As an actor, Derek Yee had gotten his break playing handsome swordsmen in numerous Shaw Brothers film, including Chu Yuan’s Death Duel (1977). As a director however, he has mostly favored contemporary, urban and often gritty fare. Now in a full circle he offers Sword Master, a remake of Death Duel co-produced and co-written with Tsui Hark, whose early career had seen him help Hong Kong cinema move past the classicism of Shaw Brothers films, but whose recent films have tried to both recapture and update their narrative and technical tenets. This interesting pair-up has yielded a flawed but stimulating film.
It follows A Ji (Kenny Lin), a powerful swordsman who, haunted by the lives he has taken and tormented by the expectations of the head of his clan (Norman Tsui), goes into exile and lives life as a lowly brothel janitor, where he meets Li (Jiang Mengjie), a kind-hearted prostitute who goes through abuse and humiliation to support her family. But A Ji’s past will not let go : his once-betrothed, Murong (Jiang Yiyan) is looking for him : their marriage would have sealed an alliance between the two most powerful martial arts clans. ; and then there’s Yan Shisan (Peter Ho), a man who wishes to duel with A Ji in a bid to become to greatest swordsman in the martial arts world.
A faithful narrative and thematic throwback to the wu xia pian of the Shaw Brothers’ heyday, Sword Master nevertheless updates these films’ set-bound visual charm with carefully crafted green-screen settings that only occasionally jar, but rarely enchant (this is a film that will not age well). Similarly, Yuen Bun’s twirling, wire-heavy sword-fights are pleasant enough, but utterly forgettable and often bordering on muddled. It’s a pity Tsui Hark found success with the quaint and weightless stylings of 2012’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate rather than with the earthy grittiness and clanging metal of 2004’s Seven Swords. Sword Master‘s swirling CGI capes, billowing CGI smoke and in-your-face CGI arrows are oddly tasteful but are not an ideal fit for the heavy themes of duty, ambition and fate.
Luckily, the actors go some way towards injecting the film with what weight it needs. Not Kenny Lin, mind you: Tsui Hark’s new protégé isn’t inadequate, but he’s a very bland performer, and evokes none of the wounded gravitas and haunted melancholy his role is supposed to be burdened with. Luckily, Peter Ho as his fiery rival picks up the slack.Yan Shisan is a fascinating character, scarily single-minded but darkly humorous, dangerously ambitious but a generous man at his core, condemned by disease but bursting with life ; and Ho is simply terrific in the role. He’s matched by Jiang Yiyan as an equally conflicted and nuanced character ; Jiang is one of China’s best actresses and her venomous, lovesick femme fatale should be marked for awards consideration despite its rather slim screen-time. And Norman Tsui, surrounded with other actors from the original film (Jamie Luk, Goo Goon Chung and Ling Yun all return from Death Duel), is excellent as a ruthless clan master. His unmistakably charismatic presence has been missed in high-profile films.
Long Story Short: A postmodern take on the classic Shaw Brothers wu xia pian, Sword Master is visually patchy and lacking in memorable fights, but well-acted and refreshingly heartfelt. ***