Masked swordsman Lu Tien Kang is renowned as the “King of Swords.” Having sent another challenger to his grave, he strides coolly away as the young man’s grief-stricken sweetheart (Lin Chen-chi) commits suicide. A young boy (Dave Wong Kit) hiding up a tree bears witness to this tragedy and boasts someday he will kill Lu Tien Kang and claim his title. Ten years of arduous training later, Nameless (Ti Lung) grows up to be a swordsman with unstoppable skills. Slaying scores of bad guys throughout the land, he swears never to reveal his name until the day he bests Lu Tien Kang. After eluding a female assassin, Nameless is befriended by a wandering healer (Ku Feng) who tries to show him there is a world beyond simple swordplay. Haunted by the spirit of the dead woman he saw as a boy, Nameless is amazed to encounter her identical double: sweet-natured street vendor Ho Lien (Lin Chen-chi again). Even though she already has a suitor in swordsman Yien (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung), Nameless is smitten with her. He leaves Yien beaten and humiliated then ravishes Ho Lien back at his place. Against the odds, they fall in love. Events take a tragic turn when Nameless realises true love could cost him his chance to be “King of Swords.”
Causing some confusion amongst martial arts movie fans, wu xia auteur Chang Pang-Yee made a movie called The Souls of the Sword the very same year, but this like-titled Shaw Brothers flick is the one to watch. Genre fans are more used to seeing the iconic Ti Lung play upright and unflappably intrepid heroes, but in Soul of the Sword he is a ruthless, arrogant, downright dislikeable protagonist. It is a testament to Lung’s charisma and the writing by Yau-Daai On-Ping and Lam Chin-Wai, prolific writer-directors in their own right, that Nameless remains such a compelling, psychologically complex character. Reunited with talented female lead Lin Chen-chi, with whom Lung co-starred in the loopy kung fu-musical-horror-fantasy-love story The Snake Prince, their key scene is beautifully played, brilliantly staged and simply gut-wrenching.
Although the action choreography by Shaw stalwart Tang Chia is inventive and energetic - with several wildly acrobatic manouevres forshadowing his directorial debut Shaolin Prince (1982) - the film impresses formost as a nuanced and contemplative swordplay drama. Episodic but often genuinely poetic this offers an unusually detailed and contectualized view of the wider world beyond martial arts. It is a rare Shaw Brothers movie that takes account of the many innocent casualties caught in the midst of all that sword-swinging. Even the minor characters prove memorable, like the sharp-tongued old granny (Mama Hung) who laments how easily a virtuous girl like Ho Lien can be despoiled, or the blind storyteller who tells bawdy tales while his partner picks people’s pockets. Kung fu icon Lily Li contributes a surprisingly brief cameo - and even more surprising nudity! - as the assassin ambushing Nameless in his bathtub. Yuen Wah also appears as a white-haired warrior wielding a wibbly-wobbly flexible sword.
Foreshadowing the horror fantasies Bloody Parrot (1981) and Portrait in Crystal (1983) by director Hua Shan, Soul of the Sword is quite a sensual film with some steamy love scenes. Late in the day, the plot brings on sultry Lau Wai-Ling as the mystery villainess Lady of Three Moves. She seduces the ever-hapless Yien into her revenge scheme, slicing his clothes off with her sword for a marathon of exhausting, all-night sex. Hua Shan dials down the delirious imagery that marked these later efforts, as well as his classic superhero film Super Infra-Man (1975) and wu xia fairytale Little Dragon Maiden (1983), in support of a more sober story. Nevertheless, he layers the film with some poetic visual effects: subliminal shots of Ho Lien that flicker like a ghost and double-exposed images in a scene where Nameless swipes at a room full of fluttering birds. The identity of Lu Tien Kang will come as no great surprise to genre fans but the unfolding tragedy continues to sting long after the striking, slow-motion duel in the rainswept river. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.