happens when a supporting character hijacks a film away from the protagonist?
It almost necessarily feels slightly unbalanced, but there is sure to be a lot
of cool stuff going on. In this case, the director might have had a
been-there-done-that attitude towards the central hero, because he has. In 1977
Derek Yee broke out to superstardom playing the so-called Third Master in the
Shaw Brothers’ classic, Death Duel.
Now he re-interprets Gu Long’s source novel as the director and co-screenwriter
of Sword Master (trailer here), produced and
co-written by Tsui Hark, which opens this Friday in New York.
swordsman Yen Shih-san (you’ll notice we’re starting with him) has always wanted
to claim the title from the Third Master, Xie Xiaofeng. To intimidate
opponents, Yen had a skeletal tattoo inked on his face, but the macabre image
soon altered his behavior. Having worked his way up the ladder to challenge the
Third Master, Yen experiences an existential crisis when he learns his rival
died shortly before his arrival. To make matter worse, Yen receives a fatal
medical diagnosis soon thereafter.
to Yen, Third Master faked his death and has been working as a lowly brothel cleaning
boy under the assumed name of Ah Chi. Repenting all the death and suffering he
caused, Xie/Ah Chi has sworn to never kill again. He would also just as soon
avoid Murong Qiudi, the cruel leader of the Seven Stars Pond martial arts clan
and the former fiancé he jilted at least twice. Yeah, awkward. Ironically, the mopey
Ah Chi develops a friendship with Yen, who has become the town’s unlikely hero
as part of his own campaign for redemption.
course, the truth will eventually come out, forcing former adversaries to
choose up sides. Frankly, it takes some pretty horrible attacks on the innocent
from the Seven Stars Pond clan to get Third Master back in the game, but when
he gets with the program, the martial arts sequences are pretty spectacular.
Peter Ho steals every scene he saunters into. He has some terrific fight scenes
of his own, but he is still an electric presence even when he just grouchily
kvetches his way through the village. Kenny Lin is maybe too reserved as the
brooding Ah Chi, but he still develops some rather sweet romantic chemistry with
Jiang Mengjie’s Xiao Li, the junior most courtesan at the brothel. Her eyes
just melt the camera, whereas Jiang Yiyan makes Murong a wickedly fierce ice
One can definitely see various stylistic
elements of Tsui’s productions in Sword
Master. There is a good deal of whirling and swirling in the action scenes
and some of the best duels are fought against appropriately mystical looking
wuxia vistas. Real followers of the genre will also appreciate the themes Yee,
Tsui, and their third co-screenwriter, HK veteran Chun Tin-nam. In the world of
Yen and Third Master, rivalry means something more than the mere clash of
swords. It is something deeper, more primal and indelible, which Ho perfectly
conveys. Highly recommended for fans of grand wuxia, Sword Master opens this Friday (12/9) in New York, at the AMC
Labels: Derek Yee, Jiang Yiyan, Peter Ho, Tsui Hark, Wuxia