Starring Chung Wa, Lily Li Li-Li, Kiu Lam, Cheng Miu, Lau Dan, Cheng Lui, Chan Chan-Kong, Lee Ho, Wu Chi-Chin, Chan Shen, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Chan Ho
Directed by Chor Yuen
Judging by the opening minutes of The Bastard, you’d think it was going to be a fight heavy film. But just like you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, nor should you judge a movie on its first few minutes. The Bastard might begin with a brief, wuxia-tinged fight, but it is neither an action-heavy film or a wuxia film. It’s closer to a comedy-drama, and I must admit that I was disappointed, but it is a Chor Yuen film so even in disappointment it’s still a pretty good movie.
The context of this opening fight is important: it represents the completion of our lead character’s martial arts training with his master who raised him from birth. Our hero (Chung Wa) was found as a baby on the temple steps, so he has no idea of his parentage or even his name. In fact, we don’t even know his name; the only thing he’s ever called in the film is “Little Bastard,” a moniker bestowed upon him by the first man he meets on his quest for identity.
Little Bastard’s master told him to go first to the temple where he was found, and there he happens upon a group of four men and a woman gambling with dice. Little Bastard, having grown up in isolation, decides to watch them before approaching, but when the frustrated men try to rape the girl, he quickly steps in and saves her. Little Bastard and Hsiao Yi (Lily Li Li-Li), a beggar girl, form a fast friendship and it is clear that some sexual attraction exists beneath the surface as well, though neither of them actively acknowledge this. A good portion of the film’s comedy stems from this relationship, with the rest coming courtesy of Little Bastard’s sheltered worldview.
All of this informs the drama and the course of the soap opera-like twists and turns, which are fairly standard for this type of Shaw Brothers action drama, but it’s the characters and the tone that really differentiate The Bastard from other films. An orphan who trains for 18 years and then returns to town is nothing new, but in every other film I can think of, this type of character is hard-edged, cautious and almost unnaturally world-weary, which is basically the complete opposite of Little Bastard. There are also very few Shaw films up to this point in their chronology that combine action, drama and comedy in such a way (Chor Yuen’s own The Lizard being the one that immediately comes to mind), so even if The Bastard isn’t a great film, it is something of a trailblazer. Little Bastard’s sheltered character is annoying at times because he causes a lot of strife because of his inability to see the obvious truth, but this naivety also adds a wonderful through line where he writes down sayings that he deems important and meaningful for how he should live his life. It’s hard to convey, but it works well in the confines of the film.
The Bastard is pretty light on action until the third act. Thankfully, what’s on offer is definitely worth waiting for, and the drama leading to these scenes of action makes them even better. The film’s action was choreographed by brothers Yuen Cheung-Yan and Yuen Woo-Ping, and like their previous work there is a lot of clever, intense choreography and a ton of wooden things getting smashed. I’ve come to expect this wanton destruction, so now I look for wooden things in the background and wait for them to get a dude thrown into them.
Hahahaha, I do love the wooden carnage, but I also had a more intellectual thought about it this time. Unlike anything previously in HK fight choreography, this style of breaking tons of objects is almost like an early version of the stunt-focused work that Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung would perfect in the ’80s. Their films feature the big stunts that everyone remembers, but the little stunts of getting kicked through a glass table or something like that go more unnoticed. Anyway, I see this brand of early Yuen choreography as the beginnings of HK’s later obsession with real, dangerous stunt work. It’s probably not a coincidence that both Sammo and Jackie worked with Yuen Woo-Ping early in their careers.
The Bastard has a lot going for it, but the elements never fully gelled together for me. If you enjoy the films of Chor Yuen, I’d definitely recommend it, though. And, of course, anyone interested in Yuen choreography or smashed wooden stuff should definitely take note of the film as well. 🙂
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the extremely rare Lee Tso-Nam film The Escaper! See ya then!