This female revenge drama, beefed up with terrific action choreographed by Hong Kong specialist Donnie Yen, split viewers down the middle at its Berlin screenings, with Asiaphiles generally appreciating the lyrical second act between the hardboiled first and third, but others disappointed by the sudden dip in action.

A martial arts fantasy in modern dress, but set in an unidentified country and era, “The Princess Blade” is a tough toasted sandwich with a soft filling. This female revenge drama, beefed up with terrific action choreographed by Hong Kong specialist Donnie Yen, split viewers down the middle at its Berlin screenings, with Asiaphiles generally appreciating the lyrical second act between the hardboiled first and third, but others disappointed by the sudden dip in action. Beyond festivals and other specialized arenas, this looks to become a cult item shown more on ancillary than bigscreens.

Script’s inspiration is a popular Japanese manga from the early ’70s that was filmed at the time by Toho Studios as “Lady Snowblood,” showcasing action star Meiko Kaji from the popular “Female Convict Scorpion” series. “Blade” is very much a pared-down, post-modernist reworking of a yarn originally set in the late 19th century, and its look is also radically different: In place of Toho’s sumptuous hues and widescreen production values, “Blade” is all blacks and blues in regular 1.85.

Story is set in a country that has been closed to the outside world for 500 years and is now swarming with terrorist rebels. To fight them, the government recruits a house of assassins called the Takemizaguchi, former royal guards from a neighboring kingdom. A senior member of the House of Takemizaguchi is the cute-looking but deadly Yuki (popular model Yumiko Shaku), an ace with a samurai sword.

During a battle that ends with her skewering a defector, Yuki meets Kuka (Yoichi Numata), an aged servant of her late mother, Princess Azora. Kuka tells Yuki that her mother’s murderer was actually Byakurai (Kyusaku Shimada), current leader of the Takemizaguchi, and that when Yuki turns 20 the following day, she must fulfill her duty by taking over the house — or leaving it.

Yuki confronts Byakurai but fails to kill him in a ferocious fight. However, she manages to escape to a deserted gas station where one of the government rebels, Takashi (Hideaki Ito), and his traumatized sister, Aya (Yoko Maki), are hiding out. After calmly cauterizing her own arm wound, Yuki returns to meet with Kuka. But Yuki is badly wounded during a duel with a femme colleague and just manages to make it back to Takashi’s.

That 40-minute slab is just the first act of the drama, which sees Yuki bonding with Takashi and Aya as she recovers in their beautiful lakeside retreat, before Byakurai tracks her down for the 20-minute third act.

Delicately rendered, if full of pretty banal sentiments, the film’s softer central section is a necessary counterweight to the other two acts, which are largely shot in an oppressive blue filter with characters in colorless dark clothing. Though the fast-and-furious action scenes — staged in Yen’s trademark taut, whiplash style — are undoubtedly the movie’s highlights, an hour and a half of uninterrupted, bleak combat would have reaped diminishing returns.

What the movie lacks is background on Takashi and the terrorists. Given this imbalance in the script, the whole pic takes on an abstract feel — battling warriors in forests and by lakes — that seems to lack any point other than serving as an introductory episode to a whole series based round Yuki.

The diminutive, 23-year-old Shaku makes an unlikely but quickly convincing title character, thanks to her unsmiling demeanor and Yen’s clever staging of the action sequences, which are brutally unforgiving. Cranked up music score by Kenji Kawai (“Ghost in the Shell,” “Ring,” “Avalon”) is a suitable accompaniment to the action.

The Princess Blade

Japan

Production

A Kadokawa Shoten (in Japan)/ADV (in U.S.) release of an Oz Prod. production. (International sales: Horizon Entertainment, Vancouver.) Produced by Taka Ichise. Directed by Shinsuke Sato. Screenplay, Sato, Kei Kunii, inspired by the manga by Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura.

Crew

Camera (color), Taro Kawazu; editor, Hirohide Abe; music, Kenji Kawai; production designer, Tomoyuki Maruo; sound (DTS Stereo), Kiyoshi Kakizawa; action choreographer, Donnie Yen; special effects, Shinji Higuchi. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 11, 2002. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Hideaki Ito, Yumiko Shaku, Shiro Sano, Yoichi Numata, Kyusaku Shimada, Yoko Maki.
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