After killing a nobleman, bat-eating assassin Dugu Ngan (Goo Goon-Chung) is saved from capture by members of the mysterious Murang family. Once renowned throughout the Martial World, the now forgotten and embittered family live in a lavish palace under the sea where clan matriarch Murang Gufang (Cheng Ke-Wei) a.k.a. the Red Plum Thief hatches a scheme alongside her cunning strategist Master Chameleon (Ku Feng) and crafty handmaiden Murang Zhi (Wong Mei-Mei) to take over the world. Bwah-ha-ha!! To do this they need Ngan to steal the Tang Arsenal Manual which contains the secrets to forging mighty weapons.
Whilst traipsing gaily through the 7 Colours Forest, dashing sword hero Shen Sheng-Yi (Ti Lung) and his dainty charge Bai Bing (Ching Li) receive a trademark red note from the Red Plum Thief threatening to kidnap the latter so her father, Bai Yu-Lou (Kwan Hoi-San) will hand over the manual. Sheng-Yi bravely fends off one kidnap attempt, aided by his plucky female sidekick Bu Yan-Fei (Au-Yeung Pui San) and a mysterious swordsman who turns out to be Dugu Ngan in disguise. Murang Gufang’s lackeys promptly abduct Bai Bing and substitute a double in her place, but it turns out the evildoers are in for a shock...
Chu Yan made scores of wuxia (“swordplay”) adventures at Shaw Brothers, sometimes several each year. By the early Eighties he began to vary the formula by indulging in wild experiments, hence Roving Swordsman is a mad genre hybrid of wuxia fantasy, kidnap thriller and spy movie. Plotting world domination from her hi-tech headquarters under the sea, vengeful villainess Murang Gufang is straight out of a James Bond film. When she enquires why the heroic Sheng-Yi will not join her on the dark side he offers this priceless response: “Firstly, I have too many friends. Secondly, you are not that beautiful or worthy enough for me to work for you.” Ouch!
Beneath the mind-bogglingly complex plot mechanics, the film runs like an old fashioned and simplistic adventure serial that eventually degenerates into an extended slugfest. But there is tremendous fun to be had along the way: hair-raising chases, dastardly tricks and ingenious escapes. Chu Yuan relishes staging fiendish death-traps for heroes to fall into and the film features all the usual Shaw Brothers hallmarks including intricate action choreography by Tang Chia and impeccable production values (the cliff-face set is especially outstanding). Yuan drenches the lavish sets in mystical mists and psychedelic lighting to impart the surreal delirium that makes so many of his films seem like lucid dreams.
He also throws a few surprises along the way, including one especially clever twist that answers why plucky wuxia regular Ching Li seems at first to have less to do than usual and bolsters his reputation for including vivid and resourceful heroines. Shaw Brothers icon Ti Lung dominates with his commanding charisma as the unflappably intrepid Shen Sheng-Yi, but Li has her moment in the sun when she laughs off an injury (“I look better with a little red on my dress!”). Despite the occasional indulgence, the film zips along at a brisk eighty-three minutes eventually leaping into its own, abstract, alternate reality when Chu includes his own variation on the hall of mirrors sequence, even more surreal and audacious than the one in Enter the Dragon (1973) - complete with revolving mirrors, trap doors, exploding mannequins and a shiny disco ball.