Judge Dan Mancini wrote this review using his unstoppable Word Processor Skill.
He takes lethal to the next level!
In 1930, Chinese businessmen Runme and Run Run Shaw launched Shaw Brothers Studio (originally named South Sea Film). Inspired in large part by Japanese samurai films (especially those of Akira Kurosawa), the studio hit its stride in the 1970s, producing wuxia (martial arts movies) that prominently featured formulaic revenge story lines, elaborately choreographed wire-fu combat, lightning fast kung-fu, and scores of actors in really bad wigs. When first introduced to the Shaw Brothers' work, American audiences mostly viewed the flicks as exotic, disposable fun or unintentional comedies because of poorly dubbed and severely cropped television broadcasts that made them look like low-rent acts of incompetence. Beginning in the '90s, director Quentin Tarantino's (Kill Bill: Volume 1) love of all things Shaw launched a Western hemisphere critical reassessment of the Shaw Brothers Studio catalog. No one is laboring under the delusion that the Shaw Brothers produced high art, but their movies are now considered skillfully made entertainments that must be appreciated on their own idiosyncratic genre terms.
Facts of the Case
Funimation is steadily unleashing Shaw Brothers classics on home video in North America via their Hong Kong Connection line of DVDs. The latest Shaw spectacle to receive the Funimation treatment is 1983's Blind Swordsman. The movie is about an orphan named Yun Fei Yang (Norman Chu, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) who is constantly tormented by the students at the Wudang kung-fu school where he was raised and works as a servant. The Wudang are in perpetual conflict with a rival school known as the Wu Di or Invincible Clan. Using his devastating Fatal Skill, Wu Di's master, Kung Suen Wang has twice defeated Wudang master Qing Song over the past 20 years. When Qing Song is defeated a third time, the Wudang school is thrown into chaos, allowing for the entrance of interloper Fu Yu Xue (Tony Liu, Shaolin Temple), a skilled swordsman who takes control of the clan. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger has secretly trained Yun Fei Yang in the ways of kung-fu. If the Wudang are to survive, the orphan must master the elusive but unstoppable Silkworm Skill and use it to defeat Fu Yu Xue and become the master of Wudang.
Bastard Swordsman isn't in the upper echelon of Shaw Brothers productions, but it's a solid, action-packed early-'80s entry in their canon, directed by Chang Cheh (One-Armed Swordsman). During its first act, the flick appears to be headed lockstep into genre predictability, but manages to deliver some surprising turns of plot during Act Two that make the inevitable climactic showdown fresh by virtue of the fact that the combat isn't between the Wudang and Wu Di as we initially expect it will be. None of these plot twists make Blind Swordsman a revolutionary, or even particularly artful, wuxia, but at least it isn't content to simply go through the genre motions. Fans can still expect the brightly colored silk costumes, long-haired wigs, and emphatic yet wooden delivery of dialogue that are the hallmarks of the genre—not to mention scads of the weirdly enthusiastic yet condescending laugh that is apparently common to all Chinese martial arts masters (what's up with that laugh, anyway?).
Chang Cheh was one of the Shaw Brothers' go-to directors. His work in Bastard Swordsman displays supreme technical competence and a firm grasp of the genre's well-defined cinematic vernacular. Action is plentiful and cleverly staged. The movie mixes swordfighting with traditional kung-fu and the fantastical, gravity-defying wire work that defines the genre. With the exception of a few jarring and awkward jump cuts, the editing is as fluid and coherent as it is frenetic. Chang Cheh's smooth mix of wide shots, medium shots, and close-up inserts of fists, feet, and weapons are easy to take for granted, but they're expertly photographed and assembled in such a way that it's easy to follow the incredibly fast-paced action.
The movie's greatest weakness is that its hero, Yun Fei Yang, is the least interesting character involved. He spends most of the flick a passive dope, overshadowed by the badassery of Qing Song and his Wu Di nemesis. When the plot finally dispenses with Qing Song, forcing Yun Fei Yang to blossom as a warrior, it's too late for us to fully accept him as the story's hero. Norman Chu is a decent kung-fu action hero in most of his movies, but in Bastard Swordsman he fails to give Yun Fei Yang an iota of the frustrated passion or fire in the belly that would make him a believable successor to Qing Song. The problems caused by Chu's flat performance are exacerbated by the fact that, while Yun Fei Yang is undoubtedly a bastard, he never actually fights with a sword. Instead, his Silkworm Skill turns out to be a combination of straight-up kung-fu and a weird dance routine accompanied by laughably cheesy rotoscope animation effects. Blind Swordsman's big boss fight is, unfortunately, the least entertaining piece of action in the entire movie. A lengthy portion of it is a hilariously awful throwdown inside of an outsized cocoon, played out in backlit silhouette and cross-cut with spectators whose mouths are agape.
In keeping with other Shaw Brother's releases under Funimation's Hong Kong Connection line, the DVD presentation of Bastard Swordsman is exemplary. Colors are bold and vivid. Detail is crisp. Print damage is practically non-existent. Video artifacts are minimal, providing the image with a depth and tight grain structure that is a close approximation of celluloid. The movie's original 2.35:1 Shaw Scope aspect ratio is maintained, and the transfer is anamorphically enhanced.
The disc's default audio option is a two-channel presentation of the movie's original analog mono soundtrack in Mandarin. Dynamic range is predictably cramped, but the track is clean and free of distortion—even in the ample Foley work that heightens the aural experience of every swooshing sword, punching fist, jabbing kick, and fluttering sleeve. The disc's audio is far from state-of-the-art, but it's an attractive and faithful reproduction of the original. For those wanting to recreate the experience of Saturday afternoon television broadcasts of kung-fu flicks, there's also a two-channel mono track in English that delivers the sort of mismatched and overacted dialogue that made the genre a camp favorite back in the day.
Other than a handful of trailers for other Funimation releases, there are no extras.
Shaw fanatics will dig this release. The film is action-packed and the DVD presentation is beautiful. Neophytes are better off looking to Five Deadly Venoms or The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for an introduction to Shaw-sponsored chopsocky mayhem.
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Scales of Justice
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