Inventing a super-weapon is never a good idea, especially if you happen to live among the warring clans of China's mythical Martial World. No sooner has not-so-wise old coot Saint Xu Ruzi (Tang Ching) forged the Deer Cutting Blade, from nine different kinds of steel, then all hell breaks loose as everyone wants it. Respected swordsman Lian Chengbi (Liu Yung) attempts to hold an orderly auction at his house that is disrupted by an outbreak of kung fu zombies working for the King of Hell (not a good guy, then). Elsewhere Lian's beautiful wife Chen Bijun (Ching Li) is ambushed at a tea house by a gang of would-be kidnappers led by cocky kung fu girl Little Lord (Candy Wen Xue-Er) who claims to be acting on the orders of fabled sword hero Xiao. Which is news to the real Xiao (Ti Lung) who happens to be snoozing nearby. After rescuing Bijun, Xiao escorts her home only to find her whole family have been massacred by a miscreant claiming to be, you guessed it, Xiao! On the run from assassins and lawmen alike, Xiao attempts to unravel this mystery while falling dangerously deeper in love with Chen Bijun, which does not please Lian Chengbi at all.
Wu xia ('swordplay') novelist Ku Lung, sometimes billed as Gu Long, was a prolific source author for Hong Kong, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese cinema. From Ang Lee's later Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) to the earlier Shaw Brothers adaptations cranked out by the equally prolific Chu Yuan. Actually, 'cranked out' might be the wrong phrase to use since Chu took a great deal of care crafting these intelligent, evocative martial arts mysteries. Swordsman & Enchantress, one of five wu xia films he directed in 1978 alone, has all the usual ingredients including an intricate plot with more twists per minute than a Chubby Checker concert, literary allusions with poetry-spouting characters as quick witted as they are fast with a sword, steamy eroticism and spectacular otherworldly drenched in fairy mists and enchanting candy-coloured lighting. Yet rather than simply trade on the familiar Chu almost always adds an extra something. In The Proud Twins (1979) it was wacky comedy, with Web of Death (1976) it was horror. For Swordsman & Enchantress Chu cranks up the romance, or more specifically tragic star-crossed romance.
Featuring a wistfully elegant harpsichord and clarinet led score the film has a touch of melancholy to offset the often surreal acrobatic action sequences choreographed by the great Tang Chia. As so often with Chu Yuan films there are a great many elements at play but the heart of the film is the sad love story. There is a lengthy sequence where Xiao and Chen Bijun recuperate at an empty villa and grow emotionally closer while remaining physically apart. In this instance Chu's fondness for characters verbally sparring through poetic verse becomes the only way the couple can be intimate. Bijun is married after all while Xiao is a self-styled wandering rogue, albeit more vulnerable than he would admit. Ti Lung's hirsute, hearty yet sensitive hero is a distinctive characterization miles away from the playboy protagonist he portrayed in Chu's Clans of Intrigue (1977) or the grim Man with No Name-like avenger from The Magic Blade (1976).
Chivalry is another big theme here as the plot detours into a duel between Xiao and Lian who wrongly reckons he seduced his wife. In that regard Chu Yuan is more persuasive than the bludgeoning machismo favoured by his more celebrated rival at Shaw Brothers, Chang Cheh. More progressive than many of his contemporaries, Chu includes an array of confident, capable female characters. Not only the complex and conflicted heroine essayed by Chu's favourite actress Ching Li but also Lady Feng (Lily Li), self-styled 'notorious slut' whose sensuality does not conflict with her intelligence. Introduced bathing naked to bait would-be rapists and in turn draw the righteous hero she is after, Feng unapologetically enjoys her promiscuous lifestyle and at one point strips off to win a duel with the flustered Xiao. Yet far from some femme fatale or disposable bimbo, she turns out to be the voice of reason and moral authority. We also have Candy Wen Xue-Er as the playfully malevolent juvenile villainess whom everyone mistakes for a boy despite looking gorgeously feminine throughout. Chalk that up to another eccentric convention of wu xia fiction.
Chu's propensity for fantastical plot twists results in one especially mind-blowing sequence worthy of classic Sixties series The Prisoner wherein Xiao and Bijun believe they have been shrunk down to tiny size and trapped with “toy people” in a miniature diorama-cum-gateway to another dimension, although nothing is what it seems. The last ten minutes spring a final twist that is way out of left-field but a satisfying punch in the gut. Candy Wen gets a great why-we-did-it villainous final speech ("We think people are jerks") before the mystery bad guy reveals they're acting as part of a moral agenda to cleanse the world of sex, fame and money. Given Chinese culture puts such high stock in respecting one's elders, the anti-establishment message about old people exploiting and destroying the young, is especially powerful.