17 May 2012 | BrianDanaCamp
Good cast, lots of action, confusing dialogue
MYSTERIOUS HEROES (1977, released in the U.S. in a questionable edition as WU TANG SWORDSMAN) offers a strong cast of kung fu performers and a steady stream of well-staged action scenes that will help fans get through a convoluted plot made even more erratic by mistakes in the English dub lines. The storyline revolves around the search for a kung fu master named Lo Tien Fung, who's been missing for 20 years, and the whereabouts of his vaunted "Green-Crested Sword." Carter Wong (18 BRONZEMEN) and his frequent co-star Polly Shang Kwan (aka Lingfeng Shangguan) play kung fu students who embark on the search for Lo and whose ties to Lo are made clear much later in the film. We learn early on that the evil Baron Su Ching (Wang Hsieh) of Dragon Town had imprisoned Lo (Shih Kien) and kept him locked up in a secret dungeon all these years while coveting his famed sword. There is a beggar played by Cliff Lok who functions as a street performer who sings songs about the sinister goings-on in Dragon Town and gets harassed regularly by the Baron's guards. Eventually Carter and Polly acquire Cliff as an ally and learn what they need to plan the rescue of Lo and the retrieval of the sword. There's a lot of family history gradually revealed and a new character introduced late in the film who has a great deal of influence on the protagonists. It can get puzzling at times, but at least there are plenty of large-scale fights with the Baron's army of red-suited guards and, subsequently, a band of killers called the Four Devils. Carter and Lo even fight each other a couple of times.
Carter and Polly frequently take on multiple opponents in the film's most satisfying fight scenes. Polly gets to fight a lot and proves herself one of the more capable female fighters of 1970s kung fu films, although not quite in the same league as Angela Mao and Chia Ling. I've seen her in lots of films, but rarely have her fight scenes been as good as the ones here. She also looks attractive here and has a number of nice costume changes. Veteran actor Shih Kien, most famous in the West for playing the villainous Han in ENTER THE DRAGON, has a lot of fight scenes as well and one of the biggest parts I've ever seen him play. He was in his 60s when he made this and is quite vigorous for his age. Cliff Lok participates in the action as well, although not as much as in his own starring vehicles (e.g. RING OF DEATH, KUNG FU GENIUS), chiefly because he's "undercover" for much of the film. Kam Kong, a regular kung fu villain of the time, plays the Baron's chief henchman and leads the frequent attacks on the heroes. Wang Hsieh, as the Baron, is a formidable enemy, although he doesn't do a lot of fighting himself.
The English-dubbed Wu Tang Collection VHS tape edition I have of this film offers one of the strangest pan-and-scan jobs I've ever seen, with the telecine camera (used to transfer film to video) wildly moving back and forth between the characters. The lack of letter-boxing, combined with the fact that many of the fight scenes take place at night, means that a lot of the action is obscured. The English dub script gets a lot of details wrong. I'll give two examples. At one point, Carter declares his disdain for swords, yet he clearly uses a sword in most of his fight scenes, referring to it as his "Shaolin knife." When the Baron's guards use throwing knives to kill every stranger who comes to town asking for Lo Tien Fung, Carter's English dub line erroneously insists that they're killing everyone claiming to BE Lo Tien Fung. There are various continuity errors also, and references to things we haven't seen, perhaps the result of cuts made to the film somewhere along the way. At one point, Carter's hands are bound together by iron clasps, yet in the very next scene his hands are suddenly free, with no indication of how that was managed. Late in the film, Lo asks Polly, "Do you remember the 13 techniques I taught you?"—even though she's too young to have ever been a student of his and there's no point in the film when he would have had the opportunity to teach her anything. Somehow, I'm bound to conclude that the best way to experience this film is with an original Mandarin soundtrack, with subtitles, and a letter-boxed widescreen transfer of an uncut print.
The VHS tape box wrongly credits the film's direction to Wilson Tong. The actual on-screen directorial credit goes to Chan Siu-Pang, who also directed THE MAGNIFICENT (1979), which I've also reviewed on this site. The credited action director is Chan Sui Chung and the credited kung fu intructors are the director, Chan Siu-Pang, and cast member Shih Kien.