Tak-hing became so famous for his role that people thought of him as Wong Fei-hung; certainly he achieved more fame than the actual Wong Fei-hung. Once Kwan and Shih Kien established modern kung fu fight choreography, it wasn’t long before studios started making fewer staged opera play movies and more kung fu films.
The Shaw Brothers studio, one of the earliest production houses in all of Asia, made their fair share of martial arts films during their early days, though they weren’t particularly known for such films at the time. That changed in the 1960s, with a string of swordsman melodramas that combined on the rhythmic fight choreography pioneered by Kwan Tak-hing, the melodrama of Chinese opera, and the Grand Guignol spectacle of bloodshed and mayhem. These early swordsman films — wu xia pian — often starred a guy named Jimmy Wang Yu. Men like Chang Cheh and King Hu were the go-to directors. 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 kung fu 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.
Just as the Kwan films were going out of production and the public was getting tired of gruesome swordsman melodramas, the Shaw Brothers and Jimmy Wang Yu (who by then had split ways with the studio) were kicking the kung fu film concept into high gear. In 1970, the “Iron Triangle” — director Chang Cheh and stars David Chiang and Ti Lung — debuted together in the film Vengeance. It is only partially a kung fu film. Chang wasn’t entirely ready to divorce himself from the swordsman films of the previous decade. Much of the fighting involves knives, and the story is classic wu xia melodrama. For pure kung fu, fans and historians split hairs, but Jimmy Wang Yu’s Chinese Boxer usually claims the title of “first modern kung fu film.” What Jimmy Wang Yu and Chang Cheh were doing was happening against the backdrop of a rising storm. In 1971, Lo Wei, a former director at the Shaw Brothers studio, was working for upstart studio Golden Harvest. He was anxious to nab a talented, charismatic Chinese-American actor who was in town and popular for his role in the American series Green Hornet. Lo Wei’s film was called Fist of Fury, and the star, as most probably already know, was Bruce Lee. Fist of Fury wasn’t the first kung fu film, and Bruce Lee wasn’t the first kung fu film star. But people in Hong Kong knew what was up, and they could see that Bruce Lee represented another leap forward in the evolution of martial arts movies. 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.
Lee kicked open the floodgates, allowing kung fu films to finally stream across the Pacific and into the United States. Audiences, especially in urban areas, went nuts for this new style of film. Plagued by skyrocketing crime rates and social unrest, racial minorities found heroes to whom they could relate: often poor, often downtrodden, and never Caucasian — but heroes nonetheless, even in the face of insurmountable odds. It’s no pop culture coincidence that kung fu and “blaxploitation” films arrived on the scene at roughly the same time and played to largely the same audiences. Soon, American distributors were hungry for anything they could get their hands on. Golden Harvest may have introduced the world to Bruce Lee, but it was the Shaw Brothers studio that became the face of the kung fu film. Anchored by Chang Cheh Ti Lung, and David Chiang, Shaw Brothers became to kung fu films what Hammer Films was to horror. Their films had 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, so dozens of production companies sprung up to crank out cheapies that would keep audiences across the world doped up on kung fu mayhem. Some of these films were good; many of them weren’t. Sometimes, the 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 kung fu films eventually took over as the face of kung fu in the U.S.
Back in Hong Kong, as the ’70s reached their end, the Shaw Brothers fought to stay on top and develop new talent — actors including Alexander Fu Sheng, Liu Chia-hui, the group of actors known collectively as the Venoms; and new directors such as Liu Chia-liang and Chu Yuan. At the dawn of the 1980s, the Shaw Brothers were finding it almost impossible to fend off attacks from Golden Harvest, which had floundered about for much of the ’70s searching for “the next Bruce Lee.” GH finally found him — or them, rather — in the late 1970s. A group of former Peking Opera brats looking to make it in the kung fu movie business found homes at Golden Harvest. Among them were Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao. Chan, had been toiling away in lackluster, occasionally entertaining low-budget films until he was cast by Taiwanese director/choreographer Yuen Wo-ping, whose entire family was involved in doing stunt work, directing, acting, and kung fu choreography. With two films — Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master — Jackie went from second-string nobody to mega-star. His classmates Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao were working at Golden Harvest on films like Knockabout and Magnificent Butcher, sometimes alongside none other than Kwan Tak-hing, still playing Wong Fei-hong after all those decades. Before that, Sammo and Yuen Biao had appeared in better films than Jackie Chan, but Biao was always a nameless extra hired for his acrobatic skills, and Sammo was always a henchman. With 1979’s Knockabout, they took center stage. Like Jackie, they wasted no time, ushering in the next era of martial arts choreography highlighted by breathtaking stunts, fights that were faster and more intricate than anything anyone ever dreamed of trying, and films 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. Locked into an out-of-date frame of mind, the Shaws simply couldn’t keep pace. They were still making good films, even some great ones, but it was obvious as the ’70s fell away and the ’80s began, that the Shaw Brothers style was a thing of the past.
Throughout the 1970s, and the first couple years of the 1980s, Shaw Brothers was making 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. For many years in the west, these two directors were the sole definitions of Shaw Brothers martial arts films…until the Shaws’ voluminous libraries were tapped for home video releases in the 2000s. This opening of the vaults turned hungry fans on to the third type of Shaw Brothers martial arts film: the artfully designed, lyrical, almost supernatural swordsman fantasies of Chu Yuan. You could argue, pretty accurately, that Chang Cheh and Liu Chia-liang made kung fu 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. 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 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. The fighters in his film became 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. Several directors followed in the footsteps of Chu Yuan, especially toward the end of the Shaw Brothers run, when a faltering studio and the general sense that the Shaw product was outdated and stuffy meant desperate filmmakers 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.
Bastard Swordsman (天蠶變)
Somewhere amid the maelstrom of this “anything goes” free for all were director Lu Chin-Ku’s delirious martial arts fantasies Bastard Swordsman and Return of the Bastard Swordsman, two films that are really just one long film. Lu began his directing career in the 1970s with a series of nondescript, low-budget kung fu films. As an actor, he appeared in a passel of Shaw Brothers productions, including some of their more infamous titles, such as Bruce Lee and I, the softcore Bruce Lee biopic starring Danny Lee and Bruce’s real-life (alleged) 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 over-the-top fantasy films for the Shaw Brothers: Holy Flame of the Martial World and Bastard Swordsman, the latter of which started out as a 1978 television series under the title Reincarnated, starring Norman Chu and 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 Brothers martial arts stars, appearing in just about all of Chu Yuan’s martial arts fantasies during the 1970s as well as many 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 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).
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 two-part Bastard Swordsman. Norman Chu stars as Yen-fei, an orphan working as a 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. While they should be practicing martial arts, they instead taunt Yen-fei like a bunch of elementary school bullies, surrounding him and calling him names while they all point and throw daggers at him. It’s hard to believe any of these students are grown men. 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 intense grudge against Yen-fei. Only the master’s daughter Lun Wan-Er (Lau Suet-wah) treats Yen-fei with any sort of kindness, but being the abused black sheep of the school, he’s forever too shy to confess his love to her.
Yen-fei’s not the only one with problems. Wudong master Qing Song (Wong Yung) 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 Du Gu, master of the Invincible Clan (Alex Man Chi-Leung), 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 useless Wudong students around. The world would be better if more of its villains behaved in this manner. Imagine what it would be like if the leaders of al-Qaeda arrived at the steps of the Capitol building to belt out evil laughter, requiring members of Congress to rush down the stairs while wielding staves. The world went wrong the day despots stopped sitting in thrones surrounded by henchmen. Now Stalin — 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 Invincible Clan Du Gu is kind of a prick, he also has good reason to laugh. Wudong master Qing Song knows there is no way he can beat the guy. In fact, in all their assorted duels between Du Gu and the Wudong clan, they’ve never beat him, probably because his secret kung fu style is the Fatal Skill, which is a pretty 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. How is the Silkworm technique going to stand a chance against Fatal Skills? Especially when no one in the Wudong school has actually mastered 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 kung fu under the guidance of a mysterious masked man who has turned the orphan 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 kung fu. This becomes increasingly difficult to comply with as the Invincible Clan comes down on Wudong, and a wandering swordsman (Anthony Lau Wing) appears who also seems to have it in for Yen-fei and his school. 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 wu xia mysteries of Chu Yuan, Bastard Swordsman is pretty straight-forward. There are a lot of characters, but it’s 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. Bastard Swordsman uses the basic “innocent man must prove his innocence” plot made more complicated by the fact that no one can finish a 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 ray beams. Some quality weirdness ensues, derived not from confounding plots, but from the supernatural nature of the martial arts and the special effects employed in realizing these powers.
The same year as Bastard Swordsman 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 a man who worked on the original Reincarnated series, and starring Norman Chu. Duel to the Death was another New Wave leap forward, this one in the quality of special effects, thanks largely to the information brought back from America by producer-director Tsui Hark, who applied his newfound knowledge to his own Norman Chu-starring film, Zu. None of the technical innovation of Duel to the Death or Zu found its way into Bastard Swordsman, which had to rely on the archaic methods that had served Shaw productions 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. As things get mixed into a big stew of “old stuff,” it gets easier to regard the effects in Bastard Swordsman as over-the-top, colorful, and fun.
Everyone glows and has colored lights shining on them. Most everyone can fly, and 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. 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. Bastard Swordsman rarely take a break from ridiculous, over-the-top action. Few and far between are scenes without guys shooting lasers at each other or flying around and engaging in sword duels. Other wu xia fantasies rely almost entirely on wild special effects-driven fighting, but Bastard Swordsman strikes a healthy balance between supernatural martial arts and grounded fight choreography. With action direction by Yuen Tak, both Bastard Swordsman films boast excellent hand-to-hand and sword fights that don’t rely entirely on wires or glowing animation of crackling blue energies.
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.
Although people come for the weirdness and spectacle, Bastard Swordsman offers plenty of other elements that make it worth staying around. Lu’s film is packed with complex, well-developed characters. Norman Chu makes a compelling, sympathetic lead. We root for him when he’s the abused underdog, and we cheer for him once he begins to discover his true potential. But the real complexity is manifest in the leader of the Invincible Clan. He’s sort of evil, sort of not. He 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. Who knows if they are really any more or less “evil” than the Invincible Clan? Invincible Leader Du Gu 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. The rest of the Invincible Clan seems pretty noble as well, especially compared to the cowardly, squabbling Wudong.
Yen-fei 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. There’s 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. Along with the daughter of the Wudong leader, they each play roles in helping Yen-fei unlock his skills and, with any luck, put an end to all the squabbling in the Martial World.
Return of the Bastard Swordsman (布衣神相)
Part one of the film resolves some of the major plot points it introduces but leaves plenty of other plot threads to be wrapped up in the sequel. Return of the Bastard Swordsman hit screens a year later. The story picks up immediately after the end of the first film. Having mastered the powerful Silkworm technique and saved Wudong from a would-be usurper, Yen-fei retires to a life of contemplation alongside his wife, the daughter of the master of the Wudong school. Since Yen-fei’s departure, things have been quiet, at least by Martial World standards. That’s not going to last for long, since a story about quiet and relaxing times in the Martial World would not be very much fun. The Wudong school still blows. There are only a few competent students, and the cowardly, sniveling elders are still hanging around. Invincible Clan master Du Gu is still lurking about and presumably still has it in for Wudong. At this point, who can blame him? Those guys are the worst.
The biggest problem, however, is a ninja clan from Japan that has noticed all this complicated Martial World squabbling and decided this sort of convoluted nonsense is perfect for ninjas. The leader of the ninja clan is played by Chen Kuan-tai, one of the stars from the glory days of the Shaw Brothers. Just as the Invincible Clan has Fatal Skills and Yen-fei has Silkworm Technique, the ninjas have their own bizarre magical style 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-bursting technique, Chen Kuan-tai takes his most trusted and weirdest ninjas to China, intent on killing both Yen-fei and the Du Gu. 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 kung fu seems to be at least as powerful as that of all the other ultra-powerful guys flying around and shooting beams out of their hands. While they’re looking for Yen-fei, Wudong assembles the leaders of the remaining clans in hopes that together they might successfully defend themselves from Invincible Clan…although again, once you meet these backstabbing, cowardly leaders, it’s hard not to sympathize with the Invincibles.
Before this Coalition of the Sniveling can get much done, 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 return, though to be honest, he spends a lot of time resting and recuperating from various wounds. The bulk of the action is carried by Philip Ko, and later by Ko and Anthony Lau as a noble doctor who also seems to have near-invincible kung fu. Exactly how these two guys achieved such great power is never really explained. 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 Ninja Leader, 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, since most of that was accomplished in the first film, leaving room for more action. Thanks to the inclusion of ninjas, we get even more bizarre fights than in the first film, and we get them more frequently. Chen Kuan-tai and his magical ninjas to fulfill the role of full-blown villain, and Du Gu remains a complex and interesting quasi-villain with whom we can still side when he’s faced with an even greater villain. While the showdown between Invincible and the ninjas is not the film’s finale, 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, Yen-fei’s quest to attain the supreme level of Silkworm Technique is less intriguing. 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. The finale is still his, or at least his and Philip Ko’s. Yen-fei realizes that, in all likelihood, he can’t beat Chen Kuan-tai and must rely on cleverness, endurance, and the assistance of his friends.
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 Du Gu, leader of the Invincible Clan. He shows a voracious appetite for the scenery and plays everything over-the-top, which is perfect 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.