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  Legend of the Bat Beware the Bat, Man
Year: 1978
Director: Chu Yuan
Stars: Ti Lung, Ling Yun, Derek Yee, Yueh Hua, Ching Li, Wang Chung, Candice Yu, Yuen Wah, Norman Tsui Siu-Keung, Ku Kuan-Chung, Lau Wing, Wang Lai, Lau Wai-Ling, Ching Miao, Ai Fei, Yang Chi-Ching, Yuen Bun, Chan Sze-Kai, Chong Lee, Shum Lo, Alan Chui Chung-San
Genre: Horror, Martial Arts, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: On the way home from their last adventure, debonair playboy kung fu super-sleuth Chu Lu-Hsiang (Ti Lung) and his ever-grimacing, black clad assassin buddy Yi Tien-Hung (Ling Yun) happen upon the grisly aftermath of a massacre at Simin Villa. Among the bodies of many formidable fighters from the Martial World a sole survivor emerges with no memory save a compulsion to visit the mysterious Bat Island. A trail of clues leads Lu-Hsiang and Tien-Hung to a boatload of passengers seeking the same island. From the kung fu couple (Yueh Hua and Ching Li) seeking a cure for a fatal illness, to the daughter (Candice Yu) devoted to saving her captive father, each believes the elusive Mr. Bat holds the power to grant their most heartfelt desire. It falls to Chu Lu-Hsiang to expose Mr. Bat's true sinister agenda, but only if he and his fellow visitors can escape the latter's haunted death-trap-laden volcano lair.

Staggeringly prolific wu xia ("swordplay") novelist Gu Long created Chu Lu-Hsiang, the dashing martial arts hero who was part Robin Hood, part James Bond, part Sherlock Holmes. Through the years Long's ace sleuth of the mythical Martial World has been portrayed on film and television by a plethora of notable Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars. Many regard Adam Cheng as the definitive incarnation. However, just as charismatic in the role was Shaw Brothers superstar Ti Lung who appeared in arguably the character's three finest cinematic outings. Each were directed by Chu Yuan, then in the midst of a remarkable run of wu xia adaptations for the Shaw studio. Legend of the Bat followed the duo's excellent Clans of Intrigue (1977) which also featured many of the same supporting players in different roles. The series eventually wrapped with Ghostly Village (1982) which Shaw Brothers also confusingly marketed as Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman, a bogus sequel to a completely different series of wu xia adaptations Chu Yuan made with Ti Lung.

Compared with Clans of Intrigue's compellingly inscrutable narrative, the plot of Legend of the Bat is barely a mystery at all. It opens at the surrealistic candy-coloured Bat Island where Mr. Bat demands the death of Chu Lu-Hsiang, thus exposing his villainy from the outset. Amiable and dynamic as ever, Ti Lung excels as the hero so disarming and charismatic even villains can’t help warming to him and immediately spilling their secrets. He is also notably empathetic, ever smiling though often moved to tears by the plight of desperate folk. Yet for all the intuition and resourcefulness on display Lung's Chu Lu-Hsiang largely takes a back seat here, overshadowed by an ensemble of eccentric kung fu oddballs. Each of whom, male and female, land their chance to be insightful, tragic or heroic. Among them a young Yuen Wah as a heroic mute manservant and future acclaimed filmmaker Derek Yee at the onset of what proved a long and fruitful reign as a top wu xia lead at Shaw Brothers. Interestingly the movie’s midsection plays almost like a wu xia variation on a Seventies disaster movie. We follow a small but starry group of survivors on their perilous journey through Mr. Bat's network of surreal underground terrors, from a lake of fire to a magical ice cave.

As always Yuan layers the unfolding narrative with moments of pathos and philosophical musings. He maintains a pleasingly fast pace, side-stepping self-indulgence for the most part. Nevertheless whereas most Chu Yuan wu xia mysteries deftly balance style with substance, Legend of the Bat's facile plot leaves the film's pleasures primarily aesthetic. As with the last entry its visuals are very reminiscent of the films of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava: ornate sets bathed in lush coloured lighting, spooky forests swathed in fog. Yuan revels in artifice, making the most of Shaw's opulent studio sets to conjure a parallel dimension populated by otherworldly heroes and villains. Three years later actor-director David Chiang, brother of Derek Yee, frequent co-star of Ti Lung and lead of Chu Yuan's Murder Plot (1979), delivered the definitive spoof of all these wu xia mystery tropes in Legend of the Owl (1981).


Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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