The Blade (Dao)
Hong Kong (1995) Dir. Tsui Hark
Tsui Hark is a legend in the world of Martial Arts cinema, and could almost be considered an auteur – his flair for misty atmospheric settings, hugely inventive, gravity defying fights which led to his development of the wire fu method are instantly recognisable and often imitated.
Yet in this 1995 remake of the 70’s classic One-Armed Swordsman bucks this trend with Hark going in a completely different direction stylistically. Some of his visual trademarks remain others have been eschewed in favour of a more adventurous presentation, and the overall tone of the film is much darker than Hark’s previous works.
The story is narrated by Ling (Song Lei), reflecting back on when her infatuation for two men inadvertently set off a chain of events of unfettered violence. Ling’s father (Austin Wai) owns Sharp Foundry, a blade making factory and two workers catch her eye, the quiet orphan Ding-On (Vincent Zhao) and the brash Iron Head (Moses Chan). Ling will flirt and play one off against the other, but one day it backfires when the pair go into town on an errand and get into a fight.
When a Shaolin monk is killed in the scuffle Iron Head wants the company to get revenge but Ding-On – newly named successor to the master – preaches tolerance and peace. He is rejected by the others so he leaves but not before he learns that a tattooed assassin named Flying Dragon (Hung Yan-yan) killed his father. Ding-On plots to hunt Dragon down and avenge his father but in saving Ling, who followed Ding-On, from some bandits Ding-On loses his arm.
This only covers part of the story and while it is your typical good vs. evil struggle, it runs deeper with a sobering undercurrent touching on the rude awakening one gets from observing the darker side of people. This may not sound like the Tsui Hark we all know and love but every artist is entitled to try something different at least once, and this is Hark’s chance to indulge.
It probably wouldn’t be surprise to learn that The Blade died a death at the Hong Kong box office, only finding an appreciative audience outside of the Orient. There are many reasons for why this should be – the story and tone is atypical of Hark’s more effusive works which no doubt put many people off, while the Wu Xia genre was losing its general appeal at that time to more modern fare.
Frankly it is understandable why it didn’t appeal to everyone – its scrambled narrative often obscures key events behind a flurry of visual madness and many characters and the various factions featured are not clearly defined. The film also lacks Hark’s famed levity which many would have been expecting, a possible case of high expectations for the familiar for many viewers.
Even in spite of the awful transfer on this DVD, which renders it looking more like a film from the 70’s as opposed to twenty years ago, one can’t help but feel the critics were a bit too harsh on this film. The fight scenes are mostly grounded, close combat affairs with little in the way of Hark’s wire fu excesses making them feel more realistic and brutal – the violence level has certainly been amped up here. As for the story, one should be more accepting of the fact that this is more than the usual flimsy vengeance fare and adds more depth to the characters.
Ding-On is arguably less intimidating than Iron Head, so his pacifism is defined straight away along with the fact he is haunted by the knowledge that he his master was not the man who sired him nor was he ever told how his father died. Later, after losing his arm, Ding-On is saved by an orphaned farm girl named Blackie (Chung Bik-ha) who shares Ding-On’s pain of not knowing her parents.
It is through his time with Blackie that Ding-On finds his inner resolve and after their dwellings has been attacked by the gang from the start of the film, he embarks on a training program with the broken sword and a half charred kung-fu manual. While this subplot is the catalyst for Ding-On to question his moral direction and switch to hero mode, it feels a tad undeveloped as it is forced to share the screen time with the other subplots in a melee of tightly – and often sloppily – edited mayhem.
The second subplot which may be lost on people is Ling’s gradual disappointment in the human race, as measured by the presence of a prostitute (Valerie Chow). She catches Iron Head’s eye in a bar, thinking she is in trouble with an aggressive client whom she placates as only a whore can. Iron Head late rescues her and brings her back to the base one night which impresses Ling until she spies him claiming his reward. Suddenly he is not the noble man she thought he was.
As provocative as these plot threads seem they are not given the time or due attention the deserves and Hark approaches them in the same way as the fights – set in the dark, with quick edits and arty presentation. One wonders if Hark wasn’t confident in handling such deep subjects in depth so applying the visual flourishes was to distract those who don’t want philosophy with their martial arts.
Tsui Hark shouldn’t be vilified for taking a chance with The Blade – if anything he should be applauded for wanting to break out of his comfort zone. Had he made this film today and slowed down the pace a little the response I am sure would be vastly more welcoming.
I have a few problems with the muddy presentation of this film but I get what Hark was aiming for. It’s definitely ahead of its time and action wise it is among his most brutal and graphic.
Something of a Kung Fu curio.