Starving beggar boy Bastard (Philip Kwok Tsui) - so-named because “that’s what my mom calls me!” - steals a pancake that happens to contain the Black Iron Token. Sort of a Wonka’s Golden Ticket of the Martial World, the token entitles Bastard to any wish granted by Xie Yanke (Wong Lik), a ferocious kung fu master who wreaks bloody retribution every time someone commits a crime. Xie reluctantly takes the youngster under his wing, which leads to the immortal line: “Stinky boy, I can’t kill you but can teach you how to harmonize your yin yang energy.”
Upon meditating, Bastard develops super-duper kung fu skills, but awakens to find himself inside the grand palace of the Zhangle Gang and mistaken for their missing leader Shi Zhongyu (also Kwok Tsui). Bastard is delighted to find himself betrothed to lovely Dangdang (Candy Wen Xue-er), but has no idea the real Shi is wanted for raping a girl who then killed herself. Pursued by the dead girl’s father (Chan Shen), Bastard is protected by Shi’s parents, Shi Qing (Tang Ching) and Guan Rou (Lau Wai-Ling), who slowly discover the impostor is kinder, decent and more honourable than their real son. But who is he really?
Beginning with Five Deadly Venoms (1978), legendary Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh produced a cycle of so-called “Venoms” films starring the same martial arts team. Ode to Gallantry was until recently, the most obscure of these movies and long sought after by fans. Here Chang eschews his usual gut-ripping grimness for an altogether breezier tone with a rare comic turn from the dynamic Philip Kwok Tsui, best known as the villainous Mad Dog in John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) or as fight choreographer on the French kung fu/historical drama/monster movie, Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001).
The plot, based on a wu xia novel by the prolific Jin Hong, unfolds like the kung fu equivalent of Dave (1993) or one of those many films where a doppelganger proves a much nicer guy than the man he is impersonating. Sure enough, when the real Shi shows up he proves himself an unrepentant, self-serving asshole, yet Bastard selflessly offers to atone for his crimes and protect the clan from Xie Yanke’s wrath, because that’s what good leaders do. It’s a disarmingly sweet and moving story, let down by Cheh’s inability to really stretch the comic premise (beyond having characters spit tea whenever Bastard reveals his name) and disparaging attitude towards his female characters, even though he atypically has Dangdang teach Bastard kung fu.
In a surprise twist, Dangdang - who hitherto developed a winning relationship with the hero - chooses Shi instead of the kind, good-hearted Bastard and almost tricks him into sacrificing his life. Even after Bastard engineers a redemptive end for Shi, he gets a slap from Dangdang and his real mother abandons him for her other, unworthy son. Women, eh?
Cheh’s no-nonsense style has a large fan-following, but is ill-suited to the lyrical wu xia genre. Ode to Gallantry is one of those movies where swordsmen shoot energy beams from their palms or glow like they just ate a bowl of Ready Brek. It’s good fun, but in the rush to get to the next spectacularly choreographed fight, Cheh loses sight of the poetry.