The Bastard (1973)
by: Chor Yuen
That Shaw Brother's movies would register emotionally in several ways, I had no doubt about going into my first ones. Chang Cheh gave us the epic scope and the pairings of David Chiang and Ti Lung. Lau Kar Leung the absolute finest in kung fu action and Chor Yuen definitely possessed the best eye for visuals out of these more widely known directors. Chu, more associated with, as evident through the various dvd releases over the last few years, adaptations of Gu Long's complex Wuxia novels, there also existed efforts not relying on the famed author but ones with genuine skill for dramatic storytelling in combination with that famed eye. For what it's worth coming out of this relatively newcomer to Shaw Brother's films, The Bastard remains one of the finest out of any genre he attempted.
Being brought up by a mentor at a secluded part of the country, an orphan (Chung Wa - Killer Clans) begins his journey to locate his parents. By the first person he stumbles onto, he is nicknamed Little Bastard (due to his orphan status) and soon he meets the beggar Hsiao Yi (Lily Li - The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter & The Young Master), whom he strikes up a friendship with. She educates him in the ways of the world and while observing actions at the local brothel, Little Bastard is spotted and recognized as the second son of the wealthy Gu Cheng Bo. The first son is however stuck in prison after the murder of an official but recognizing the bastards innocence, Gu and his family sees the opportunity to seduce one son with their wealth in order to free another one...
No doubt, this is as depressing as they come. Chor Yuen's magnificent tale of innocence abused, deceived and exploited struck quite a chord with me on my first viewing, one where I had decided beforehand that being a Shaw Brother's movie and all, I couldn't possible muster up any clear thoughts to put into writing. It's wonderful to be surprised in regards to that though and to find gems. Chor Yuen's 1973 effort The Bastard proves to be one such. However, this is all very much due to MY emotional response to the themes of the film. There's absolutely NO guarantee that YOU will be taking the same trip emotionally during the film.
It actually proves to be helpful to examine Chor's drama (with doses of martial arts action) a second time because I didn't realize that much of the film's success comes in the long run, rather than thanks to 100 minutes of flawless scenes. It's really an age old story of innocence, one that shares similarities with a 90s new wave kung fu effort by Johnnie To, The Bare-Footed Kid (which in itself was a remake of the Chang Cheh film Disciples Of Shaolin). Subtlety, especially when it comes to the bigger emotions on display is certainly not Chor Yuen's strength, but adding everything up, and receiving a beautiful and poignant coda to the film, Chor Yuen has really hammered home his theme in no lesser way than masterfully.
That negativity in previous paragraph does not suggest that large parts of the film doesn't work. It actually unexpectedly does, on a fairly sophisticated level thanks to the production values as well. As I mentioned, Chor Yuen gave us many pleasing visual palettes throughout his films and even though the Shaw Brother's stages really do come off as just that, stages, Chor creates an immersing world despite that. He loves, and arguably perhaps too much, to create depth of frame by shooting through the foreground but nevertheless, the very competent camerawork, the showcasing of the detailed Shaw's sets, brings The Bastard home technically.
Going into the themes and portrayal of this particular world, which is not one set in any Wuxia universe by the way, with his main actors Chung Wa and Lily Li, Chor works with two obviously very sympathetic characters. Chung's Little Bastard rightfully goes into the world with a positive frame of mind, only to ultimately receive a very downbeat and cruel lesson. By his side is one that actually knows all about that world, Hsiao Yi or Little Beggar, yet the ultimate message in Yau Gong-Kin's screenplay is not about goodness overpowering evil. It's rather a sad statement, one that applies to modern day, about the dark powers that are allowed to roam within wealth.
The actors pull through by the end but it's not without slight bumps along the way that threatens what is one of the central and crucial points of the film to do right. Chung Wa (usually cast as a swordplay hero) does overplay his innocence and ignorance for a large part of the film but he achieves a good balance when the writing takes the character to places of realization, when he actually does become aware of the cruelty around him. Lily Li's main character trait consists of a distinct facial mugging but it's really at the same time as Chung Wa's character that the writing provides her with additional realization. All that she knows may not be her saving grace after all and that is a point where Lily hits a memorable stride in her performance.
Since The Bastard does feature a character that's been taught the way of martial arts, we do get action as well, choreographed by none other than Yuen Woo-Ping and his brother Yuen Cheung-Yan. For the longest of time, action is only provided in short bursts, quite admirably serving to the story. Style is actually less of a style and outside the overuse of trampoline shots, the rough hand to hand combat compliments the film (and the filmmaking era it's from). It's only towards the end, which logically would feature a showdown, that the movie betrays a little of its previous drama and goes a few notches too big on the fight scale. I don't know, somewhere in even this production, commercial interest may have existed so perhaps this was added on way too much so that you could label the film more of an martial arts drama in marketing. I wouldn't know...
Regardless of that misstep, in the views of this curious and evolving admirer of the Shaw Brother's era, The Bastard stands as a drama classic of unexpected layered proportions. Combine Chor Yuen's handling of that aspect in combination with a superbly shot film on the well-crafted Shaw Brother's sets, and you'll get a film with a poignant, bleak view of the world, a feeling that can only set in after the final frame of the film. That's important to note.
Even though released before IVL went anamorphic for their Shaw Brother's releases, this is a good 2.40:1 framed remastered print with fine colours, sharpness and detail. Even scenes with smoke, which there are a fair few of, feature no noticeable encoding detractions.
Thankfully, the original Mandarin dubtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and while it sounds a bit distorted at times, it is a good presentation.
The English subtitles have a few spelling errors but remains well-worded and professional throughout otherwise. Other subtitle options are Bahasa (Malaysia), Bahasa (Indonesia) and Traditional Chinese.
Extras include newly created, and subtitled, trailers for The Bastard, Starlets For Sale, Family Light Affair, The Killer Snakes & The Twelve Gold Medallions. The Movie Information sections starts of with a 9 page photo gallery and continues with a page with the original movie poster. Production Notes is, as always when it comes to IVL's releases, totally deceiving as it always only has the plot synopsis, also readable on the back cover of the dvd.
The section concludes with biographies and filmographies for actors Chung Wa, Lili Li, Liu Tan and director Chor Yuen. They're short on substantial info but newcomers may get a few basic insights.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson