Flashing swords and billowing robes. Vibrant scenes of natural beauty and gorgeous sets. Suicide footsoldiers wielding weapons of bone spray streams of poison from their bodies when sliced open, wreaking havoc on their enemies’ ranks. Sword Master [San shao ye de jian] (2016) is another fine wuxia entertainment produced by the ever-reliable Tsui Hark.
Yen Shisan (Peter Ho) is a black-clad master assassin-for-hire with a tattooed face and a sour personality, so skilled at his personal style of swordplay that he has become bored with his inevitable victory. Only one challenge remains to him – Third Master of Supreme Sword Manor, universally acknowledged to be the finest living swordsman. He has already decided to confront his chosen opponent when he’s approached by Mu-Yung Chiu-Ti (Jiang Yiyan), who is desperately and poisonously in love with Third Master and wants to see him dead for breaching his promise to marry her. Turning down her offer of money, Shisan breaches the defences of Supreme Sword Manor only to be told that Third Master is dead. Dying himself from internal hemmorhaging due to misaligned chi (most likely a side-effect of his fighting style), and having lost the opportunity to die in battle against a worthy opponent as a warrior should, he retires to live out his remaining days tending the picturesque graveyard of a small town.
As the martial world begins to react to the power vacuum, a mysterious dishevelled stranger (Lin Gengxin) goes on a five-day drunken bender at a nearby brothel before revealing that he’s broke and allowing himself to be taken into indentured service. Given the name Ah Chi (which translates as “useless chi”) due to his complete subservience and seeming incapability of fighting, he settles into a life of drudgery but startles everybody when he blocks the way of two men who have attempted to leave without providing recompense for the services of Hsiao Li (Jiang Mengjie) – his stoic refusal to do anything other than stand and stare while being stabbed multiple times unnerves the thugs sufficiently that they pay up and run away. After leaving the brothel to escape his new notoriety, he’s befriended by Miao Tzu (Ma Jingjing), who invites Ah Chi to work with him as a night soil collector and share his humble abode.
When Hisao Li runs away from the brothel after being badly beaten by a client, she is both surprised and delighted to find Ah Chi living with her brother and mother (Pau Heiching). Meanwhile Shishan, who has gone uber-goth and taken to wandering around carrying his tombstone on his back, has decided that he might as well become a defender of the innocent while he’s waiting to die. He intervenes when the local crimelord’s thugs attempt to drag Li back to the brothel and – recognising that Ah-Chi would be perfectly capable of fighting if he chose to do so – teaches him the secrets of his techniques. Unfortunately one of the thugs has recognised both Shishan and Ah-Chi, returning to his boss to inform him that they were defeated by the two greatest swordsmen in the land. This inevitably draws the attention of Chiu-Ti, desperate either to reunite with her lost love or to kill him and everybody who means anything to him. As characters clash and events escalate, the reasons for Ah Chi’s abandonment of his heritage are revealed, the skull-masked Divine Might faction attack Supreme Sword Manor, intersecting love triangles clash, and Shisan teams up with his new best frenemy to resolve the various conflicts.
Based on the book Sword of the Third Young Master [Jianghu Ren], a later work from prolific Taiwanese novelist Gu Long originally published in a serial format between June 1975 and March 1976, the story is pleasantly convoluted but never excessively so. While alluding to a wider world of competing martial clans, the focus on the more personal conflicts of the various major characters provides an easily accessible entry point through which to understand the backdrop. Gu Long’s preference for taking inspiration from modern adventure fiction rather than grounding his work in an historical period frees him up to provide a blanket (if unsophisticated) critique of ruling houses who are more concerned with proving the superiority of their martial prowess over their rivals than the welfare of the people over whom they rule, with barely any recognition that they couldn’t operate on such an exalted level without the basics of food production and manufacturing carried out by the “disposable” underclasses. The most worthy characters are those who choose to remove themselves from this more materially privileged existence and follow the dictates of their conscience to defend the weak.
Perhaps more important to director Derek Lee Tung-Shing than Gu Long’s source novel is its original adaptation to film in the Shaw Brothers production Death Duel [Sān shào yé dè jiàn] (1977) from noted director Chor Yeun (although I’ve so far been unable to get my hands on either the novel or original film for comparison). Just starting out as an actor in 1977, Death Duel was Lee’s third film, in which he played the lead role of Third Master Chi. As his career progressed, he appeared in several other Gu Long adaptations directed by Chor Yuen, including The Sentimental Swordsman [Duōqíng jiànkè wúqíng jiàn] (1977), Legend of the Bat [Chǔ líuxiāng zhī biǎnfú chuánqí] (1978), Full Moon Scimitar [Yuan yue wan dao] (1979), Heroes Shed No Tears [Yīng xíong wú lèi] (1980) and Return of the Sentimental Swordsman [Mó jiàn xiá qíng] (1981). He continued to work steadily as an actor up until 1996, by which time he had six films and one television series under his belt as a director. Sword Master is the seventeenth film he has directed and, at the time of writing, his last – which might explain his choice to revisit the beginning of his career, a suitable bookend to cap his legacy. In 2017 he was appointed chairman of the Hong Kong Film Awards Association, a position which (as far as I could ascertain) he continues to hold to this day.
Joining the fun are three of Lee’s acting compatriots from the original Death Duel. Appearing as Third Master’s father, leader of his clan, is Norman Chu, a significant rise in standing since his original appearance as Mu-Yung Manor Knight. Cast opposite him as Chiu-Ti’s father is Ku Kuan-Chung, previously playing Yu-Mien Brother 2. Jamie Luk (Rumble in the Bronx), originally one of Tien Hu’s unnamed brothers, portrays Hsia Hou-Hsing (a character whose role in the plot I’ve unfortunately forgotten). Chu and Ku appeared together the previous year in the compellingly weird The Web of Death [Wu du tian luo] (1976). Other notable credits for Norman Chu include The Flying Guillotine [Xue di zi] (1975), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin [Shao Lin san shi liu fang] (1978), Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain [Shu Shan – Xin Shu shan jian ke] (1983) and The Maidens of Heavenly Mountains [San tin lung bat bo: Tin San Tung Lo] (1994).
Among the younger cast members, leading man Kenny Lin (Hsieh Shao-Feng / Ah Chi) has had the most notable career to date, having played Sun Wukong the Monkey King in Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back [Xī yóu fú yāo piān] (2017) (previously reviewed here) and the Dr Watson-equivalent Shatuo Zhong in both Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon [Di Renjie: Shen du long wang] (2013) and Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings [Di Renjie zhi Sidatianwang] (2018). Other appearances include Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain [Zhi qu wei hu shan] (2014) and Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall (2016).
Having brought up the Monkey King, I can’t help noting that Peter Ho (Yen Shih-San) plays Erlangshen, nephew of the Jade Emperor and one of Wukong’s opponents, in both The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven’s Palace [Xi you ji: Da nao tian gong] (2014) and the forthcoming remake The Monkey King: The Legend Begins (2022), while Mengjie Jiang (‘Princess’ Hsiao Li / Sweetie) is set to appear in the currently-filming TV series The Legends of Monkey King. Finally, among the actors with smaller roles, both Jiatong Lai (Nameless) and Zhaoxu Lin appeared with Kenny Lin in Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013).
If you’re a fan of this type of movie, or looking for an entry point, Sword Master (2016) is a solidly entertaining example of its kind and fairly accessible to the novice. It’s perhaps not among the top ranks of the wuxia genre, but there’s a lot here to love.