Derek Yee’s SWORD MASTER
Movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
Despite taking place in a magic-ridden mythical ancient China, SWORD MASTER possesses familiar characters and story elements:
- A disillusioned hero, tired of violence, retreats into small-town anonymity - - but only temporarily.
- Nearing the end of his own life, the hero’s longtime foe also retreats to a peaceful spot to await his own death – but he is drawn back into action as well.
- A young peasant woman is a prostitute by day but always returns to her family’s hovel at night to help them out. She falls in love with the hero.
- A gorgeous young noblewoman pursues the hero hoping to rekindle their youthful passion -- or kill him if he refuses.
What sets this movie apart from so many other swordfight-heavy Chinese historical romances are the characters and the production values.
The characters are stereotypical as are the situations. There are many exciting well-produced and beautifully choreographed sword-fights. But we've grown to expect this. Yet, the characters and actors are well suited for each other and the characters are made to seem real, recognizable, and even sympathetic.
Two in particular stand out: the dying swordsman (Peter Ho) and the noblewoman (Jiang Yiyan). He projects both passion and stoicism despite a fierce facial skull tattoo. The noblewoman in pursuit of the hero shifts easily from charm to menace and back again. She's a delight to watch, especially her swordplay.
The smaller roles stand out as well including the prostitute’s doting mom, her lovable lunk of a brother, the town's evil “big boss,” and the brothel’s hyperactive madam.
Production-wise the movie is a feast for the eyes. Lavish use is made of CGI throughout but not just in service of the action. Gorgeous sunsets, lakes, rivers, flowering trees, and deep forests are framed and displayed for maximum effect. Colors and costumes constantly shift from light to dark and back again as scenes shift from peasant hovels to palaces to forests. Mists, clouds, and smoke appear and disappear to reveal spectral ghost-like soldiers. Action scenes are choreographed and edited with an eye to 3D rendering. Music is excitingly integrated with what we see on the screen. A very nice touch is that the many ranks of soldiers include both men and women.
I have only two real complaints about the film.
At first I found the story difficult to understand as backstories are only gradually presented. Perhaps this is the fault of the subtitles (the film is in Mandarin) but things eventually become clear.
Another issue is a lack of clarity about the economy of this mythical world and how this relates to the society's social pecking order. I understand the concept of warring clans and towns run by evil big bosses, having grown up on American Western films. Frequent reference in the subtitles is made to the phrase “martial world” which appears to represent the social and cultural underpinning of society and, despite obvious political corruption, its emphasis on swordplay and discipline. (Maybe I'm putting too much thought into what is basically a gorgeous example of sword-and-sorcery filmmaking.)
Perhaps the tip-off to what the director intends is the final scene. Our hero, in the process of shuffling off into the sunset, kneels before a roadside statue to pray. Fresh green leaves suddenly appear through the dust surrounding the statue.
Is this a symbol of divine redemption like the pope’s staff sprouting green leaves at the end of Wagner’s Tannhäuser? Is the director pandering to a traditional audience after spending an entire film portraying the moral shortcomings of the “martial world”? Or is he trying to make a serious social point? It's impossible to say, but the contrast with everything else portrayed in the movie is almost jarring.
Review copyright © 2017 by Dennis D. McDonald