Directed by: Tung-Shing Yee
Starring: Kenny Lin, Peter Ho, Yiyan Jiang, Mengjie Jiang
Yen Shih-San is a notorious swordsman who is traversing the country, honing his skills by challenging local masters, with the goal to challenge the Third Master, a renowned swordsman who had never been defeated. However a revelation about his nemesis devastated Yen, and he looks to see out his last days living in a cemetery.
Meanwhile, a young man known as Ah-Chi ends up working for a brothel and later for the urine collectors. He befriends a young prostitute called “Princess” and learns of her secret, but never divulges the secrets that weigh him down….
Based on a previous film from 1977 called Death Duel, Tung-Shing Yee’s Sword Master is an absolute triumph of the genre, although newcomers to the Wuxia genre might have a hard time following the plot. This especially applies to the opening, which throws the audience straight into the midst of a duel, with not much in the way of clues who we're supposed to be rooting for. As it turns out, we're meant to be cheering on Yen, a young man with amazing sword mastery skills who is nevertheless dying of a slowly debilitating disease.
Yen, it turns out, is obsessed with being the best swordsman, and has been travelling cross country, challenging and being challenged by other martial arts masters to duels (his sack of swords taken from his opponents a big clue to his success rate), slowly making his way to the clan of the Third Master, purportedly the best swordsman ever.
After suffering a life-changing shock, Yen disappears from the picture for a long period and instead we are introduced to a character who will shortly be christened Ah Chi. He arrives at a brothel, whacks up a huge bill he can't pay and is instead forced to work as a cleaner by the seemingly genial couple who run the place. It is clear that Ah Chi wants to remain as much in the shadows as possible, not drawing attention to himself. However he can't help but come to the aid of Princess, one of the prostitutes, when she is threatened by two customers refusing to pay for her services.
Things start to fall apart for Ah Chi when the brothel's owner tried to force Princess to come work for him again and threatens her family. This brings Yen, who' s been living in the local cemetery, back into the picture and the pair's destiny starts to solidify.
There's a lot more to the plot, and a lot more characters involved, but I don't intend to get bogged down in the details. This is quite densely plotted, but it doesn't let that get in the way of some great set-pieces, and the pace of the film is pretty quick - try and keep up with the plot!
I am not averse to a bit of wire-fu/fantasy martial arts, but I detest as a film the likes of Hero, with its languid pace and fight scenes. I'm happy to report that Sword Master is nothing like that - it's much more energetic and packed with imaginative fight scenes.
Sword Master hits upon two tropes which, if not unique to Hong Kong cinema, then certainly is a strong ingredient. Firstly the film is littered with characters who are way too nice, so as soon as you meet them you know they are going to die a tragic death. However the film also has that "adversaries learn to respect each other through fighting" scenario which just sings to me, and the resolution of it is really emotional and touching.
Sword Master is like an expensive wine - not a place to start as a novice, but if you have an experienced palate and can fill in the gaps and narrative shortcuts of the opening 20 minutes, then you will certainly appreciate all that the film has to offer. For the initiated, this is highly recommended.
8 out of 10 (MIkeOutWest)