During China’s Ming Dynasty, happy-go-lucky sword hero Ling Wu Chung (Sam Hui) and his hopelessly besotted sidekick Kiddo (Cecilia Yip) are caught in a web of intrigue as various factions seek the legendary Sunflower Scroll. Stolen from the Imperial library, this martial arts manual teaches the secrets of telekinesis, teleportation, x-ray vision and how to gain other yin-yang superpowers. A handy thing to have if you’re a power-crazed eunuch like Gu Gam Fok (Lau Shun), who with his scheming sidekick Officer Ah Yeung Chun (Jacky Cheung) frames formerly respected official Lam Jam Nam (Gam Saan) for the theft, then blames his murder on the rival Sun Moon Sect. Lam is killed by psychotic law enforcer Zhor Lang Sam (perennial bad dude Yuen Wah), but before dying asks Ling to inform his only son where the scroll is hidden. Little does Ling know that Ah Yeung Chun has already murdered Lam’s son and is posing as him to get close to Ngok Bat Kwan (Lau Siu-Ming), chief of the Hua Mountain Sect. But that’s just the start of Ling’s troubles.
Wu xia, or swordplay, movies were out of style in Hong Kong cinema until Swordsman revived the genre in a big way. High-flying fantasy action mingles with socio-political satire and philosophy in this Tsui Hark production which became a huge hit in spite of some behind the scenes difficulties. Filming began with the father of wu xia cinema, King Hu at the helm, since Hark conceived the project as a means of reviving the veteran filmmakers flagging fortunes. However, a combination of ill-health and “creative differences” meant Hu eventually stood aside. Early scenes bear the unmistakable epic stamp of the man who made Come Drink With Me (1966) and the Cannes award-winning A Touch of Zen (1971) (nobody photographs misty-mountains quite like King Hu), then gradually grow more frenetic and wittier as Hark, Ching Siu-Tung and their protégé Raymond Lee take turns behind the camera. Indeed, co-star Cecilia Yip claims art-house auteur Ann Hui also contributed to the movie.
Their disparate styles meld surprisingly well together and Swordsman emerged not as a patchwork beast but a film with a remarkably consistent and at times eloquent ideology. Loosely based on a story by prolific wu xia novelist Louis Cha, it is very much a balance of yin and yang, cynical satire and idealistic optimism. The plot is driven by misunderstanding, miscommunication and outright deceit, as dissent among the self-righteous masters gradually destroy the ideals of the Martial World. One power-hungry kung fu despot gives way to another. Even Ling’s master hides his avarice behind pious platitudes. On the other hand, the film points to music, swordplay and poetry as the interlinked pathways to enlightenment, as the good-hearted heroes search for truth and beauty in an increasingly vulgar world.
One delightful scene finds veterans Wu Ma (A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)) and Lam Ching-Ying (Mr. Vampire (1985)) as escapees from the Sun Moon Sect, framed for murder. The pair reminisce about the good old days of chivalry and perform an honest-to-goodness musical number called “The Laughing Proud World of Martial Arts”, with Cantopop star Sam Hui (along with his actor-director brother Michael Hui, one of the biggest stars of the Eighties, slowly approaching the tail end of his career with this movie) also contributing vocals. You’d better get used to this tune (and Wu Ma’s singing voice) because they repeat about a dozen times and it actually conveys the heart of the story.
Gradually, Ling becomes the hero the Martial World really needs, his enlightenment symbolised when he swaps his black Hua Mountain robes for an all-white ensemble. Typically for a Tsui Hark movie, the catalysts for this change are his encounters with remarkable women. Sharla Cheung Man plays Ying, the whip-wielding, beautiful princess of the Sun Moon Sect, who saves Ling’s life in one of the sexiest healing scenes (Sexual healing? Was Louis Cha into Marvin Gaye at all?) in HK cinema. Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying plays her feisty, gut-toting handmaiden Blue Phoenix, who can command snakes, is every bit as deadly as her mistress and every bit as smitten with handsome Ling. Although Cecilia Yip upstages everyone as hopelessly lovelorn tomboy Kiddo.
With Ching Siu-Tung working behind the scenes, the action is naturally superb, including a unique death by poison bees, bodies split in two, blasts of “internal energy” that can blow up a house, and a delightful fake fight where Ling’s Hua Mountain brothers try to keep him safe from harm. The film was a huge hit but its sequel, Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992) was an enormous blockbuster and a masterpiece to boot.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.
Ching Siu-Tung (1953 - )
Hong Kong director and skilled action choreographer. Started working as a fight arranger on films including Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues and directed influential kung fu flicks Duel to the Death and The Nepal Affair. 1987's A Chinese Ghost Story was a masterful slice of supernatural lunacy, and Siu-Tung went on to helm two sequels, all for producer Hark. Siu-Tung's other key films include Swordsman 1 & 2 and the stylish New Dragon Gate Inn, and as an action choreographer has worked on modern classics such as The Heroic Trio, A Better Tomorrow II, Shaolin Soccer, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Recently directed sexploiter Naked Weapon for prolific producer Wong Jing.