Orphaned when Jin soldiers unjustly kill his father, young Kuo Tsing (Alexander Fu Sheng) grows up among a wacky crew of kung fu masters known as the Weird Seven. Flying Bat (Tsai Hung), Scholar Chu (Lam Fai-Wong), Han Bau-Jiu (Lo Meng), Nan Xi-Ren (Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, future director of Robotrix (1991)), Chang Ah-Sheng (Lu Feng), Chuen Jin-Fa (Chiu Chung-Hing) and Han Xiao-Yin (she's a girl, Chow Git) teach him everything they know. When an evil assassin kills Han Bau-Jiu with the dastardly Jiao Yin technique that enables users to plunge their fingers through a victim's skull, Kuo somehow manages to stab the killer in his one vulnerable spot. This sparks a blood feud with Kuo pursued by vengeful zombie-like Iron Corpse Mui Chiu-Fung (Yu Hoi-Lun). Later Kuo befriends a beggar who turns out to be beautiful princess Huang Yung (Tien Niu). Sharing a strong sense of right and wrong the smitten heroes intervene when snooty Prince Yang (Li Yi-Min) humiliates pretty martial arts maiden Mu Nian-Zhi (Kara Hui Ying-Hung) only to learn her adopted guardian Yang Tieh-Shin (Dick Wei) is his long-lost dad. Things get even more complicated when Kuo learns Prince Yang's kung fu teachers, Spiritual Wisdom Ling Tze (Chan Shen), Odd Immortal Leung Sin-Yeung (Fan Mei-Sheng) and Hell King Sha Tung-Tin (Suen Shu-Pau) are involved in some sort of labyrinthine conspiracy. Luckily, when attacked by a giant snake, Kuo drinks its blood which endows him with supernatural kung fu skills. Are you still with me?
For the record, at no point in this film does Kuo wield a bow and arrow. What is up with that? Shaw Brothers released two sprawling, mind-boggling multi-part epics in the late Seventies based on wu xia ('swordplay') novels by author Louis Cha, a.k.a. Jin Yong. One was Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (1978), the other was The Brave Archer adapted from 'Legend of the Eagle Shooting Heroes.' Cha's celebrated literary epic also inspired Shaw's tangentially-related fairytale fantasy Little Dragon Maiden (1983), Wong Kar-Wai's far artier Ashes of Time (1994), Jeff Lau's silly spoof Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993) and has been a television staple for a great many years launching the careers of many a Hong Kong movie mega-star. One would expect the task to be handed to wu xia maestro Chu Yuan but instead Shaw assigned this to their most popular martial arts filmmaker Chang Cheh. Although Cheh's nuts-and-bolts approach dilutes the magic inherent in Louis Cha's fanciful story, the poetry, romance and whimsical humour remain intact thanks in part to the charming chemistry between charismatic Alexander Fu Sheng and Tien Niu.
Alexander Fu Sheng was one of the most beloved superstars from the Shaw Brothers stable. Born to a family of academics in 1954 he opted for a film career instead of breaking books and graduated among the first group from a performing arts course orchestrated by Shaw's and TVB. He was a favourite of Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung, who choreographed the action here, while his comedic talent made him the only Shaw Brothers star able to challenge Jackie Chan. Interestingly Fu Sheng's brash childlike screen persona has never been as popular among English kung fu film fans as he was with the Chinese. Nevertheless in a stellar career he won a HK best actor award for Cheh's Friends (1974) and co-directed hit comedy Wits of the Brats (1984). He was twice struck down in hit-and-run incidents, the second time fatally in 1983. The studio never recovered from his loss. Fung's appealing co-star Tien Niu began performing on stage at age five. The younger sister of Shaw Brothers star Tanny Tien Ni, she debuted in romantic drama Thirteen (1974), won a best actress award for The Diary of Di-di (1977) and remains a popular film and television performer to this day. It is rare indeed for a Chang Cheh film to feature a peppy heroine able to outwit any macho martial arts villain. Niu steals more than a few scenes, notably a show-stopping duel where she fights while balancing a tea cup on her head!
Truth be told The Brave Archer is not the most coherent adaptation conceivable. The sheer wealth of sub-plots, twists and turns, flashbacks and counter-conspiracies leave the film near-impossible to summarise. Cheh boils Cha's Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic down to a simplistic hero's journey mastering different superpowers from special guest martial arts masters like Ku Feng and Philip Kwok Tsui, of the Five Deadly Venoms (1978), (Ti Lung is introduced in the charming opening credits, where each cast member performs a little kung fu flourish, but does not appear until the sequel) and besting new opponents, laying the groundwork for generations of computer games without the subtext prevalent in other wu xia adaptations. On the other hand the action is top-notch and both the fairytale romance and several comic moments prove genuinely engaging. The third act ignores the preceding feuding kung fu clan plot entirely to focus on Kuo competing to win Huang Yung's hand in marriage which consists of a treetop fight, slam poetry duel and surreal battle of the bands with dastardly Danny Lee, of Super Infra-Man (1975), The Killer (1989) and City on Fire (1987) fame, while Chang goes crazy with coloured gels and avant-garde imagery. The story continues in the superior The Brave Archer Part II (1978).