Sword Master (Cert 15)
1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Kaleidoscope Entertainment) Running Time: 108 minutes approx.
Director Derek Yee might be more known for his gritty thrillers so a wu xia film seems to be out of his comfort zone. But as Yee’s history reveals that he started out as an actor in classic Shaw Brothers movies, Sword Master is an actually return to his roots.
In fact, this is a remake of the 1977 Shaw Brothers’ Death Duel in which Yee featured, although the overall aesthetic and stylisation of the action owes more to co-producer and co-writer Tsui Hark than Yee’s former bosses – quite ironic, as it was Hark who, in the 80’s, shifted martial arts cinema away from the Shaw Brothers dated style.
A rather obtusely told story with many strands that somehow converge begins with a wandering swordsman Yen Shih-San (Peter Ho) whose ill health forces him to face his imminent demise, but not until he can fight and defeat the legendary Third Master. However, upon learning that the Third Master has died, Yen decides to live out his final days in the graveyard of the small rural hamlet of Bitter Sea Town.
Meanwhile impoverished vagrant Ah Chi (Lin Gengxin) drunkenly stumbles into a brothel where he passes out and later forced into their labour to pay off his debts. There he meets eager prostitute Hsaio Li aka Sweetie (Jiang Mengjie), willing to do anything to send money back home to her family. When Chi takes a stabbing for Li and survives, she falls for him while Chi’s reputation as a tough guy spreads.
Elsewhere Mu-Yung Chiu-Ti (Jiang Yiyan) is the current head of a powerful martial arts family and still bitter about being jilted by her betrothed many years earlier. She sends out her soldiers to find her erstwhile husband and bring him back to her. His name? Ah Chi.
So, how does the estranged husband of a powerful clan leader end up a homeless bum? This is where the confused narrative undoes the good will the swiftly paced action scenes engender. Without any sense of rhythm, context or continuity, the story flashes between the past, the present in a haphazard fashion that causes to mislead the audience as to what key incidents they are witnessing.
For instance, when Chi is introduced the scene transition is one that normally suggests a flashback and, coming right in the middle of an introspective moment for Yen, gives the impression we are looking at a flashback detailing his past and how he came to be the tattooed sword master he is today.
With both Chi and Yen being similar in build and appearance this isn’t too hasty a conclusion to jump to but it wasn’t until the two men eventually appear in the same scene some time later that the penny drops and we were not looking into Yen’s history at all – this was Chi’s present day life unfolding. Similarly, it is not until much later still that Chi’s past is revealed, and even then it comes in stages, making this an even more awkward thread to follow and watch unravel.
Not that it doesn’t make sense and help put everything into perspective but the jumbled nature of this vital exposition is the kind of mistake a rookie writer/director would make, not seasoned veterans like Yee and Hark. This also makes it a little hard to get a solid reading on the characters since it changes the perception of them, which is a natural ploy in scriptwriting, but here it makes them all appear schizophrenic.
Putting this rather monumental cavil aside, the story offers plenty of twist and turns, buttressed by the curious grey areas of the characters that is evident before the backstory revelations. Every one of the main players goes on a journey that shapes their stance in the current timeline, unknowingly built around the mantle of being the best swordsman.
This of course means plenty of action and Yee isn’t beyond throwing us a few bones in that respect, under the stunt direction of veteran Yuen Bun. In the opening ten minutes alone we are treated to two flashy and balletic sword fights, both involving Yen, which recall Tsui Hark’s trademark gravity defying flights of fancy. Starting as they mean to go on, the first half hour or so is regularly punctuated by some form of fighting, be it swordplay or hand-to-hand combat.
As the film progresses the fights are longer, more ambitious in scope and construction, yet grounded with classic choreography tricks. People fly about recoiling from a hit or avoiding an oncoming attack in true wire fu fashion, aided with a touch of CGI for a little extra pizzazz. Towards the end the claret begins to flow with some regularity, including a brutally cold beheading, building to the inevitable climactic showdown.
Because 3D is so popular in China this was released as such in cinemas there but the shortcomings of the CGI and green screen work is exposed slightly in this 2D version, yet overall the visuals are luscious enough to immerse oneself in. The period set pieces are as ever of the highest quality and lovingly detailed, as are the costumes, from both ends of the affluent spectrum.
One apparent residual factor from the Shaw Brothers days is found in the acting, which on occasion borders on the pantomime. Peter Ho has a great presence as Yen when not overdoing it, something Jiang Yiyan is guilty of in small doses as Chiu-Ti, although she is vastly enigmatic than the men. Lin Gengxin is a sadly bland lead as Chi so it befalls to Jiang Mengjie to add some lustre as the tart with a heart Sweetie.
The aspiration to create an modern wu xia epic with Sword Master isn’t fully realised due to the uneven script and erratic structure, but as a classically inspired swordplay film it contains all of the hallmarks of the genre and provides enough solid entertainment to keep martial arts fans sufficiently invested.
2.0 Stereo LPCM
5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
Rating – ***
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