One of the most mind-boggling, infernally complex martial arts sagas of all time, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre spans five volumes penned by prolific wu xia swordplay novelist Jin Yong, a.k.a. Louis Cha. Adapted countless times for television, where it has proven a consistent ratings winner and launched several screen careers, it was infamously spoofed in the all-star epic Kung Fu Cult Master (1993) but first reached the big screen in grandiose style via this sprawling Shaw Brothers extravaganza from genre maestro Chu Yuan.
Now pay attention folks, this is going to get extremely complicated. In ancient China, five mighty martial arts clans are seeking the mystical super-weapons Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, whose secret techniques will allow one bearer to rule the Martial World. Yup, that old chestnut. While the sword currently resides with the Er Mei Clan led by self-righteous Abbess Mie Jiue (Wang Lai), the sabre belongs to Golden Hair Lion Tse Shun (Lo Lieh), whose whereabouts are unknown. Everyone reckons Tse Shun is a bad mother(shut your mouth!), partly since he once belonged to the Ming Clan, an offshoot of a Persian cult the Han Chinese xenophobically mistrust, but mostly because he went on a crazed killing spree right before he vanished. What nobody knows is Tse Shun was driven crazy by the rape and murder of his wife by scheming evildoer Shin Kwan (Tin Ching) who, before disguising himself as a monk called Yuen Jun, also poisons Shun's little grandson Chang Wu Ji with the "freezing palm." See also The Black Lizard (1981) and The Spirit of the Sword (1982) for other examples of this wacky kung fu technique.
Having grown up in the care of Doctor Wu Ching Niu (future comedy star Ng Man-Tat) and his sword-wielding wife Wang Nan-Gou (Cheung Wai-Lee), Chang Wu Ji (Derek Yee) becomes a handsome hero despite his life-threatening condition leaving him pretty poor at kung fu, plus five angry clans on his back suspecting he knows the whereabouts of his grandpa and the Dragon Sabre. Chang Wu Ji discovers he has only two years left to live and resolves to find Tse Shun, but along his adventures continually encounters an array of beautiful martial arts maidens each of whom fall madly in love with him. Chu Yuan was feted for crafting vivid heroines and in Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, serves up a panoply of striking Shaw starlets who light up the screen. First up is Chou Chi Yeuk (Candice Yu), Wu Ji's onetime childhood friend now grown into an alluring swordswoman serving the Er Mei Clan. But Wu Ji intervenes when the clan attempt to execute Yang Bu Huei (Chan Ga-Yee), a girl on the run whose mother, Ji Shiau Fu (Lau Wai-Ling) shared a forbidden love with Ming Clan swordsman Left Guardian Yang Siu (Wong Yung). To save Bu Huei's life, Wu Ji concocts the lie that she is his wife, inadvertently upsetting Chi Yeuk (who has loved him all these years) before eventually reuniting the girl with her father.
No sooner is that incident over when Wu Ji meets gorgeous Siu Chiu (Cheng Lai-Fong) who has been wounded by her own clan, the Kwan Lun, and left to die in the forest. Wu Ji selflessly saves her life using his own magical healing elixir, which unfortunately leaves him vulnerable to a Er Mei attack. He is saved by kung fu hag Granny Jin Hwa (Teresa Ha Ping) and her childlike, poetry-spouting protege Chu Er (Candy Wen Xue-Er), who is bat-shit crazy but oh-so-cute with killer kung fu skills. These two live in a rickety shack literally teetering on the edge of a cliff that tumbles the second Wu Ji sets foot inside. However, both he and the haunted house defy the laws of gravity and tumble instead into an ipsy-dipsy wonderland of fluffy bunnies, magical red frogs and helpful monkeys. A broth brewed from the mysterious magic frogs cures Wu Ji's heart ailment before a kindly monkey leads him to the mystical manual of Jiu Yang kung fu hidden inside an enchanted tree. Are you with me so far?
Chang Wu Ji's newfound mastery of this all-powerful martial art enables him to triumph in an epic battle at the heavenly palace of the Ming Clan, where he earns the admiration of their Six Great Fighters including his long-lost great-uncle White Brow Eagle Yan Tin Jing (Cheng Miu), bloodsucking vampire Green Bat (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung, sporting a Dracula cape and plastic fangs!), and none other than Yang Siu, Bu Huei, and Siu Chiu. He is duly appointed high chief of the clan, but resolves to forge a lasting peace with the other five clans then eventually stand down. However, Chang Wu Ji discovers the scheming Shin Kwan/Yuen Jun is out to frame the Ming Clan for attacks on other groups. Further complicating matters, the enigmatic, lovely but deadly Princess Chiu Ming (Ching Li) arrives on the scene, seemingly intent on foiling Wu Ji's attempt to bring peace among the clans, for her own unfathomable ends.
If you made it through Killer Clans (1976), Web of Death (1976) and The Magic Blade (1976) without your brain exploding, then you are ready for Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, which is more or less the wu xia genre's War and Peace. Casual viewers should look elsewhere. Dense, incredibly complex and overflowing with allusions to Chinese history and classical literature, at times the source material's labyrinthine super-structure seems to have overwhelmed the old maestro, Chu Yuan, himself given the plot is one damn thing after another, introducing a new character and subplot literally every five minutes. The film is simultaneously near-impenetrable and delirious fun if one embraces its fevered dream logic. Breathtaking sets transport viewers to a beautiful, otherworldly realm lensed in sumptuous Shawscope. Alice in Wonderland with kung fu, if you will. Yet beneath the surreal surface lies subtext galore. Written in 1960s in the run up to mainland China's tumultuous Cultural Revolution, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre is highly critical of self-righteous institutions and belligerent elders and draws an allegorical link with the communist party ruthlessly eliminating all other schools of thought.
While almost every other character is a slave to doctrine, Chang Wu Ji thinks for himself. He follows his heart, giving generously of his time, his strength, the living embodiment of chivalry. Throughout the course of the story, our hero continues learning new mystical kung fu techniques, often denoted through a combination of swirling psychedelic colours, strange chanting and the ability to disappear and reappear at will. More than just kung fu weirdness for weirdness' sake, by mastering these varied styles, Chang Wu Ji is able to unite the disparate clans that practice them. Kung fu becomes another linguistic form and a means of combatting xenophobia. The film ends on a cliffhanger along with a rather spoiler-heavy teaser trailer for Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, Part II (1978).