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The Swordsman
cast: Sam Hui, Sharla Man Cheung, Yuen Wah, Cecilia Yip-tong, and Jackie Cheung

director: King Hu

113 minutes (15) 1990 widescreen ratio 16:9
Hong Kong Legends DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Steven Hampton
"Don't try to catch the arrows!" shouts one of the fleeing combatants during a rapidly paced fighting scene in this flamboyant epic of 'clan fiction', based on a novel by Louis Cha. Set in the Ming dynasty period, where various groups from hill tribes and mountain sects are in conflict with each other, and the Sun Moon clan, on a quest for possession of the coveted "Prized Sunflower" scroll of secret and deadly kung fu skills. It's a world of class struggles, strictly observed public rituals, and sexual ambiguity (male roles may be dubbed with female voices, and Cecilia Yip-tong is cast as the hero's supposedly androgynous sidekick, Skinny Boy - though, of course, the playful storyline alerts viewers to this minor jest from the start, and there's no way the lissom Ms Yip could ever be mistaken for a boy!).
   The martial elite attain superhuman fighting prowess from their inner chi (or spirit), and supreme power is often achieved through acts of rigorously enforced repression, hence the cult of eunuchs with tremendous paranormal abilities, and the adventure unfolds with betrayal, sacrifice, ruthless ambition, character-based humour - both broad and poignant, exhilarating action sequences with an accent firmly on the fantastique, and musical interludes featuring a traditional folk song composed by James Wong. Canto-pop star Sam Hui plays agreeable hero Ling on a mission of spiritual redemption, the bewitching Sharla Man Cheung (who went on to portray the masked superheroine in Midnight Angel, 1991) provides much glamour and romantic intrigue as feisty Chief Ying, yet (as the DVD commentary points out) there's no pressing obligation for viewers to keep up with the complex plot of shifting loyalties, or struggle to figure out every element of the somewhat confusing quasi-historical background, as there are more than enough thrills and gags in the foreground action, offering sufficient entertainment value - as this review's opening quotation might be taken to suggest!
   Produced by Tsui Hark, this is credited to veteran cinema stylist King Hu (the respected pioneer of genre pictures such as this, and maker of the classic A Touch Of Zen, 1968) who was coaxed out of semi-retirement to direct this well-financed production. However, as the commentary track reveals, Hu was in poor health at the time and was only able to complete a few days work, leaving the project to be completed by Hark, Ching Siu-tung (directing the fight choreography), and their collaborators - including Raymond Lee, Yuen Wah, and even Ann Hui. Although they remain uncredited for behind-the-scenes contributions, The Swordsman (aka: Xiaoao jiang hu) stands as a fitting tribute to Hu's influence (he died in 1997) upon a generation of Asian filmmakers. It features excellent production design that is head and shoulders above the usual Hong Kong standard for such visualisation of generic concepts and themes, and boasts impressive and stylish cinematography by Peter Pau. If you liked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and New Dragon Gate Inn, this will be worth your time and money. Hopefully, the acclaimed sequel Swordsman 2 (1991), re-cast with superstar Jet Li, Brigitte Lin, and Michelle Reis, will appear on DVD from Hong Kong Legends, shortly.
   Digitally re-mastered and restored for this high quality anamorphic transfer (enhanced for widescreen TV), the DVD has Dolby digital 5.1 sound in Cantonese with English subtitles, plus an English dubbed version that's satisfactory but not worthy of praise. Disc extras: subtitled interviews with leading lady Cecilia Yip-tong (Lady Whirlwind), and co-star Yuen Wah (Prince Of Darkness), another of Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan's informative commentary tracks, animated menus, and trailer archive.
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