Greetings once again, my fellow luxuriants of the ludicrous, to another edition of Reviews You’ll Never Use. This week, let’s dip our toes into another great and underappreciated genre of film, Hong Kong wuxia (kung fu) films of the 70s & 80s. Today we’ll be taking a look at 天龍八部, or as you round-eyed devils have dubbed it, The Battle Wizard.
I must profess to having a soft place in my heart for old trashy kung fu movies. Those of you my age or a bit older probably remember these as being staples on late-night cable, when they were just trying to fill air space. The silly dubbing, ham-fisted acting, convoluted story lines, and most importantly, the high-flying martial arts action are ambrosia for the aficionado of trash cinema.
And brother, The Battle Wizard delivers on all these fronts. It’s a Shaw Bros. production, which may not mean anything to you, until I tell you that if you ever saw a fucked up cheesy Technicolor kung fu movie on tv at 2 a.m., it was probably from this production company. This particular film is based on a serialized novel whose title variously translates as Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils or Eight Books of the Heavenly Dragon. The novel deals in archetypes based on Buddhist cosmology, so it’s all a bit complicated to explain in a blog post.
The film opens with a guy getting caught in bed with his mistress, by her husband. Rookie mistake. Of course they immediately fight, but it turns out the philanderer has mastered the ancient martial art technique of shooting lasers out of your finger. He shoots the husband in the knees, and then as he tries to flee, injured, he gets shot again by the finger laser, which results in both of his legs falling off below the knee. Somehow the husband disappears over the roof, running away on his stubs. Back inside, the philanderer’s wife reveals to his side-piece that he’s actually a prince and could never marry gutter trash like her. Take THAT, bitch!
Twenty years later, we cut to an underground cave. The cuckold has built extendable iron bird-legs for himself that can destroy rocks, because of course he has. He’s hanging out with a half-human reptile-man of some sort, whose provenance is never explained. Through the magic of exposition, we learn that Prince Philanderer is now king, and has a boy. Killing the son should be just the revenge Iron Bird Legs is looking for, so he dispatches Reptile to the surface world to enact his revenge labor for him.
On the other side of the street, Gutter Trash’s daughter by Prince Philanderer is all grown up, and has mastered the ancient martial arts technique of firing lasers out of the end of an oversized novelty thigh bone. Her mother sends her out into the world to enact her revenge labor, on Prince Philanderer’s wife. She also tells Bone Shooter to always veil her face, because all men are worthless scum. See, SJWs aren’t new, they even existed in China 1,000 years ago.
MEANWHILE, AT THE HALL OF JUSTICE, sonny-boy is moping about because his old man, now King Philanderer, is trying to make him study kung fu. All the boy wants to do is read old Chinese sages and be a scholar-philosopher. After fighting with his parents over it (who claim that no one can govern unless they can also kick ass), he sullenly runs away to prove that you don’t have to be Chuck Norris to make it in the world.
Here’s where shit really starts to get weird. Deep breath: he meets a woman who can mind-control snakes and kicks his ass because she knows kung fu. They’re captured by bandits, but Snake Woman uses her powers to help Pacifist Son escape. She sends him to find a particular woman that can rescue her. Pacifist Son asks several wanderers in the forest, and eventually learns that the chick is a hated witch. Heart in throat he approaches her hideout to beg for help for Snake Woman. Turns out, the witch is Bone Shooter. What a twist! So Bone Shooter shows up, kills the bandits, frees Snake Woman (who promptly fucks right off until near the end of the film), and has to allow Pacifist Son to see her face because he sucked poison out of her wound sustained during the fight with the bandits. They’re then ambushed by Reptile, but survive because it turns out a giant red snake lives in the river and because it ate nothing but ginseng and deer antlers it’s whole life, it somehow grants magic super martial arts powers to anybody who drinks it’s blood (I swear that is the exact explanation given in the film). So in desperation Pacifist Son bites the snake and drinks it’s blood, sending Reptile scurrying back to tell Iron Bird Legs about this intriguing development. Pacifist Son and Bone Shooter go back to the palace because they want to get married, but find out they’re half-siblings through King Philanderer. Iron Bird Legs springs an ambush and captures Pacifist Son and Bone Shooter, throwing them into a pit (after an awkwardly weird scene of Reptile stripping and fondling the woman) where they have to fight a super-strong man in a cheap gorilla costume. Pacifist Son uses his snake invincibility to eat a magic poisonous frog that Snake Woman had given him earlier; this somehow makes him go Super Saiyan, and he defeats the magic carnivorous gorilla and escapes from the pit. There’s a final show-down with Bone Shooter, Snake Woman, Reptile, Pacifist Son, and Iron Bird Legs, where everybody shoots a shit-ton of lasers out of their hands at each other. Eventually the good guys kill all the bad guys, the end.
This is an amusing diversion for a variety of reasons. The effects are, of course, garish and silly by today’s standards, but I profess a certain fondness for the earnestness of the efforts of people burdened by a lack of both money, and skill. The plot is simply marvelous. Everyone trying to get revenge on everyone else, magical beings all over the place, the most crowded fucking forest I’ve ever seen in my life. The most interesting aspect to me, though, is the explicit turning of the usual trope of the weakling Chinese valuing faggoty scholarship in the classics over the vigorous manly martial valor that we value in the West. In this movie, the protagonist explicitly tries to be the very model of a perfect Confucian ruler, and is ridiculed for it, and basically gives up on it like 15 minutes into the film when he first agrees to let Snake Woman try and teach him kung fu.
If you’re already partial to this kind of film, you’ll love it. It’s got everything you could ever want from a 1970s low-budget Hong Kong import, including a hilarious scene of a horse falling to it’s death over a cliff. If you don’t already like this kind of film, it has nothing for you that would make you change your mind. I rate this film 3.5 Glowing Hands out of 7. Props to anybody who can name the movie this image is from without looking it up.