A later era wuxia film from the mighty Shaw Brothers' studio, The Bastard Swordsman may not rank up there with classics from the studio like the One Armed Swordsman films but it certainly gets a whole lot more right than it does wrong, even if by this point in the game, things were getting a little repetitive by 1983. The storyline revolves around Yun Fei Yang (Norman Chu), an orphan who is enrolled in a martial arts school where he finds himself the butt of many of the other kids' jokes. Here he learns what he can when he can but spends a lot of time at menial tasks while the more privileged around him get all the glory. Yang's school, Wudang, however, is in seemingly constant turmoil with a rival school, the Wu Di clan. Wu Di's main man, Kung Suen Wang, has handily defeated Wudang's Qing Song a few times now and when it happens a third and final time, Yang's school starts to fall apart.
With the Wudang school in disarray, a swordsman named Fu Yu Xue (Tony Liu) shows up and acts as their impromptu leader, essentially stealing control of the school, all the while a determined Yang trains with an unnamed stranger in a deadly and highly specialized fighting style. You see, Yang, thanks to his completely nonsensical love for female student, Lun Wan Er, has put him on the wrong side of the law as he now stands accused of a murder he didn't commit, so he must train in secret. The only hope that Wudang has lies in the hands of Yang, the 'bastard' whose hopeful mastery of the Silkworm style may be the only way to defeat Fu Yu Xue and restore Wudang to its former glory.
The plot of Bastard Swordsman is really no great shakes. The whole rival school conflict thing had been done to death long before this film was made in the early eighties and while the script works in some twists, turns, backstabbings and nasty betrayals, they're not all that hard to spot ahead of time. That said, Bastard Swordsman works really well because the filmmakers probably realized this ahead of time and had the foresight to compensate for the pedestrian script with some mesmerizing and over the top action and swordplay sequences. Loads of wirework let the film's characters easily accomplish feats no mortal could really ever hope to which plays some of them off almost like period Chinese superheroes, but the fight choreography remains grounded in enough reality to ensure that each of the plentiful martial arts sequences remain exciting and tense.
Deftly mixing up standard hand-to-hand kung fu battles with the swordplay that the film's title obviously requires, Bastard Swordsman has got loads of superbly shot and interesting action in it and this helps carry the otherwise predictable story at a good pace. Chu isn't the most charismatic of the Shaw's stable of leading men, but he looks the part and brings a sense of nobility to his character that allows him to work in the part and he handles himself well in the fight scenes. Tony Liu is more interesting as Fu Yu Xue, as his character has more mystery to him than anyone else in the film and he turns out to be the more memorable of the two.
Director Chin-ku Lu's (who also directed the film's sequel a year later) penchant for on screen violence is in full effect here and while the studio certainly made bloodier and more violent films than this one , Bastard Swordsman doesn't skimp on the heroic bloodshed or beautifully choreographed carnage. As was the norm with the Shaw directors, the action sequences are where most of his efforts are easiest to appreciate and they're all quite carefully framed and shot for maximum impact. When the dust settles, this is a better than average entry and while it's not ever going to be the first movie that comes to mind when you mention any of the participants' names or the studio that made them famous, it's never short on excitement or entertainment value and as such is very much worth a look for fans of martial arts films.
The Bastard Swordsman arrives on DVD in a progressive scan anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer and this is another of Funimation's typically decent transfers. A little bit of print damage shows up here and there but otherwise the source material used for this disc has been very nicely restored. Colors are bright and bold and garish, just as they should be, and they really bring out the splendor of the various costumes and studio sets used throughout the film. What looks to be some mild edge enhancement pops up here and there, but aliasing and compression artifacts are never much of a problem. Some DNR looks to have been applied sporadically but it's minor and if you're not specifically looking for it, you probably won't notice it.
The Mandarin language Dolby Digital mono mix is well balanced and easy to follow since the optional English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors, though there are spots where the sound effects are a bit higher in the mix then they probably needed to be. The score sounds good, never overpowering the performers, while the sound effects are presented at the proper volume as well. It's not a track that will amaze you, but it definitely sounds as good as it needs to. An optional English language Dolby Digital Mono dub is also provided.
Extras are disappointingly light, limited to a few trailers for unrelated Funimation releases and a forced promo spot for their Shaw Brothers line that plays before you can get to the main menu screen (which also offers chapter selection).
The Bastard Swordsman is just a really solid film all around. It probably won't convert the non-believers out there or work as a gateway drug for those not already enthralled with Shaw Brothers style swordplay films, but for those who appreciate this type of movie it delivers all you could ask for. The action scenes are intense, epic and well choreographed and the characters interesting and colorful from start to finish. Funimation's DVD doesn't have much going for it in the way of extras but the audio is okay and the transfer decent enough that this disc comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.