Bloody and rough-edged, Tsui Hark’s “The Blade” notches a secure place in the burgeoning neo-swordplay genre. Perhaps too
outre to appeal to a broad base of Asian enthusiasts on the fest circuit, this radical reworking of the 1967 Shaw Bros. classic “The One-Armed Swordsman” has enough action and ooh-ahh moments to stimulate even the most jaded palates, but would have benefited from more moments of respite to balance its jerky plotting and restlessness.
The pic could also help to put Tsui’s career back on course after a few years of ups and downs at the Hong Kong box office. It’s a good showcase for the talents of mainlander Zhao Wen-zhuo, who took over the lead in the “Once Upon a Time in China” series from Jet Li and has since been rechristened Wing Zhao.
Though quite different visually, Tsui’s movie joins Wong Kar-wai’s recent “Ashes of Time” and He Ping’s new “Sun Valley” as pics that rework old formulas but also demand audiences’ considerable knowledge of the stylistic conventions they’re reacting against. The jury is still out on whether overseas viewers will catch on.
Veteran Shaw Bros. director Chang Cheh’s original pic was a by-the-numbers studio production built around star (Jimmy) Wang Yu and his masochistic screen persona. “The Blade” throws out the starched-linen look and gets down in the dirt with its large lineup of characters, first seen toiling half-naked in a sweaty sword-grinding business run by a revered master (Wai Tin-chi). Story unfolds through the voiceover musings of his pretty young daughter, Siu-ling (teenage Taiwanese actress Sang Ni), who dreams of workers Ding On (Zhao) and Iron Head (Chan Ho) competing for her hand.
Plot really gets going a half-hour in, after On, who’s heard his father was killed by tattooed bandit Fei Lung (Xiong Xinxin), loses his right arm in a furious one-man rescue of Siu-ling from local thugs. Rescued by the crazed tomboy “Black Head” (Chung Bik-ha), On starts serious training with his dad’s sawn-off sword blade and a partly burned manual, while Siu-ling separately experiences various adventures with Iron Head and a well-worn prostitute (Valerie Chow). Kick-ass finale has On facing off in an eye-rattling duel with his nemesis, Fei Lung.
Though the overall structure adheres to genre conventions, Tsui’s visual dressing is the thing. Camerawork is edgy throughout, with hand-held effects, action glimpsed through objects and almost docu-like lensing in some sequences. Film seems to aim for a deliberately unsettling mix of styles, from bloody heroics (in the fights) to magical, fairy-tale effects (for Siu-ling’s view of the world). Tech credits are standard for such fare.