Master swordsman Qin Wu-Xin (Jason Pai Pao) aims to be the greatest in the world. To that end he travels the land, slaying all his rivals then storing their blades in his lavish trophy room. When Qin learns Xue Xian-Nan (Austin Wai Tin-Chi) is known as "the Supreme Swordsman", he immediately challenges him to a duel. The scholarly Xian-Nan sees no need to prove himself in a pointless fight, but when his philosophical musings fall on deaf ears, he kicks Qin's ass and snaps his sword in half! Not one to quit, Qin searches for the ultimate sword to beat his rival. He calls on a humble swordsmith (Ku Feng) but the old man refuses to sell the special sword he is forging for his beloved son, Yan Bei (Derek Yee).
Something about the old man's sword technique unnerves Qin. He quizzes his cave-dwelling master (Kwan Fung) and learns both the swordsmith and his master once belonged to the famous Black Magic Clan. When the clan was forced to disband, one was entrusted with a sacred super-weapon called the Cold Eagle Sword, the other with a mystical martial arts text called the Magic Mountain Creed. Being a ruthless bastard, Qin promptly kills the old swordsmith along with his own master and steals both. A vengeful Yan Bei allies himself with Xu Xian-Nan who, despite his own belief in the futility of vengeance, schools him in swordsmanship. Unfortunately, Yan Bei's newfound skills prove no match for the now unstoppable Qin, who flings his broken body off a cliff.
Naturally the story does not end there, no self-respecting Shaw Brothers martial arts movie ever would, but The Supreme Swordsman does take off in increasingly offbeat and interesting directions. Among the last films of its kind produced at the legendary studio, this was the first of only two movies directed by Keith Lee Baak-Ling, the other being the infamous gross-out horror flick Centipede Horror (1988), whose star Margaret Lee a.k.a. Li Tien-Lang also appears here. The actress was the daughter of venerated auteur Li Han-hsiang and also graced the very last martial arts film made by Shaw Brothers: Journey of the Doomed (1985) where she played a sexy glam rock amazon, oddly with nary a line of dialogue. She is very good in Supreme Swordsman though cult film fans largely remember her for Centipede Horror where she memorably vomited live centipedes. For real. Goodness knows what Li Han-hsiang made of that.
One wonders how much control Keith Lee Baak-Ling had over the finished film given the studio surrounded the neophyte director with no fewer than three cinematographers and four action directors, each of whom seems to have imposed their individual vision upon seperate segments of the sprawling story. While the plot could have been tighter, the film nevertheless displays remarkable thematic consistency and maintains a philosophical dimension that proves wholly compelling.
So Yan Bei awakens inside a mystical cave surrounded by three cackling martial arts masters who douse him with magic powder to heal his wounds. These three live in fear of their bossy but lovely granddaughter Qing-Qing (Li Tien-Lang), whose amazing kung fu skills excels even their own. Under her tutelage, Yan Bei hones his skills and naturally they fall in love. Upon their return to the surface world, Yan Bei heroically intervenes when he meets a young woman named Ip Shan (Lai Yin-Saan) about to be sold into prostitution to pay off her no-good brother's gambling debt. In the middle of a fight however, the girl disappears along with the gangsters and even Qing-Qing herself. Yan Bei is attacked by flying men in skull masks and red satin capes then lured into a strange subterranean kingdom to battle a seemingly mad martial arts master called Living Dead (Wong Lik), who lives in a flying coffin and wields a human ribcage as a weapon (!) and an only slightly more sedate white-haired weirdo (Wong Pau-Gei) waving a killer fan. It all turns out to be an elaborate test of Yan Bei's chivalry, orchestrated by the Chief of the Black Magic Clan (Cheng Miu). Everyone was in on it, including Ip Shan and Qing-Qing, who happens to be the chief’s granddaughter. Yan Bei's skills may be shaky but they've determined he has the heart of a hero.
The Supreme Swordsman fits into a cycle of swordplay films adopting a more measured and melancholy attitude towards the way of the blade, mostly those of the New Wave school like The Sword (1980) by Patrick Tam and Duel to the Death (1981) by Ching Siu Tung. These films imply a life devoted to becoming the best killer in the world is liable to be ridden with loneliness and paranoia. However, their outlook is nowhere as bleak as the so-called "disenchanted swordplay" films that arose throughout the 1990s, e.g. Swordsman in Double Flag Town (1991) by mainland director He Ping, Ashes of Time (1994) by Wong Kar Wai, and The Blade (1996), and remains romantic enough to stress the importance of spiritual understanding above simply crushing one's enemies. Upon besting Yan Bei, the first thing Qin Wu-Xin does is seek out his old adversary Xu Xian-Nan for a rematch. He is immediately shocked when the sagely swordsman simply throws down his sword and walks away. Xu Xian-Nan knows he is no longer a match for Qin Wu-Xin. Why should he risk his life in a futile bid to prove otherwise?
Throughout the film, which supposedly had as many screenwriters as action directors, characters repeatedly observe there is always going to be someone faster or some new esoteric kung fu technique one has yet to master. In order to be truly strong, truly at peace with oneself, a swordsman should dedicate himself to upholding certain principles, not picking fights to prove how tough they are. Interestingly, Yan Bei's trials do not turn him into an unstoppable martial arts master. He still has to persevere through his nail-biting final face-off against Qin Wu-Xin. At one point Qin even chops the sword Yan Bei inherited from his father into little pieces, until the hero uncovers its special secret.
Keith Lee Baak-Ling and his army of cinematographers produce some striking imagery with their fluid camerawork and draw powerful performances from a terrific cast, including arguably a career best from Derek Yee, now better known as an accomplished art-house director: e.g. Protégé (2007) and The Shinjuku Incident (2008). Especially interesting is the unique friendship drawn between Yan Bei and Qin's manservant, Crow (Yuen Wah - who also served as one of the action choreographers), who was once a rival swordsman who agreed to serve Qin if he spared his life. The frenetic fight choreography easily matches the energy of the then-burgeoning New Wave, but the non-stop action is melded to an equally powerful and poetic story.