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Legend of the Bat
(Bian fu chuan qi, 1978)

Chu Yuan

Hong Kong

101 min, color, 2.35:1, Mandarin (English subtitles)

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

This is a sort of a sequel to Clans of Intrigue, at least because Ti Lung and Yun Ling reprise their roles as master swordsman Chu Liu-hsiang and the mysterious assassin Yi Tien-hung. Somewhat confusingly, Hua Yueh shows up in a different role (recall that his character got murdered in the previous installment), this time as Li Yuhan, the childless heir to the illustrious Li family. The good news is that he is married to Wumin (Ching Li, aka Cheng Lee). The bad news is that there's something wrong with the couple (that is, apart from having no children despite lots of trying).

Chen Tzu-chia eats grapes with Ti Lung The Li family meets Hsiang for the first time

The story is yet another collaboration with Ku Lung (Chu Yuan made about 20 of those) and has all the familiar trappings of the novels: plenty of complicated intrigue, fighting, and a bunch of people who strive after odd goals for no good reason. This time Hsiang is almost killed by Yuhan and Wurmin because they want to buy some medicine that should cure her illness, and the guy who sells the rare medicine (it's from India) actually wants Hsiang dead as payment. The transaction is concluded on Bat Island, which is ruled by a mysterious robed person (aha! got to be on the lookout for any innocent character) who prefers to deal in darkness (hence, "Bat"), and is located no less mysteriously somewhere at sea (hence "Island").

Ching Li can also be evil and devious The Li family garden of Good and Evil

Hsiang, having gallantly been saved by Wurmin decides to get her the medicine anyway and travels to the island accompanied by Tien-hung, whose name is startlingly familiar to everyone involved (which might not be a good thing if you are a mysterious contract killer). There's also the beautiful Linzhi (Yu An-an), accompanied by her mute bodyguard, and another mysterious person (Wang Chung) who is a suspected Royal Guard in search of a stolen black pearl. The travel has to be by boat (remember, it's an island), and Norman Chu shows up as the one-eyed Acheron.

Hsiang fights off a bunch of people Norman Chu is the mean gate-keeper

What happens next is straight out of an Agatha Cristie novel: lots of people die under mysterious circumstances, even the ones suspected of killing them. This is while most of the characters are together and trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Then the boat explodes and they find themselves on another boat, no less weird, with a blind guy (hint, hint) being its master. We meet with the Li couple again, and then the fishermen fish out a net full of naked women. I am not making this up. The naked women kill an older woman (Wang Lai) but not before she kills them. Then our intrepid protagonists are drugged and find themselves in a cell in a cave, a cave-cell, if you will.

Yu An-an with the cardboard moon There're are many people drifting in coffins!

Then there's an acid pool which they cross on a Silk Rope which is apparently stolen (but turns out not to have been) from the Royal Palace, and Tien-hung discovers who he's supposed to kill. Fortunately, the guy saves his life, so he probably won't kill him. On the other hand, the guy then dies on his own volition, so we will never know how this dilemma was going to be resolved. The gang travels through the caves in search of Mr. Bat, and it has to sacrifice its members one by one in some badly thought-out obstacles courses. When they finally reach Mr. Bat's lair, all mysteries are revealed, although by this time most of the characters have been killed off and there's no one to cheer.

The naked girls killed madam! Liu Hui-ling brightens Liu Yung's torpor

This film is well above average, even for Chu Yuan, whose quality is quite consistent most of the time. There are some spectacular fighting scenes (this is not unusual, but I mean spectacular), and the sets are of very high production value, the cardboard moons notwithstanding. Sumptuous costumes, elaborate decors, and several helpless women in need of constant saving, round off the formula. However, Legend of the Bat is arguably better than its predecessor because (a) it is a bit easier to follow, and (b) it is actually far more interesting. The film is more of a mystery and less a chambara (swordsmanship martial arts) one. There's lots of emphasis on the story, with plenty of red herrings and unexpected turns. At certain points, it is a straightforward adventure film like Indiana Jones, especially when the gang has to make its way through the caves.

Wumin (Ching Li) makes the ultimate sacrifice Gratuitous shot of Ching Li

Chu Yuan has never been able to resist some moralizing in his films (he insists on having "messages" in them). This time the moral concerns Tien-hung, who learns that one should not always lust after money but should sometimes lust after what's right. Admittedly, this is a bit vague because it never becomes clear when one should lust after money and when one should lust after the Right. It is also unclear what constitutes an acceptable proportion of lusting after one versus the other: Is 60:40 alright? If I am low on cash, is it OK to increase this to 75:25? Do I get bonus points in the afterlife for a skew in the other direction, say 30:70? Tien-hung is, of course, unfazed by these fine points and simply ties up a guy with the Silk Rope for free.

Hsiang shows soft side, Tien-hung does not Wang Chung lectures Ling Yun on the Money vs. Right zen philosophy

The DVD from Celestial Pictures is anamorphic at 2.35:1, and looks stunning (for the film's age). This is the best way we will ever be able to own this film, so I definitely recommend purchasing it. I only listened to the Mandarin Dolby Digital soundtrack and it was very nice. The English subtitles are bright, readable, and do not have much of the annoying flicker. The extras are on the thin side on account of the anamorphic picture data taking up more space even on the dual-layer disc. There are talent files, trailers, and photo stills.

Tien-hung grips sword at wrong end The last survivors before losing one

June 15, 2003