Sword Master is a Chinese wuxia film based on the the Gu Long novel The Sword of the Third Young Master and it is also a remake of the classic Chor Yuen movie Death Duel. It is directed by Derek Yee, who starred in the original film.
I enjoyed watching this movie but also had some minor criticisms. I think it is gorgeously presented and the visuals are a worthy homage to Chor Yuen's style though it is difficult to compare with the original Death Duel because both are so different, almost mirror opposites at times.
Plot Summary: At its core, Sword Master is the story of a hero named Ah Chi (Lin Gengxin), a vagrant in self-imposed exile who no longer wishes to kill, but finds he must do so. He befriends a prostitute, a soil peddler and an assassin. The assassin is actually a rival swordsman named Yen Shisan (Peter Ho), who is dying and longs for a worthy opponent.
But there is also a swordswoman named Chiu-Ti (Jiang Yiyan), Ah Chi's former lover whom he left at the altar. She has been chasing him ever since and soon becomes his enemy. Looming in the background is a secret organization of martial heroes called the Divine Might drawn from various sects who wear skull masks and seek to destroy Ah Chi's family.
The movie opens with a wonderful duel between the black-clad Yen Shisan and another swordsman dressed in white. The man in white wants revenge for his brother but Yen Shisan, who killed him, says he was an evil man. Yen Shisan defeats this opponent but It turns out that the man had a contract with a woman named Chiu-Ti to kill Shao-Feng, one of the world's greatest swordsman. Because Chiu-Ti is the former lover of Shao-Feng, she knows his swordplay and demonstrates it to give Yen Shisan insight into its weak points.
Yen Shisan then goes to face Shao-Feng at Supreme Sword Manor. He meets the chief of the sect and Shao-Feng's father (played by Norman Chu) who informs him that Shao-Feng is dead. Enraged and disheartened, and also dying, Yen Shisan chucks his sword into a lake and goes off to die in peace.
The film shifts focus to Ah Chi who is drunk and finds himself working in a brothel where he meets a prostitute named Hsiao Li (Jiang Mengjie). The brothel is run by a villain known as the Big Boss and Ah Chi flees the place after an incident, finding work gathering dung with a man named Miao (Ma Jingjing). He goes to live with Miao and his mother only to discover that Miao's sister is Hsiao Li (whom they call princess and believe works in town as a servant for a rich family).
The Big Boss sends his men after Hsiao Li, who wishes to retire from the brothel. This leads to a confrontation in the streets and also one of the key differences between the original Death Duel film and Sword Master. Ah Chi, who still wishes not to kill, feigns ignorance of Kung Fu and just when it seems he will have to step in and fight to protect his friends and their mother, Yen Shisan comes marching through the streets with his own headstone in tow. In this version, it is Yen Shisan who fends off the Big Boss's men. He kills the Big Boss and vows to be a force for good.
(Important Spoilers from this point on)Eventually, Yen Shisan is convinced by the townspeople to teach Ah Chi kung fu. He instructs Ah Chi in his own sword play, not knowing that Ah Chi is actually Shao-Feng and they become good friends.
In the midst of this, Ah Chi's former lover, Chiu-Ti arrives and he briefly returns to her (in part to make up for leaving her in the past but also, it seems, to protect his new adopted family). At first it appears they will resume where they left off and be happily in love, but it soon becomes clear that they are incompatible. Ah Chi wants to live a simple hermetic life, and Chiu-Ti resents his demands for her to give up the life of luxury she has always known.
When they finally break from each other completely, she vows to destroy the life he so desires. This is where the film quickly and dramatically approaches its climax. Chiu-Ti and her minions, who are clearly involved with the Divine Might and are secretly trying to take over the martial world, attack the village where Ah Chi was staying, kill Miao and try to burn Hsiao Li along with her mother.
Ah Chi and Yen Shisan, who were busy fending off the attack, return to the homestead to find Hsiao Li very badly burned but alive thanks to the protective arms of her mother. Yen Shisan saves her by giving her a rare pill and then convinces Ah Chi that they can stop Chiu-Ti and her men without resorting to bloodshed (something Ah Chi is reluctant to do because of his past).
It culminates in a great battle at Supreme Sword Manor where Ah Chi and Yen Shisan defeat Chiu-Ti's forces. Afterwards, they engage in a duel of mutual respect with one another on a mountain top, Ah Chi kills Yen Shisan (who preferred to die under a worthy blade than from his illness) then leaves with Hsiao Li (disfigured from the flames) to spread justice in the martial world by saving rather than killing.
This is the bare bones plot. There are some key aspects I glossed over (like the precise details surrounding the secret martial sect, the Divine Might, and key side characters).
Pretty Good (4/5): The novel this is based on makes a point of illuminating each character, showing both their ugly and beautiful qualities and I think the film does a worthy job reflecting the same, particularly when Chiu-Ti and Ah Chi attempt to live together as husband and wife and it becomes apparent they cannot. We see both sides of each character and can appreciate Chiu-Ti's point of view, and this is also clear in the action choreography.
Sword Master is the kind of movie where dialogue and sword strikes are often interchangeable. In the final battle between Divine Might and Supreme Sword Manor, so much is said with the stab of a sword, and said well. Again, I think this harkens back not just to Chor Yuen's original Death Duel, but also to many Chor Yuen classics like Heroes Shed No Tears. It is a beautiful and melodramatic shedding of blood.
|The Original Death Duel|
The costumes are also reminiscent of the style found in Chor Yuen Films. When I think of Chor Yuen, I picture people vaulting into the air with swords while wearing stunning robes. There is plenty of that aesthetic at work here, but updated a bit for the modern age.
This is particularly the case with groups like the Divine Might cult. They wear strange masks (often shaped like human skulls) and lurid garb. We even see a couple of grim characters who dress in white with bandage-like head-wraps that could have been plucked right out of Swordsman and the Enchantress. Chor Yuen movies based on Gu Long books frequently feature such eccentric foes and the costume selection here felt like a deliberate homage to that style.
|Derek Yee in the original Death Duel|
The sets too feel very much like Classic Shaw Brothers. A lot of it is CG and modern in that respect but still done to produce a rich world. Occasionally, you can see through the veneer and know that it is fake, which is both part of its charm and one of the movie's weaknesses. But when it works, it works brilliantly.
The movie also has a lot of cameos (which is interesting because Death Duel had a couple of notable cameos as well). I doubt I caught them all but there are several appearances by people who starred in Death Duel (notably Norman Chu and Ku Kuan Chung).
I particularly liked Peter Ho as Yen Shisan and Jiang Mengjie as Chiu-Ti (her performance was exceptional). Ma Jingging, I think was physically the right choice to take on Ku Feng's role as Miao while Hong Mu as Madame Mu Yung was also quite charming.
As I said in the beginning, it often feels like a mirror opposite of the original film. Part of this is due to the fact that they take different liberties with the plot and depict the characters in a slightly different light. For example, Chiu-Ti is more fleshed out and sympathetic in Sword Master than Death Duel, but in that film she is perhaps more menacing. There are also shared scenes handled differently. One that stands out in my mind is the moment in both films when Ah Chi finds Hsiao Li's nearly lifeless body. In both, he unleashes a primal scream but in the original, this acts as a signal for his sect to join him ushering in a march to the climactic duel while in the new film, the expression of grief becomes the focus itself.
My estimation of this movie rose with each viewing. I think there are a couple of key imperfections that prevent this from being a 5/5 review and much of that had to do with when the CG fell flat. On the one hand, it is stunning and beautiful. While the effects sometimes lose a sense of realness, there are moments when the colors, the twirling robes, the music and the drama of the sword strokes feel like something Chor Yuen would do if he were still directing today. But these moments are contrasted with sequences where the CG fails to believably deliver. On the whole though, and given the extent of CG in this movie, it works well and envelops the viewer in a world of beauty and bloodshed.
Image Source: Official Weibo