is wuxia’s most iconic underdog, who embodies a major chunk of Hong Kong film
history. His first appearance came in The
One-Armed Swordsman, a smash hit for the Shaw Brothers that made Jimmy Wang
Yu an overnight superstar. Tsui Hark would reboot the uni-limbed hero for Raymond
Chow’s equally storied Golden Harvest studio in the mid-1990s. It was a bit of
flop at the time, but it has subsequently been recognized as an influential
masterpiece. In celebration of Golden Harvest’s legacy, Tsui’s The Blade (trailer here) screens this
weekend as part of Subway’s Cinema’s Old School Kung Fu 2016, with the support
of Warner Archive, which has released a series of Golden Harvest classics on
MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD (to order, fans must visit the Warner Archive collection: www.warnerarchive.com).
life has already been marked by tragedy. The master of a saber foundry took him
in as a young boy when his father was killed by the Falcon, a feared assassin
who supposedly has the gift of flight. Temperamentally, Ding-on is rather
suited to pound away at the forge, but the master’s daughter Siu Ling perversely
yearns to see a rivalry develop between him and the more hotheaded Ti Tau. The
two apprentices are clever enough to avoid her clumsy mind games, but a more
serious rupture develops when a gang of outlaws brutally murders a shaolin monk.
many of the men at the saber-works, Ti Tau wants to posse-up and administer some
frontier justice. In contrast, Ding-on discourages their rash impulsiveness, in
accordance with their master’s wishes. Yet, Ding-on will have an arm severed by
the very same outlaws when he rescues the flighty Siu Ling from their clutches.
Feeling essentially emasculated, Ding-on retreats to a life of menial labor,
shacking up with Blackie, a young hermit living outside town. Yet again,
Ding-on endures the beatings of nomadic outlaws, led by the sinister Skeleton.
However, the partial burning of Blackie’s hovel leads to the discover of an
ancient martial arts text. Much of the diagrams are missing, but what remain
are still adaptable to Ding-on’s condition. By the time he has retooled his
skills, Siu Ling and his old master will desperately need his help.
a way, The Blade is a hinge film
linking the Shaw Brothers releases that inspired it with later, more
expressionistic wuxia, like Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes
of Time (which originally predated The
Blade in 1994, but became more “auteurist” in the 2008 Redux version) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. Frankly, from the vantage point of 2016, The Blade is easy as pie to follow, but
it was considered quite arty and adventurous at the time for its use of
stunning, saturated colors and whirling dervish action cinematography.
are still plenty of beatdowns in Blade,
some of which are unusually violent. While Vincent Zhao has yet to reach the
level of international popularity attained by Jackie Chan and Jet Li, he has
serious skills and powerful screen presence. Viewers will have no problem
buying into his lethalness, even with one arm literally tied behind his back.
probably nobody is as dangerous in The
Blade as Valerie Chow, who causes no end of chaos and ill will as the
temptress-prostitute. She makes the screen sizzle in her limited screen time.
As Siu Ling, Song Lei has a slightly creepy Lolita-thing going on, but her
unreliable narration adds a further layer of distinctiveness to the film. It is
also hard to understand why Dickens Chan Wing-chung isn’t more of a name,
because he makes quite an impression as the heroic but ill-fated monk.
There is no question The Blade is a masterwork from Tsui,
possibly even a masterpiece. It is a great film to see on the big screen and
also an ever reliable movie to own for repeat home viewing. Highly recommended,
it screens this Friday (4/8) and Sunday (4/10) as part of Old School Kung Fu at
the Metrograph and is available for sale online at Warner Archive.
Labels: Golden Harvest, Hong Kong Cinema, Martial arts cinema, Old School Kung Fu '16, Tsui Hark, Vincent Zhao, Warner Archive