Shaw Brothers auteur Chu Yuan made comedies, melodramas and superhero films, but his life’s work were his many swordplay fantasies adapted from the wu xia novels of Gu Long. The Spirit of the Sword opens with a montage of famous characters from past Chu classics including Clans of Intrigue (1977), Murder Plot (1979) and The Proud Twins (1979) among others, before our sagely narrator informs us the story we are about to see takes place long before those tales when the mythical Martial World was ruled by the Five Element Clans. Their leaders include Gold River Queen (Go Lai-Ga), elegant but deadly mistress of the gold ribbon technique, the scholarly Master Yunmeng (Wong Yung) of the Green Wood Clan, Purple Robe Duke (Yueh Hua) who runs the White Water Clan, flame-spewing ogre Fire Demon Lord (Lo Lieh) of the Spirited Fire Clan, and the Black Earth Old Man (Yeung Chi-Hing), who is in charge of the Black Earth Clan despite being a drunken drug addict. There’s always one who spoils it for everyone, isn’t there?
Each year the Five Element Clans gather for a grand duel for supreme leadership, but this time events take a turn for the worst when the mysterious Samurai Killer (Yuen Wah), meaning he’s a samurai who kills people (well, duh!) not someone who kills samurai, infects Purple Robe Duke with poison dust. Before retreating to his sealed meditation chamber under the sea, Purple Robe Duke asks his brother Bai Baoyu (Liu Yung) to deliver an urgent letter to the Huanhua Palace at Yitian Cliff. He adds that if Baoyu does not return home within forty-nine days with the antidote, they and their clan are doomed. Along the way, Baoyu and his faithful manservant Bai Zhong (Sun Chien) are waylaid by the enigmatic and lovely Little Princess (Cecilia Wong Hang-Sau), who is seemingly on the run from satanic cultists in black hoods led by a red-hooded villain who shoots fire from his hands. Hmm, I wonder who he can be? Baoyu chivalrously intervenes but is drawn into a series of otherworldly realms where nothing is what it seems.
Although Chu Yuan had a few more movies left in him, The Spirit of the Sword feels like a grand summation of his Gu Long wu xia cycle. Besides including some of the most striking sets and imagery featured in any of his films at Shaw Brothers (most notably a sword fight where the combatants float across a moonlit lake), the suitably mysterious mystery weaves in almost all his familiar motifs whilst leaving space for a sly spot of self-parody. At one point, Baoyu and Little Princess are caught up in one of those tongue-twisting poetry slams often featured in Chu’s films, only for an impatient Zhong to tell them to hurry it up, they’re delaying the plot! The director’s trademark elegant eroticism is absent this time round, though he does include an hallucinatory sequence shot in extreme wide-angle with Baoyu trapped in a candy-coloured boudoir assailed by spooky femme fatales.
The theme of the film appears to be: messages. Or more specifically, how messages are interpreted. Its plot relies on the slightly convoluted device of characters repeatedly handing Baoyu different cryptic letters for him to deliver. At one point one of these messages proves to be a blank sheet of paper, but the recipient still discerns some meaning very personal to them. In order for Baoyu to triumph he must learn to decipher these codes. This applies to the practice of martial arts too. Baoyu thinks he is being assaulted by the embittered Chief of Huanyan Palace (Cheung Ying), when in reality the old man is actually imparting the secret techniques he needs to beat Samurai Killer: “eagle snatches the sword”, “the icy palm” (freezing enemies in a block of ice), and “the phantom samurai killer” allowing him to disappear and reappear at will. Baoyu also receives a new magic sword that glows red and makes eerie sci-fi noises.
Despite his newfound arsenal, as played by Liu Yung, star of Shaw Brothers’ three part Emperor Chien Lung (1976) film series, Baoyu is a more vulnerable hero compared with past Chu Yuan protagonists essayed by the unflappably intrepid likes of Ti Lung or David Chiang. He quite often relies on helpful allies to bail him out, including Green Wood Clan swordsman Leng (Goo Goon-Chung, in a rare good guy role) and Huanyan princess Sister Star (ethereally lovely Mary Hon Ma-Lee), who have their own, endearing, star-crossed lovers subplot going on. The surprise villain is not so surprising given the ever-oily Lo Lieh is among the cast, but the film still pulls off some neat twists and turns. As always Chu Yuan peppers the cast with striking, strong-willed heroines, including a memorable bit part for Yueng Jing-Jing as a flirty Huanyan handmaiden with amazing kung fu skills. In fact, although Baoyu gets his chance to avenge his brother, it is actually Sister Star who blasts the bad guys with her “icy palm.” You go, girl.