Master Swordsman Yen (Peter Ho) has another opponent to confront, but this man will not delay him for long, he really is that adept at his craft and sees off this pretender as he does every one, with a savage flair. To kill the greatest swordsman in the land would be a great title to secure, but a difficult one to win, and so it is that every man who tries to take Yen's crown is either seriously injured or killed themselves, which only increases his reputation and makes upstarts wish to best him at the blades. However, Yen is not actually the best in the land, as there is one who is more accomplished: he has always put off fighting this man, but now circumstances are bringing about this event as a necessity.
Sword Master was a so-called re-imagining of a rather obscure martial arts movie from around forty years before called Death Duel in English, which made a kind of sense since if you are going to remake something, don't do a property that has been flogged to within an inch of its life, give us a spin on something that was not in the public consciousness, or had not been for quite some time. If you were familiar with the original, you might not actually recognise it from this, as it was one of those twenty-first century Tsui Hark productions where he had fully embraced the possibilities of computer graphics to render the impossible possible and serve up imagery that would take a lot more budget to create in the studio.
Fair enough, there were parts where the cast took flight thanks to the wire work that had been around in Hong Kong cinema for decades, but plenty more of this carried on a style that was not even glancing at realism, and that jarred with a number of audiences. CGI was so prevalent by the point of this release that it would have been unusual for it to feature none, and much of it was invisible to the average viewer not in the know, which was as it should be, but Hark and his director Derek Yee were not even trying to appear authentic with the visuals, even staging many scenes on blatant sets as if to flaunt how unconvincing this was, presumably to concoct a fairy tale atmosphere that to be fair was certainly present.
Maybe not fairy tale, there were no fantasy animals or witches and wizards, maybe more folk tale, it felt like that sort of moral lesson from a wise old storyteller who wished to impart a message about how to live your life through the method of a narrative you could tell around the campfire, or before being tucked in for bed. That makes it sound cosier than it was, for Sword Master had some cruel developments for its characters to suffer before they could achieve their goals (or alternatively, be thwarted), which started when Yen found he was dying, therefore it was a now or never set of circumstances where he had to fight the greatest swordsman ever because he was not going to be around much longer. Thus the irony when he shows up at his temple to be told that the man has already died, and his moment of glory will never be.
And that's barely out of the first ten minutes, imagine how punishing the rest of it would be for the denizens of this fantasy China. After establishing that Yen is opting to live out what time he has left in a small hovel, preferably lying in a grave nearby because he has given up the will to live, we switch to a man called Ah Chi (Kenny Lin) who turns up in a poorly maintained state at a brothel with a lot of money and proceeds to outstay his welcome, not least because it emerges he hasn't the cash after all. He agrees to serve as the general dogsbody there, looked down on by the courtesans until he steps in to protect one, Li (Jiang Mengjie), from two nasty customers, and she takes a shine to him. You may not be able to work out his identity, and I won't spoil it, but it leads up to a confrontation that encourages you to take the bull by the horns in life because regret can destroy you otherwise. That was fine, yet the artificiality of the presentation may be a sticking point, plus the climactic sword fight left you not bothered about who won, they both had merits and drawbacks. Music by Peter Kam.