AKA SAN SHEO YE DE LIANS
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD AND DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: 10th April
RUNNING TIME: 107 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Swordsman Yen wins his latest duel, but is told by onlookers that he can’t claim to be the greatest swordsman unless he defeats Hsiao Feng the Third Master. He sets off to find him, and is told by Feng’s fiancée Chiu-ti that he disappeared on the day of their wedding, but Feng’s father tells Yen that he’s been dead for 37 days. Feng is extremely disappointed, and so – coupled with the fact that he has an incurable illness – he retreats into obscurity, taking up residence in a graveyard outside Bitter Sea Town, and vowing never to use his 13 Sword Fighting style again, which is bad timing because Chiu-ti, encouraged by her adoring page Chu, wants to lead her Divine Might in a takeover. Meanwhile a heavy drinking, homeless man begins to work in a brotheal as an errand boy….
While I like my Hong Kong flicks, especially ones from the Golden Age of HK movies, the 1980’s and the first half of the 1990’s when the likes of Jackie Chan, John Woo and Samo Hung reigned supreme and their films were getting a strong cult following in the West, I’ll admit that I haven’t seen the 1977 effort Death Duel the first adaptation of Gu Long’s novel The Third Master’s Sword, which has been remade as the movie that’s the subject of this review, but considering it comes from the great Shaw Brothers studio I’m sure it’s a good watch. So I can’t really compare Death Duel to Sword Master, a film which actually has the main star of its predecessor Derek Yee as its director. Lee is known for gritty dramas like Protégé and probably the best of Jackie Chan’s recent-ish films Shinjuku Incident, so he seems like an odd choice to helm a wuxia actioner with people leaping all over the place, while the work of producer [and often director and writer] Tsui Hark, despite the man having been a true legend of Hong Kong cinema for 40 or so years with titles such as Once Upon A Time In China, Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain and Iron Monkey to his credit, has gone off the boil of late: Seven Swords was most impressive but aside from that, going by what I’ve seen much of his recent stuff is weakened by poor storytelling and CGI overload of extremely variable quality. So it’s fair to say that I wasn’t expecting too much from Sword Master, but did quite fancy watching a Hong Kong film – and actually the film is rather good.
It can’t touch the classics of the past, and it is absolutely crammed with CGI – honestly, if you detest CGI [I’m kind of in the middle – it’s a great tool that can realise things that couldn’t be before, but I dislike the way it’s almost entirely taken over cinema to the exclusion of the older ways of doing things], then you may get rather irritated by much of Sword Master. However, it does also have quite a strong, involving storyline exploring strong themes like redemption, obsession and one’s place in this world, and I was certainly emotionally invested in nearly all the characters – even most of the ‘bad’ ones because I felt I was made to understand their point of view – to the point that I ended up getting rather caught up in it all and even a bit emotional. The action is reasonably plentiful – perhaps largely confined to the first and final thirds but there’s nothing wrong with letting the story breath for a while – and less chaotic than in other recent wuxia I’ve seen, though the actual quality of the sword play is, for the most part [there are a few cool moments dotted here and there, mostly it seems from female characters!], merely average. There aren’t really any amazing fight sequences that’ll leave you breathless and will stick in the mind for weeks afterwards, but aside from a few naff digital visuals the action sequences do the job and don’t disgrace the picture. Lovers of wire-fu action will get their fix, anyway.
The sound of wind, rather than music, over the titles leads us into a really unconvincing digital shot of a bridge, and I begun to expect the worst already. We join two warriors about to have a duel, and all lovers of old Hong Kong martial arts movies will probably chuckle at the age-old dialogue about avenging a dead brother – I almost wished it had been poorly dubbed into English in the old school manner – though there are a few amusing subtitled lines throughout this film like: “I sharpen my blade on talkative men’s throats”. The fight begins with lots of whirling around and one of the combatants using a lantern as well as a sword as a weapon, but it’s over rather quickly and one of the men is knocked off the bridge onto ice – and boy does this ice look crap, especially when the victor yells and all the ice laughably cracks. Thankfully [honestly] Sword Master gets much better after this as the winner Yen goes looking for Hsiao Feng, the man he needs to defeat to become the best of swordsmen. Feng’s jilted fiancée Chiu-ti surprises Yen by asking him him to kill Feng, then the two have a fairly good set-to before Yen leaves to find Feng’s father who tells him that his son is actually dead. We then get a funny moment when the enraged Yen slices Feng’s huge gravestone with his sword [it must be some powerful sword]. Meanwhile Chiu-ti’s page Chu, who’s the leader of the Divine Might cult who go around in demonic masks terrorising and killing, professes his love for Chiu-ti, but she not having any of it even when he kills the woman Chiu-ti suggested he take up with.
It’s interesting having a main character like Yen, whose life seems to have no meaning when he realises the person he needs to kill is dead, and who takes to walking around with a gravestone on his back sporting odd tattoos around his mouth, but the film then begins to introduce another story, a story about a penniless man Ah Chi, who constantly drinks and at the moment works in a brothel. Now it took me less than five minutes for me to work out his identity and I reckon it’ll take most viewers the same, so I’m not going to apologise for saying that Ah-Chi is of course Feng, and he’s sorrowful for all the killing he’s done. He becomes protective of a prostitute called Li who falls for him, but the real reason he lets two men stab him in that he just doesn’t care about anything – though of course we know that will change. He goes to work for Li’s father Mao – who doesn’t know how his daughter earns a living – as a sewage collector, and we get some Big Boss/Way Of The Dragon-type moments where you’re expecting him to burst into action but the film keeps putting it off. Yen even comes back onto the scene and starts to train him, not knowing who he really is, leading to the hilarious line: “I won’t ever beat him in my life. I taught him all my techniques”! The film nicely sets up a series of confrontations both verbal and physical between all the main characters, which are then played out in the final third with lots of the expected wire-fu and fantastical details like an ability to be in several places at one – and you just know there’s going to be at least a bit of tragedy.
There are a few instances of awkward storytelling, like some flashbacks which mostly [there’s one major exception] just reiterate what we were told some time before – one or the other would have been sufficient. While most of the characters, whether good or bad [and many of them are somewhere in-between] are nicely drawn, it’s hard to understand, despite Yiyan Jiang’s excellent performance, why Chiu-ti continues to love a man who continually goes off and leaves her, and why Feng keeps doing so isn’t really explained – okay, he’s tormented by his violent past and keeps on saying that he wants to be a hermit but I couldn’t understand why he keeps leading Chiu-ti on. The emphasis on romance may be a little too much for some but some of the older, similar films Sword Master is influenced by [which include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Duel To The Death] did much the same thing, and it’s all quite sweet if undeniably melodramatic – though feminists won’t look kindly upon Feng thanking Chiu-ti for cooking him breakfast and her repling: “It’s my duty”. Sadly Kenny Lin isn’t really up to the quite complex part of Feng, offering little more than good looks, though his performance makes a fun contrast with Peter Ho’s far more enthusiastic essaying of Yen, while Yiyan Jiang as Chiu-ti does manage to evoke much of the depth of her not entirely convincing role and makes her a bit sympathetic even when she’s cruel and vicious. And this male viewer cannot resist saying that Jiang and Mengjie Jiang are both two of the most beautiful Chinese actresses around – Feng must be the luckiest movie character of the year having both of them after him!
The cinematography, credited to two people Chi-Ying Chan and Wai-Nin Chan, is often quite beautiful – there are some especially nice sunsets – though many of these shots are probably mostly or entirely digital. In contrast to all the computer stuff, there’s also some very obvious sets, notably a graveyard and its surroundings, though the obviously deliberate emphasis on visual artifice doesn’t really excuse some atrocious shots of [often very cool] weapons flying through the air which are just embarrassing. Of course the blood is all digital and pretty awful it looks too, though the violent scenes are generally very quick – there’s a decapitation which is quite sudden because it happens without any warning but is only shown at a distance. I expect that Death Duel was a lot more gruesome. Some holding back on the CGI front, a bit of rewriting here and there, and a longer running time to let its several subplots breath more would benefit Sword Master, but its character driven storyline, rich atmosphere, and pretty [mostly] visuals should still make it a reasonably rewarding experience for experienced wuxia fans and newcomers to this intriguing sub-genre alike.