“It is a time without law and order. When men fight against men”, says Mister Voiceover. Mightiest of these men is Old Master Ku, who still looks quite camp in his lavender robes. Just don’t tell him to his face. Having mastered the transcendence technique that allows him to separate his spirit from his body, he searches for an opponent amongst his students worthy enough to succeed him. One such person might be Sparrow (Pearl Chang Ling), a noblewoman who excels at martial arts despite suffering from epilepsy. Yet she is a free spirit, far happier romping around the woods with her mute manservant until her father (Wang Hsieh) is murdered by assassins working for traitorous Chief Minister of Justice Rudy (Tien Feng), who is staging a coup against the young emperor. Yes, his name is Rudy. Go figure.
At first, Sparrow refuses and is so over-awed she suffers a seizure on the palace floor, prompting unsympathetic aide Elder White to growl: “I’m going to kill you, you chicken-livered bitch!” Then the old bastard commits suicide to guilt-trip Sparrow into action. Suitably traumatised, Sparrow embarks on a journey to infiltrate the enemy camp, alternately helped and hindered by suave swordsman Red Starling (Adam Cheng), whose shocking sartorial statements (e.g. a candy striped suit with matching hat) ought to clue her in to his connection to Old Master Ku.
Based on a novel by prolific wu xia writer Gu Long, General Invincible was the last in a line of outlandish outings for likeable swordplay star Pearl Chang Ling. Events spin by at a pace every bit as dizzying as the frenetic fight choreography as our not-so-reliable narrator struggles to clarify the more esoteric aspects of the delirious plot, yet the film still ranks among Chang Ling’s most substantial efforts. Both the epilepsy subplot (which the villains idiotically assume is contagious!) and offbeat romance, interestingly not pairing Red Starling with our heroine but instead sexy turncoat villainess Ruh Yu Bai (Ding Laam), add a human dimension while the film boldly treads into intriguingly metaphysical areas. These reach a crescendo in an astonishing scene with Sparrow crucified against a tree where in a madcap montage she envisions the sea runs red, a waterfall flows backwards and flowers wither on the vine. All of which miraculously endows her with “the fastest eyes in the world” useful in combat against the villain’s near-ethereal Crystal Sword - “the strongest weapon in the world.”
One problem with reviewing low budget martial arts fantasies is that the most widely available versions are haphazardly edited and rife with dodgy dubbing that renders some of the drama laughable. While admittedly uneven, if one can look beneath the surface, General Invincible emerges as quite a thematically ambitious production, in keeping with past films by Taiwanese wu xia auteur Chang Pang-Yee. This was the second film the former wrestler-turned-stuntman-turned-writer/director made with Chang Ling, after Three Famous Constables (1983). He also worked previously with Adam Cheng, who was to wu xia films what John Wayne was to the western, on the cult fantasy Demon Fighter (1982) co-starring the great Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia. The poor treatment of Pang-Yee’s films on home video and DVD have meant he languishes in the shadow of his more illustrious rival in the wu xia stakes, Chu Yuan, although the one film he made for Shaw Brothers, Clan Feuds (1982) is more accessible and worth seeking out.
So what is General Invincible all about then? Well, despite Master Ku’s cryptic statements like “sincerity can break the golden stone!” or “look beyond the border of emptiness”, the message seems to be true enlightenment can only be achieved when one stands at the threshold between life and death. On the other hand, although Sparrow trounces both villain and her cruel, manipulative master, the thought-provoking coda implies mastery of the master arts has left her facing a rather lonely destiny. Despite the aforementioned dubbing issues, Chang Ling delivers an intense performance whilst Adam Cheng nabs all the best lines as the dandyish sword hero. “My, aren’t you sexy today”, he says with near-Roger Moore like smoothness as he eyes Ruh Yu Bai’s shapely thighs. Striking a tone midway between an Arabian Nights fantasy and a psychedelic sci-fi film, the film’s flamboyant atmosphere has been likened to Ken Russell adapting a Alexandre Dumas novel with a glam-rock cast. Which makes sense once you’ve seen the surreal finale wherein the characters turn into shooting stars and shoot rainbow laser beams at each other. Our old pal Rudy proves understandably flabbergasted: “Holy cow! There is someone faster than me!” Yes, not only were there people named Rudy around in ancient China but they used phrases like “holy cow” as well.