"Legend of the Bat" Chinese Theatrical Poster
Director: Chor Yuen
Writer: Chor Yuen
Producer: Mona Fong Yat Wah, Yueh Hua, Cheng Li, Candice Yu On On, Derek Yee, Wang Chung,
Cast: Ti Lung, Ling Yun, Cheng Miu, Yuen Wah, Norman Chu
Running Time: 101 min.
By JJ Hatfield
This breathtakingly beautiful film is a rather unusual mix of martial arts, sword fighting, mystery and intrigue from the Shaw Brothers. Set in the Martial World, two longtime friends return from a journey only to discover something terrible has happened in their absence. They immediately set out to find those responsible and set things right once again. During the investigation the duo encounters the first of an ever increasing host of strange characters one more enigmatic than the last. All have different motivations and tales to tell, but they come to share one thing in common.
In order to obtain what they seek, they must make the journey to Bat Island.
The voyage across the sea is long and fraught with hidden risk. Twists and turns take place among the people and on-board the ship. One by one it is revealed that the passengers are not who they pretend to be. Each of them tries to discern the intentions of the others while giving few clues as to the real reason they have for making such a hazardous venture. Some passengers speak little, one does not speak at all. Suspicion snakes its way through the group as strange and unexplained occurrences increase. The island was rumored to be the secret dominion of the mysterious Bat, his opulent abode the place of exclusive auctions where it was said that anything may be bought any wish may be granted but only for his particular price. The Bat’s fortress, it was said, was an enormous luxurious palace of sumptuous comforts and delights, filled with exquisite finery. But there were also dark whispers about the evil that lies in wait for any who dare trespass.
Legend of the Bat is a sequel to Clans of Intrigue and though there are some slight differences, it does not interfere with the story. Chor Yuen helmed both films and wrote the screenplay, working from the popular wuxia novels by Gu Long. Both movies have the same cast, however not every actor returns as the same character. The story line is not a continuation, but continues the wuxia theme with heroic deeds, dazzling sword fights, deception and deceit, the baffling and the bizarre. It isn’t necessary to see Clans of Intrigue beforehand to be thoroughly entertained by this movie.
The Martial World is a wondrous place where anything can happen. It would not exist if not for the heroes and heroines who are always busy keeping peace or restoring the natural order. Heroic characters fight for honor, justice and to help those less able to defend themselves. There are certain characteristics a hero must possess – a belief in treating everyone the same, honesty, courage and a die hard loyalty to friends, family and country. No one could fill that description better than Ti Lung (A Better Tomorrow) as Chu Lui-hsiang, the dashing young martial artist, expert swordsman and hero of the series of wuxia novels written by the prolific and well loved Chinese writer Gu Long. Lui-hsiang is a righteous warrior never hesitating to put himself in harms way for the sake of justice. He is perfect as the charismatic, intelligent, fearless vanquisher of villains. Without him in the title role, the movie would lose its center and some damned impressive sword fights.
Not only is Lui-hsiang a highly skilled fighter, he is also quite clever and uses reasoning to unwrap the tangle of puzzles that spring up around every chamber and and corner. Ti Lung is a powerful presence in nearly all his roles and Legend of the Bat is no exception. He is a delight to watch as he does battle with evil -doers, never hesitating, cool as ice. Lui-hsiang looks fantastic whether gently waving his fan or wielding his flashing sword. The men admire him or they want to kill him or both. Women want him or they want to kill him or both. Ti Lung also has some fun playing Lui-hsiang as confident to the point of being cocky at times with a bit of a swagger and a slight smirk.
Yi Tien-hung who also returns from Clans of Intrigue, is played by Yun Ling (Six Assassins). Not even in this fantasy world would anyone consider Tien-hung righteous, although he does help Lui-hsiang, he often has his own motivations, or more accurately his employment. His piercing gaze can freeze an opponent in their tracks. He always seems to be standing, still, always on alert. The darkness of his clothing mirrors his demeanor.
Also of note is Yuen Wah (Iceman Cometh) who has a substantial role considering how many people are in this movie, but has no lines as he plays a mute. To his credit he makes his presence felt in a very different role than he has played previously. It’s refreshing to see him outside the typical bad guy/gang member or minor character he often played. Wah is far more often in the stunt and fight unit onscreen or directing the action.
Water, water everywhere, but precious little in this ‘sea’. When telling a visual tale involving sea faring vessels, water is usually necessary to complete the illusion but dry ice and smoke take its place for Chor Yuen. As a director with a very specific and spectacular style, he never allows the camera to wander or roam, instead, he frames each and every shot as if it were a single carefully staged photograph. Filming on water doesn’t allow for that kind of direct control, especially considering the technology available when this movie was shot in 1977. Yuen used a stage at the Shaw Brothers studios to shoot not only Legend of the Bat, but virtually all of his films. Using the indoor stage allowed for far greater control, but it was also considerably cheaper than shooting on location.
Chor Yuen’s wuxia fantasies are always layered in beauty of all forms, but with Legend of the Bat, he surpasses many of his previous films in creating this luscious feast for the eyes. The sets are elaborate, steeped in rich vibrant visuals so detailed it seems you could reach out and feel the warm touch of the sun or the icy cold of an unsheathed blade.
Chor Yuen surrounds every single scene with finishing touches worthy of a precious painting. Everything is meticulously planned. Nothing is left to chance. The sets are bright with artwork, flowers, swathed in soft flowing silk, gardens, statues, trees, fountains anything of a pleasing nature. Cheap stock sets and props are few and far between. Costumes, furnishings, hair, clothes; it does not matter if the scene is in an enchanting palatial manor or a desolate old farm house; attention to detail and skilled use of color are always present in Yuen’s works. As with many of his films, Chor Yuen has included a values message that is fitting for the Martial World.
The sword fights with Ti Lung are excellent, especially when he is up against a number of enemies. There are several extended scenes that involve complicated and dangerous maneuvers. Some of the most impressive include sparkling mountains and rivers made of pure gleaming ice and a lake of leaping flames. The Bat’s throne room is a magnificent piece of art all by itself. Fantastic creations cover every wall, doorway, ceiling, hallway and floor. Secret rooms hold brilliant adorned baskets and jars and many other treasures. The special effects are standard for the time, but they are certainly not annoying or distracting.
Some people may not appreciate the mystery aspect of Legend of the Bat. There are places in the story where it seems the Shaw Brothers version of Hercule Poirot is about to make an appearance. Lui-hsiang does spend a fair amount of time investigating and tracking down clues as well as red herrings. It doesn’t make the movie bad, but it does mean a bit less action in favor of intrigue.
Of course there is more to a movie than looking good no matter how good Chor Yuen can make it look. The biggest problem is the sheer number of characters who come at you at such a rapid pace, it’s difficult to keep track without a cast list in order of appearance. I appreciate Chor Yuen trying to be faithful to Gu Long’s story, but there is too much story with too many people stuffed into too little time. Nor can you easily follow the byzantine story machinations, subplots, sub-subplots, side-plots, or the sudden changes in allegiances, identities, behaviors and ulterior motives.
Some of the costumes and effects almost get out of control. There are funky colored lights in ice caves that kind of look like those lights used on retro aluminum Christmas trees. Some of the Bat’s minions wear ‘bat’ suits (no, not “Batman” suits) with tiny little ‘bat’ ears. People appear and disappear, then sometimes reappear with disturbing frequency with no explanation. This is not a serious type of film, it is purely for entertainment. Oh sure, some serious things happen… people get killed, and then some more people die – well actually there are a lot less people by the end of the movie than when it begins. But it really is a fun time. A movie with sword fights, a mysterious villain and Ti Lung? How can you go wrong with that?
JJ Hatfield’s Rating: 7.5/10