Poor Yan Fei Yang (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung) is a pitiful orphan cruelly used as a human target by the more capable students at the Wu Tang Martial Arts school. The school’s finest fighter, beautiful Lun Wan Er (Leanne Lau Suet-Wa) does her best to defend him but is scolded by the haughty Wu Tang Elders. Every night however, a mysterious masked man teaches Yang kung fu and the unloved “bastard” secretly becomes a martial arts master. A bitter rivalry exists between Wu Tang and the Invincible Clan led by swaggering Chief Dugu Wu Di (Alex Man Chi-Leung), who beats Wu Tang Chief Qing Song (Wong Yung) every year but fears one of his enemies may someday master the legendary “Silkworm Technique.”
Before Chief Dugu leaves for a two-year sabbatical he instructs his scowling son Kung Suen Wang (Lo Meng) and plucky daughter Fang Er (Yeung Jing-Jing) not to press their advantage over Wu Tang, as a matter of honour. However, Chief Qing is ambushed at his local tavern by a crazy-haired quartet of elemental assassins: Wind (Yuen Tak), Thunder (Wong Lik), Rain (Yuen Qiu), and Lightning (Kwan Fung). He is rescued by dashing swordsman Fu Yu Shu (Liu Yung), who tragically loses his mother and sister in the attack. Invited to stay at Wu Tang, Fu ingratiates himself with the elders while Lun Wan Er is equally smitten with the handsome stranger, much to lovelorn Yang’s misery. After the Invincible Clan deny any involvement in the assassination attempt, Yang kindly helps Fang Er and her brother escape the vengeful Wu Tang, earning her admiration. When a second attack claims Chief Qing’s life, Yang stands falsely accused. On the run he meets Fang Er and they discover their long-lost mother Shen Man Jiun (Chan Si-Gaai, looking way too young to be their mom, unless the filmmakers were going for a M.I.L.F. type deal) who reveals the real nature of their relationship and teaches Yang the Silkworm Technique.
1983 was the last truly vintage year for the venerable Shaw Brothers studios who had only two years left before they ceased producing martial arts movies. While the majority of their classics stayed locked in a vault for twenty years, a number of titles made around this time remained fairly accessible on videotape and earned a large cult following. None more so than Bastard Swordsman (1983), commonly regarded as the finest wu xia fantasy of them all until Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992) came along. Its “downtrodden geek becomes web-spinning superhero” scenario shares certain similarities with Spider-Man - though the film was based on a pulp novel and adapted from a television series also starring Norman Tsui Siu-Keung - while certain elements later reappeared in John Carpenter’s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China (1986), such as the elemental themed magical warriors and Taoist sorcerers duelling with energy beams.
Gravity-defying swordplay reaches an outlandish high in the hands of madcap director Lu Chin Ku. Martial arts mix with calligraphy, philosophy and surreal Georges Meliés style stop-motion and optical effects to create a trippy, abstract world full of painted backdrops bathed in kaleidoscopic lighting. Anything can happen and usually does. Characters hang upside down like bats, spin through the air, levitate furniture and animate leaves as deadly weapons. Even more outrageous, Shen Man Jiun teaches Yan how to weave himself into a giant cocoon from which he eventually emerges as a silver-haired superhero able to shoot silken threads and zap enemies with laser beams. The jaw-dropping climax features a duel inside the cocoon from which the loser is ejected as an acid-bleached skeleton!
Woven amidst all this candy-coloured madness are a number of surprisingly subversive aspects. Interestingly, where early Jackie Chan films stress blind obedience to elders no matter how cruel they may be, Bastard Swordsman is very critical of the overbearing, hypocritical oafs who make Yan’s life a living hell and fuel a pointless feud between Wu Tang and the Invincible Clan. By movie’s end, the surviving heroes turn their backs on the lot of them. By far the most sensible characters are the women, who manage to cooperate despite their differing backgrounds, though they pool their resources through the rejuvenated Yan instead of taking action themselves. Norman Tsui Siu-Keung was a fixture of the wu xia genre, from Shaw Brothers classics like Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (1978) to the groundbreaking New Wave effort Duel to the Death (1981), though he would often pop up in oddities like The Mighty Peking Man (1977) and We’re Going To Eat You (1980). Since Bastard Swordsman concludes with a handful of loose ends needing to be tied he returned in (what else?) Return of Bastard Swordsman (1984).