Three legendary martial arts masters are murdered by a mysterious masked phantom using a poison known as “magic water”. Debonair playboy/kung fu ace/super-spy Chu Liu-Hsiang (Ti Lung), who lives in a sumptuous palace with three lovely young maidens who cater to his every need, is disturbed when a group of amazons led by Kung Nan Yen (Nora Miao) accuse him of stealing magic water from their conveniently-titled Magic Water Palace. Emboldened by his friendship with righteous monk Wu Hua (Yueh Hua), Chu sets out to find the real murderer and discovers each of the victims were lured by a letter from an old flame. An old portrait is the sole clue to uncovering this mystery woman’s identity. Chu traces the artist only to see him killed by the phantom. The trail further encompasses Black Pearl (Li Ching) the plucky daughter of one murdered man and enigmatic swordsman Yi Tien-Hung (Ling Yun) who has been hired to kill Chu, before events climax with a huge gender-bending twist.
Beginning with Killer Clans (1976), visionary Shaw Brothers director Chu Yuan set about a string of fantastical wu xia (“swordplay”) mysteries based on novels by Ku Lung, whose name is sometimes spelt as Gu Long. Laced with heady doses of sex and horror, the films showcase Yuan’s deft way with arty erotica and bizarre plot twists. Clans of Intrigue is especially notable for including a villain whose mastery of martial arts enables him/her to swap genders at will. Throw in a bisexual love triangle, a Scooby-Doo interlude involving flesh-eating ghosts, a lavish underwater lair, a hero with a super-powered nasal cavity, and a jaw-dropping finale wherein one character lobs their own severed hand as a weapon, and you have a twist-laden cult classic.
Yuan’s evocative art direction with its surreal settings and sublime candy-coloured lighting, has often been compared to that of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. Clans of Intrigue takes such comparisons one step further in that it shares Bava’s thematic preoccupation with contrasting surface illusion and psychological truth. Throughout his journey through the Martial World, the unflappable Chu Liu-Hsiang comes to realise no-one is what they seem, though there are both positive and negative aspects to this theme. Shady-seeming characters hide hearts of gold while those spouting platitudes mask hearts of pure venom. The message unwinds as accept people for all their faults and beware false piety.
Uniquely, Yuan plays various tense confrontations as a wry comedy of manners where participants decipher coded menace or witty allusions that lie beneath the surface etiquette, with its references to Zen Buddhism and classical Chinese poetry. These too are unique Chu Yuan trademarks. Shaw superstar Ti Lung makes a suitably dashing and personable hero and lends his customary verve to the balletic swordfights beautifully choreographed by veterans Tang Chia (who went on to a brief directing career) and Huang Pei Pei. He strikes up an agreeably offbeat friendship with Ling Yun’s taciturn swordsman (who, troubled by his uncertain parentage, knifes anyone who dares call him “bastard”), somewhat akin to seeing James Bond pal around with the Man with No Name.
Throughout the Sixties, Hong Kong cinema was unique in being dominated by women, but the Seventies shifted the focus almost exclusively onto men in the wake of the brawny, bare-chested martial epics made by Shaw’s top filmmaker Chang Cheh. However, Chu Yuan continued to favour strong roles for women. In his films heroines appear on almost a yin-yang principle in that feisty, hot-blooded youngsters are contrasted with cool, calculating seductresses, though winningly without being neatly boxed as good or evil.
Here, the ever-popular Li Ching, nicknamed Shaw’s “Baby Queen” after her award-winning role in The Mermaid (1964) at age seventeen, dazzles as a gutsy rich gal with amazing kung fu skills, while Betty Pei Ti - scene-stealing co-star of Yuan’s masterly Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) - essays the sensuous yet morally complex Princess Yin-Chi, openly bisexual ruler of Magic Water Palace and its all-female enclave. Among Clans of Intrigue’s many surprises are the lesbian and hetero sex scenes featuring Nora Miao, Bruce Lee’s favourite co-star in Fist of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972) who relocated to Canada in 1990 where she hosted a Chinese language talk show called “Coffee Break.” Such scenes, including some nude bathing/girl-on-girl fondling at Magic Water Palace, have been trimmed from the Chinese DVD release given mainland censors seem far stricter than their British predecessors.
One of the top five Hong Kong box-office hits of 1977, director Chu Yuan and star Ti Lung swiftly re-teamed for a sequel: Legend of the Bat (1978).