Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ye Olde Grindhouse: The Bastard Swordsman

In the days before the DVD revolution, fans of classic Shaw Brothers films had to settle for bootlegged VHS copies sold in mom and pop video stores.  These “dubs” were often panned and scanned versions rife with tracking problems, grainy images, and profusely bleeding colors.  Those who sought out the more obscure titles faced an even bigger dilemma.  They were often completely unavailable, and when they did surface it was usually sans English dubbing or subtitles.   When Celestial Pictures began restoring and releasing titles from it's extensive library of 760 Shaw Brothers films, the final remnants of the aforementioned underground market became a relic of the past. 

Now, fabled but formerly inaccessible Shaw Brothers classics can be ordered at the mere click of a mouse.  For me, one of the most sought after rarities of the Shaw Brothers library was The Bastard Swordsman.  I first saw it in 1997 on a VHS copy of unspeakably bad quality.  Last month, Funimation quietly released it on DVD (sans any real special features or supplements), providing fans with a chance to see a kind of Shaw Brothers film that is relatively little known in the west: The fantastical Wuxia epic. 

Orphan Yun Fei Yang (Norman Chu), is a servant at the Wudong Kung-fu School.  The other students treat him with scorn and contempt.  The daughter (Lau Suet-wah) of the Wudong master(Wong Yung) takes pity on him and protects him from the others.  Yun Fei Yang secretly trains in Kung-Fu under the tutelage a mysterious masked figure.  The only condition of the training is that Yun never reveals his skills to the other students. 

When the leader of the Invincible Clan challenges the Wudong master to a duel, the latter is apprehensive to say the least.  He suspects that his rival has mastered the dreaded “Fatal Skill”, a technique that will assure him final victory.  The Wudong has its own secret weapon, the Silkworm Technique.  Alas, no one at Wudong has mastered it.  When he is framed for murder, the hapless Yun Fei Yang finds himself completely ostracized from the Wudong.  His advanced skills make him possibly the only one who can unlock the secrets of the Silkworm Technique and deliver the Wudong from complete annihilation.

The Bastard Swordsman is a strange beast even by Shaw Brothers standards.  Fans such as myself associate the studio mostly with revenge films and Shaolin themed morality tales populated with extensive training sequences.  The Bastard Swordsman was released in the final, waning days of the studio, when the Hong Kong new wave made the Shaw Brothers approach to martial arts cinema seem increasingly passé.  Watching it, one gets the sense that director Lu Chun-Ku was allowed to really cut loose and break free of convention. 

Even more than the “Venoms” films of Chang Cheh, The Bastard Swordsman functions as a bizarre superhero epic.  While the plot does not stand out as anything unusual for the genre, the inclusion of the Silkworm Technique (among other equally bizarre superpowers on display throughout the film) provides for some weird imagery rendered with crude special effects.  The title character can spin silk webs and fashion cocoons, effectively making him the chop-socky equivalent of Spider-Man.  The weirdness doesn’t stop there.  Characters glide through the air on wires and wield swords like seamstresses overdosed on caffeine.  Papers and leaves swirl about and are diced with unimaginable speed and precision.  Swords are used as makeshift springs and shock absorbers as characters rebound from walls.  All of this is shown with a matter-of-fact seriousness renders it unintentionally funny.  Yet one still must admire the boundless imagination on display.

The Bastard Swordsman is like a cinematic train wreck, and I mean that in the best possible way.  The superpowers on display during the fight scenes become more and more outlandish as the film progresses.  By the finale, all tethers to reality and actual martial arts have been severed.  The film becomes some of the most bizarre fantasy theater imaginable.  As silly as it all is, the viewer cannot look away.  Shaw Brothers films continue to exist on a totally different plain from all other action cinema, and thank god for it. 


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