« Coffee Break | Main | The Violent Shit Collection »

April 04, 2017

Sword Master


San shao ye de jian
Derek Yee - 2016
Well Go USA Entertainment BD and DVD two disc set

As one of the screenwriters, as well as director, Derek Yee gets to remake the Shaw Brothers production, Death Duel from 1977. That film helped establish the young actor, then known as Yee Tung-Shing. As significant as the material may have been for the actor turned director, the new film still bears more in common with the more recent work of Tsui Hark, credited as producer and cowriter here. As with other Tsui films from the past few years, the emphasis is on sword fights, wire works and making use of 3D special effects. At first, I was afraid that Sword Master would be yet another Chinese film attempting to dazzle the audience with gravity defying swordplay, forgetting that having a good story needs to be part of the mix.

It's when the main characters put down their swords that Sword Master is more interesting. An assassin with a tattooed face chooses to limit his abilities on behalf of justice, and looks for a place to die. An itinerant wanderer turns out to be a martial arts master from a famed family, but would rather be a simple farmer. The two men encounter each other in a small town dominated by a man known as the Big Boss, who runs an extravagant brothel. There is a bit of philosophy here, with the discussion of what it means to live or die honorably. The plot is somewhat reminiscent of westerns, notably Henry King's The Gunfighter, with Gregory Peck attempting to retire, unable to escape his reputation for being the fastest gun in the west. As is found in previous films from Tsui, there is at least one woman of action, in this case the heiress, the former fiancee of the martial arts master, in pursuit of her lost love, and also formidable with a sword.


What struck me first were the colorful costumes of the prostitutes, followed by elaborate fakeness of the various settings, even the exteriors. The classic martial arts films were mostly shot inside the studios, and forty years later, it's the same, even with computer generated technology. And it's not that Yee and company could not have made the setting realistic looking, but that they chose to embrace the artificiality of the classic martial arts film with up to date filmmaking tools. I'm not sure how most western viewers would take to this denial of realism, but for myself, it's analogous to the artifice found in classic MGM musicals, especially those of Vincente Minnelli.

I haven't seen Death Duel, but according to an interview, Yee has made this new film closer to the spirit of Long Gu's novel, where the swordsmen question their way of life. That the film stars relatively unknown actors has proven not to have affected the commercial viability for the Chinese audience, though Kenny Lin Gengxin is getting to be a regular presence in Tsui's films, having appeared in Young Detective Dee and Taking of Tiger Mountain. One can only imagine what might have been had Yee been able to make this film as once planned, in 1999, with Leslie Cheung.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 4, 2017 09:44 AM