By the mid-Eighties, Shaw Brothers swordplay maestro Chu Yuan seemed to be trading on past glories. Having already remade his erotic classic Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) as the more explicit Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan (1984), he then helmed this unecessary but enjoyable sequel to his two-part epic Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (1978). Following a montage of highlights from the first two movies, we rejoin our hero Zhang Wu Ji (Derek Yee) now living happily with his grandfather the blind monk Lion King (Lo Lieh) and Ming Cult buddies atop Sangzhong Mountain, having hidden the magic Jiu Yang sutra inside their cave and entrusted the Jiu Yin sutra to his onetime paramour, Chou Chi Yeuk (Leanne Lau Suet-Wa), now Abbess of the Er Mei clan. The new Emperor (Ku Feng) summons Zhang Wu Ji to the imperial palace where he arrives in time to foil an assassination attempt by Tieh Zhen the Mongolian Hawk (Ti Lung), who wants the monarch to stop persecuting his people.
Recognising each other as righteous heroes, Tieh Zhen and Zhang Wu strike up an instant bond. However, duplicitous baddie Sung Ching Shu (Alex Man Chi-Leung) steals the secrets of Jiu Yin from right under Lion King’s nose (he is blind, after all) then convinces the Emperor to send troops disguised as Ming Cult warriors to slaughter the Mongolians. He also murders Chou Chi Yeuk and steals the precious Jiu Yang sutra. Meanwhile, Zhang Wu Ji arrives in the nick of time to rescue the Mongolian Princess (achingly lovely Cherie Chung), but as they escape alongside Tieh Zhen our heroes suddenly fall through an enchanted chasm that leads into... a spaceship?!
Yup, the series suddenly went sci-fi with this third instalment. Zhang Wu Ji, Tieh Zhen and the Princess find themselves inside a space-age lair straight out of Star Wars (1977). Shaw Brothers later recycled these sets for the silly sci-fi sex comedy Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (1983) which also stars Cherie Chung. Our befuddled heroes are treated to a pyschedelic rainbow laser show, dodge shooting stars and glimpse doorways into strange hidden worlds, as the film draws Erich von Daniken style links between alien beings and ancient Chinese civilisations. Not that these are outlined in any great depth given the film seems more intent on being an effects-fest.
After movies like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) rewrote the rule book on martial arts cinema, Shaw Brothers jumped on the bandwagon with wild fantasies like Buddha’s Palm (1982), Demon of the Lute (1983) and Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983). Chu Yuan contributed Descendant of the Sun (1983) and The Enchantress (1984) and Hidden Power of Dragon Sabre continues in a similarly outlandish vein. Admittedly Shaw Brothers special effects department were more state of the art circa 1964 than 1984, but the film maintains the studio’s high standard of production values (the sets and costumes look fantastic) while there remains something charmingly low-tech about the use of fireworks, stop-frame photography and characters zapping each other with cartoon energy beams. Kung fu film purists (or boring people) share an aversion to such things, but the film is fairly well paced, inventive and exciting. It lacks the spiritual dimension that made the first sequel so enthralling and rather unjustly kills off characters who found redemption last time round, but upholds the series’ subversive theme about diverse Chinese tribes uniting against a totalitarian regime.
Stalwart players Ti Lung and Derek Yee look confused much of the time and although Chu Yuan lights and photographs Cherie Chung like an angel, the future superstar has far too little to do. Eventually, Song Qingshi kidnaps the princess and blackmails Tieh Zhen into stealing the Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. In a twist foreshadowing Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992), his newfound mastery of yin and yang transforms Song into a freakish transgender kung fu super-being. Hilariously, half his face wears makeup while the other side sports stubble and a moustache! Return trips to the ancient UFO lead Zhang Wu Ji and Tieh Zhen to master the so-called “Nine Energies of India” but the film drags past the obvious revenge raid on the imperial palace to pit them against the Emperor’s pet flesh-eating dwarf that burrows undergound and is played by a small child with a fake beard! It ends with a trippy lightshow finale that turns the screen into a live action Nintendo game complete with characters leaping off cel animated power bars, until you realise it was films like this that spawned console games.