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Sword Master
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by Jay Seaver

"A Shaw Brothers throwback that remembers this stuff is supposed to be fun."
4 stars

A good chunk of what makes "Sword Master" such a fun throwback to the Hong Kong wuxia movies of earlier decades is that filmmakers Derek Yee and Tsui Hark remember that people used to do them all the time. WIth the Hong Kong film industry shrunken, respectable folks like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou making movies meant to elevate the genre, and visual effects offering an alternate sort of spectacle, it can sometimes seem like the art of a good martial-arts programmer is gone. That Yee manages to capture what seems to have once been commonplace (through an admittedly nostalgic lens) thus becomes rather remarkable.

Not that these guys opt to go without modern luxuries in making this film - it opens with a slick swordfight on an icy bridge as assassin Yen Shih-san (Peter Ho Yun-tung) cuts through another warrior on his way to confront Hsieh Shao-feng, the Third Master at Supreme Sword Manor, and claim his place as the greatest swordsman in the martial world. It’s a matter of principle for him, as he refuses the money of Hsieh’s spurned lover Mu-yung Chu-ti (Jiang Yiyan) to do it as a job. But when he arrives at the manor, he finds that he has missed his chance for a fight to the death. Meanwhile, in Bitter Sea Town, a nameless vagrant (Kenny Lin Geng-xin) has a night at the Blue Moon House brothel that he can’t pay for, winding up having to work it off , often finding himself landing in the middle of the antics of “Princess” Hsiao Li (Jiang Meng-ji), simultaneously one of the klutzier and more scheming girls there.

Once upon a time, director and co-writer Derek Yee Tung-sing starred in another adaptation of the source novel (1977’s Shaw Brothers production Death Duel), and it would certainly be a fun exercise to watch them back to back. As much as Sword Master often feels like a legitimate successor to the classic martial arts movies, it also fits in very well with the recent films of producer and co-writer Tsui Hark, who genuinely loves special effects and 3D; Hark is a “throw stuff at the audience” guy. Yee maintains a fluid camera that, even in the 2D version playing most American theaters, is clearly looking to present depth and a spatial arena for the fighters to play in, often filling the screen with bright colors and elaborate costuming and production values.

There’s maybe not quite so much action in this movie as there was in the Shaw Brothers classics, but Yee, Hark, and action directors Yuen Bun & Dion Lam Dik-on stage it well. Peter Ho, Kenny Lin, Edward Gu, Jiang Yiyan and the various other screen fighters are light on their feet and quick with a blade, and when the visual effects pop up, they’re big and fun but not overwhelming. More importantly, the borderline (or not-so-borderline) supernatural things that call for visual effects never reduce the action to actors posing in goofy costumes while CGI artists do their thing and invincible techniques thwart opponents without any back-and-forth; it always feels like people fighting, choreographed to showcase the passion of the combatants and the athleticism of mastery as appropriate.

And maybe not having so many fights gives the story room to breathe a bit. The script is seldom the first thing one is concerned with in this sort of martial-arts epic, but if you’ve watched a lot of old-school kung fu and wondered just what the heck is going on between the various fights, you’ll probably appreciate what Yee, Hark, and Chun Tin-nam manage here: There are subplots aplenty, all the better for mixing and matching various characters’ fighting styles, but they’re seldom arbitrary or pulled in last-minute. The comic relief is broad and a little goofier than the action around it, but seldom based upon someone being stupid or incompetent. There’s melodrama and tragedy to the story, but even when making the villains viciously hissable, horrifying monsters, it’s not pumped up to the point where one snickers. It’s a capable script that doesn’t put on airs and winds up paced well, something this genre doesn’t always put a premium on

It's got a nice cast, too, clearly not just chosen for their ability to sell good action. Peter Ho in particular is kind of great, emoting behind elaborate tattoos, establishing an early fierceness that's not undercut by deadpan humor and giving what starts as an obsessive madman enough humanity that the inevitable last-act realignment works. Kenny Lin and Jiang Meng-ji give the film a likable center, good at both sarcasm and genuine affection, with Lin holding his own in the action, although you've got to give the devils their due: Jiang Yiyan and Edward Gu can't help but burn brighter as the villainous would-be couple; Jiang gives Chu-ti’s viciousness depth by also selling how much she genuinely, in the twisted way of a fighting-clan process, loved Shao-feng, while Gu plays the man who would be hers with a combination of stoicism and hope that can jump to casual or vengeful murder at the drop of a hat.

It’s just good sword-fighting action and drama, an old-school template given new life by guys who remember what made those movies work back in the Seventies but also know how to play to a modern audience. "Sword Master" isn't quite a masterpiece, but it's something that would fit in with the films that inspired it far better than many recent wuxia flicks, and that's more of an accomplishment than it might seem.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=30661&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/21/16 17:08:53
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USA
  09-Dec-2016

UK
  N/A

Australia
  08-Dec-2016


Directed by
  Derek Yee

Written by
  Tin Nam Chun
  Hark Tsui
  Derek Yee

Cast
  Kenny Lin
  Peter Ho
  Yiyan Jiang
  Mengjie Jiang



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