Friday, March 30, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Imperial Swordsman (1972)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

As always, the Chinese Emperor is in trouble. The high-ranking official Fu Bing-Zhong (Cheng Miu), who is supposed to guard the Empire's eastern borders, is planning to attack the capital with the help of a bandit army and his Mongol allies. When the Emperor finds out about Fu's treasonous ways, he relieves him of his posts, and orders him to return to the capital. Fu pretends to go along with the Imperial edict, and starts off in the direction of the capital on foot and only accompanied by a lone servant. In truth, he's carrying his attack plan on the capital and a list of names of generals in his pack to bring that information to the heavily fortified mountain base of his army of bandits.

Lord Sun (Lee Pang-Fei), whoever he might be, somehow knows what Fu's plans are and sends out four imperial bodyguards - the sisters Shi Xue-Lan (Shu Pei-Pei) and Shi Xue-Mei (Yue Wai), and the rather dubious looking couple of Zhi Yu (Lee Wan-Chung) and Gu Wan (Liu Wai) - to kill the traitor and get a hold of his plans, and if need be to infiltrate the mountain base of their enemy and break all resistance there. If possible, they are to team up with imperial swordsman Yin Shu-Tang (Chuen Yuen), who walks around the countryside being rude to people while dressing a lot like a certain character out of Yojimbo, and a small group of men lead by Jin Zhi-Ping (Tung Li) who have infiltrated parts of the bandit organization. At least I think that's what the plan is - the film sure isn't making that point very clear, and in the beginning, the characters tend to act in a way that doesn't fit too well with what they are out to achieve. The Shi sisters, for example, pretend to be a pair of sisters on the run from a marriage, and hunted by Zhi and Gu, which certainly makes a degree (but only a degree) of sense as long as they are interacting with Fu and trying to look harmless but doesn't make a lick of sense when they do it towards Yin too.

Be that as it may, before long, everybody knows more or less on which side he or she stands, and a desperate battle can begin.

For the first forty minutes of its running time, Lam Fook-Dei's The Imperial Swordsman seems like a rather minor Shaw Brothers wuxia that features some promising fight scenes but more often than not shoots itself in the foot with a lack of narrative clarity that is remarkable even for a film in a genre not exactly known for such a clarity. The longer it goes on, though, the less interested the film seems in being needlessly confusing (not to be confused with the needed confusion of a Chor Yuen film), and the more interested it becomes in being awesome.

Once the protagonists start their attack on Fu's base, the whole film turns into a long (about thirty to forty minutes), and incredibly intense series of fights and pitched battles that is as good as anything of its type I've seen. Lam (with whose body of work apart from The Imperial Swordsman I am disappointingly unfamiliar) shows a fantastic ability to not only increase the action's intensity from moment to moment, even when he's juggling three or four fights happening parallel to each other in different parts of the base, but to show it in ever changing imaginative ways that at times seem heavily influenced by the way Japanese chambara films used to frame their action. The Imperial Swordsman's fights are often as much about the parts of the fights Lam's camera doesn't show as about those it shows, trading a bit of clarity of choreography (which was by the way created by Leung Siu-Chung) for the ability to surprise from shot to shot.

Lam again and again does things like going from standard wuxia camera set-ups to thirty sudden seconds of a static shot looking from outside into a corridor into and out of which the fighters move, so that we only ever see parts of the battle surrounding the camera's point of view, which again is replaced by a more close and more dynamic set-up for a short interlude with a more individual (and therefore more personal) fight. Somehow, Lam's creative style never gives the impression of belonging to a director just wanting to show off, and never breaks the all-important rhythm - wuxias of course having a lot in common with musicals - of the film. It's a fantastic and altogether unexpected thing to witness in a film that began merely being solidly done.

Lam also shows a fine eye for shooting some well-known Shaw Brothers cave sets in ways I haven't seen before, making the very familiar look new and exciting again. I also approve of a bit of obvious but beautiful miniature work that stands in for locations nobody working for the Shaws could ever have afforded to shoot in; there are some of the standard outside locations every regular viewer of these films know by heart, but the artifice of model work is in many cases better - at least moodier - than nature in any case.

The Imperial Swordsman's mood is somewhat gritty, with an emphasis on decorative blood spatters and some pretty gruesome - yet great - ideas for action set pieces, like the fight where one of the Shi sisters has to avoid being run through with her own sword that's sticking in the belly of her opponent. As that example should make clear, Lam's film may be on the more bloody and gritty side of the Shaw Brothers' output, but it sure is preferring fun gritty violence to the more realistic type. It is, of course, a directorial decision that's right up my alley, especially when the film's idea of fun leads to moments like the one when Xue-Mei gets rid of a whole corridor (there are a lot of corridors in this movie) of guards with the help of her trusty throwing darts, as demonstrated by some fast cuts, a few swishing noises and a lot of falling bodies. And really, that's the thing about The Imperial Swordsman's second half: it's so full of exciting little moments like this, of outrageous ideas and imagination I could go on for another thousand words or so just listing every single one of them.

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