Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Swordsman (1990)

When a retired official of the Chinese Emperor steals a scroll containing the secrets of an invincible form of martial arts from one of those notoriously evil and hard to kill eunuchs (Lau Shun) to ensure the future of his children, the plan backfires a little.

Soon, he and his family are slaughtered by the Eunuch's henchpeople (among them Jackie Cheung in one of his few outings as an evil bastard). Before he dies, the official can just inform Ling Wu Chung (Sam Hui), the pupil of his friend, the leader of the Wa Mountain School (Lau Siu-Ming) of the scroll's hiding place and ask the young man to deliver the secret to his son.

Of course, this being a wuxia and all, what should be an easy delivery of a small piece of information turns into a quest of epic proportions with double-crosses, the song that won't ever go away, snake throwing, girls badly disguised as boys and more flying people than in the last general meeting of the Marvel Universe. Limbs will be torn, hearts will be broken and honor sacrificed to ambition.

Swordsman obviously had quite a troubled production history, but the accounts I found of it are so inconsistent that I don't think it prudent to go into it too much. Let's just stay with the fact that the HKMDB lists six directors for the film - King Hu (who is the official director going by the titles), Tsui Hark, Ching Siu-Tung, Ann Hui, Andrew Kam and Raymond Lee. At a guess and based on my knowledge of their other films I would say that most of the movie was directed by Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung, with a few scattered scenes (the rather melancholic moments in the first half of the film come to mind) by King Hu, but it's impossible to know for sure. What I can say for sure is that the film is very much a new wave wuxia as one would expect of Hark and Ching.

For a film directed by just about everyone, Swordsman stays surprisingly consistent in tone and content. It is a little complicated for the uninitiated, perhaps even convoluted, but that has always been the wuxia way of storytelling. "Let's just throw as much of everything on the screen as possible, and do it well, and let the audience (with the knowledge of the novels our films are based on) do the rest", seems to be the main thrust of the philosophy behind these films, and usually - as well as in this case - this works out well even for people not familiar with the sources.

While Swordsman's plot is complicated, it is quite comprehensible when one sets one's mind on understanding it, this time even with quite clearly understandable character motivations, but - and that's one of the aspects I love about this genre the most - the film works perfectly well as a string of little marvels; just going with the flow is as pleasant as understanding everything.

One of the deepest pleasures of this phase of wuxia filmmaking lies in the way the complex plotting and the incessant motion of the fight scenes are intertwined, making the flying and spiraling people with the superhuman powers and the archetypal psychology the logical consequence of the shifting world they find themselves in.

Swordsman seems to me like a perfect specimen of its genre, with wonders and small, lovely moments of humanity to spare that quietly tell the story of a bunch of young people declining to become like their elders.


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