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Shaw Bros. Spotlight

Revisiting ‘The Man with the Iron Fists’

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The Man With The Iron Fists Review

Shaw Bros. Weekend Spotlight

The RZA’s directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists, is not a Shaw Brothers picture. It was released by Universal Studios, although its inclusion in the column feels right for reasons that shall be discussed in the review below, reasons which should also appear as evident for anyone who has seen the film. The RZA is certainly not a name one would immediately associate with potential first-time directors, regardless of genre. However, his association with the classic martial arts films from the 60, 70s and 80s, most notably those which the Shaw Brothers studio churned out like hotcakes, goes back to his childhood, when he would venture to the nearest cinema on the 47th street in New York that would frequently give them some play. It was love at first sight and his admiration and fascination with such old school kung fu flicks only grew as the years passed. In fact, on the Dragon Dynasty DVD and Bluray of Liu Chia-Liang’s 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, RZA is featured on the audio commentary alongside respected film critic Andy Klein. When the opportunity rang to make a film of his own, there was little doubt which cinema genre he would exercise his debutant directorial skills in.

The Man with the Iron Fists is as Close as it Gets to Modern-Day Shaw

Jungle City is a dangerous place to be at the moment. Following the murder of the leader of the Lion’s clan, Golden Lion (Kuan tai Chen from Five Deadly Venoms!) at the hands of his two lieutenants, Silver and Bronze (Byron Mann and Cung Lee respectively), an army of disparate forces have converged in the town. For one, there is Golden Lion’s son, Zen Yi (Rick Yune) who has vowed to avenge the death of his father. There is also the Gemini Killers, who are transporting gold bullion though Jungle Village. The Lions, greedy buggers that they are, seek to steal the gold from the Gemini, but not before fending off another group of rivals, the Wolf clan. Then there is the sudden arrival of a mysterious and very lethal Englishman, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), who claims to be on vacation while resting at the Pink Blossom brothel, headed by Lady Blossom (Lucy Liu), although his true motives may lie elsewhere…Last but not least is the odd man of the village, a black man (RZA) who has earned an enviable reputation as the region’s finest forger of weapons. His taste for blood is practically non-existent, as his earnings are but a stepping stone for him and his love, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a girl from the Pink Blosson, to leave Jungle Village once and for all to live happily ever after. Can they, however, what with all the danger lurking about?

The Man With The Iron Fists Review

There are two ways to evaluate The Man with the Iron Fists. One is for the people whose familiarity with kung fu films of yesteryear is hazy at best, if completely null. Is the story good, is the acting good, and so on and so forth. The type of review suited for the uninitiated, if you will. Then there is the type of review and discussion for those who love such films, who have seen plenty of them and who are curious to know what RZA, the kung fu maniac, brought to the table. This being the Shaw Brothers columns, the review shall definitely skew towards the second of the two methods.

First, the positives, of which, this reviewer is pleased to report, there is a substantial amount. RZA, in his first-ever effort to put together a major feature-length film, has weaved a wonderfully decorated and tonally accurate love letter to the old Shaw films. The impact is immediately felt from the opening credits sequence. For one, the credits are splashed across the screen in both English and Chinese characters and, for the real finicky fans, in yellow! Secondly, said credits are interspersed with an elaborate fight sequence at an inn which occasionally freeze frames for the credits to appear. It is a thing of beauty and should reassure the die-hard fans of the genre that they will be in good hands. RZA has their backs. Many of the aesthetic choices fit right in with the legions of movies that have earned cult status to this day, from the set designs of the inns and the Pink Blossom brothel, the names of people and places, even the costume designs. All in all, from a visual standpoint, The Man with the Iron Fists does many, many things right.

The Man With The Iron Fists Review

The script itself feels like it could have been made into a film had it been written 40 years go as well. This is one of the trickier aspects to master because so many of the stories which drive the classic Shaw films are really quite ludicrous, platforms for a lot of fun and crazy things to transpire. Of course, there are examples when the stories had higher, more artistic goals to aim for (36th Chamber, Heroes of the East, Golden Swallow), yet frequently the scripts were excuses to have supremely entertaining, charismatic characters go head to head in no holds barred brawls. Here again, RZA delivers. There is just barely enough of a thread to explain why each party engages in the behaviours that they do without ever over-elaborating on anything at all. Someone is thirsty for vengeance after the death of his father? Good enough. A blacksmith is forced into making weapons to live well with his girlfriend but because of his profession finds himself in a heap of trouble when nasty clans ask him one favour too many? That sounds about par for the course. Arguing that the story is ‘convoluted’ or ‘too silly’ is a pointless argument. Tons of these movies had convoluted and silly stories.

Additionally, the cast is, for the most part, playing their parts with some exceptional vim and verve. Byron Mann as Silver Lion, the newly self-appointed megalomaniacal leader of his clan, is bringing as much energy and evil charisma as humanly possible to the role. He loves power and wishes to squash anyone who dares stand in his way, simply put. He has many funny lines either just before or after killing or torturing hapless victims that should put a huge grin on audiences. Rick Yune is appropriately determined and hardnosed as the son who must secure his family’s honour, Lucy Liu is obviously having plenty of fun as the manager of the sexiest brothel this side of mainland China, and Russell Crowe, a surprise and curious casting choice, is quite amusing as Jack Knife, a very British personality who can go mad at the snap of a finger. Just don’t make him angry and he won’t carve you up with his pistol knives.  Yes, pistol knives. There are a few heartwarming cameos that appear, one that will get Shaw Brothers fans jumping out of their seats, another which, surprisingly, will excite blacksploitation fans and yet another which is actually difficult to find but will speak to horror movie fans. None of their identities shall be revealed so as to not spoil some of the fun, but suffice to say that each is pretty cool.

The Man With The Iron Fists Review

Unfortunately, the one performer who fails to hit a home run is RZA. Granted, this is his first film (with little to no real film background) and filling in the roles of co-screenwriter and sole director arguably took a lot of effort, so perhaps it affected his acting. That being said, he is terribly dull on-screen, posing with the same dopey face almost throughout the entire film, save for a few scenes when he is either angry or frightened. Curiously enough, his character is very much an observer during the first half of the picture as opposed to an active participant in the story. It is only once the Lions decide they no longer require his services and punish him that the audience even begins to learn who he is and where he comes from.

Of course, there are plenty of battles in The Man with the Iron Fists. In fact, fighting is abundant in the film. Understandably this is a make or break matter for the success of the film. This aspect deserves attention on two fronts. The first is the conceptualization of the battles, their originality, and freshness, or lack thereof. In that respect, it should be said that RZA and his team give viewers plenty to admire and get excited about. There is not only plenty of martial arts gymnastics and wirework but also a pleasing amount of gadgets, adding a flavour of dangers to a great number of the fights. Hidden knives, shooting knives, poison darts, bladed fans and, in a pretty cool twist, a man, Brass Body (David Bautista), whose skin is impervious to attack. The second criterion is the execution on screen, which includes cinematography and editing, two things of the utmost importance when it comes to action. Sadly, these elements are more hit and miss. Some scenes are fantastic, such as the battle between the Lions and the Gemini Killers at an inn midway through the film. The climax, in which the blacksmith, now equipped with his titular iron fists and plenty of chi, X-Blade, and Jack Knife and Pink Blossom for head to head against the Lions clan, is quite well realized, inventive and exciting. Others are far too muddled and choppily cut through the editing process. It is all the sadder given that so much of the film is beautifully in line with the style of the martial arts films of old, that to see the frustratingly disjointed 21st-century style action get in the way (occasionally, mind you) comes as a bitter pill to swallow.

The Man With The Iron Fists Review

The Man with the Iron Fists is both its own original entry into the kung fu genre while paying its dues to the films which inspired it. RZA clearly has a deep fondness for the Shaw Brothers catalogue and it shows. He himself is not a very good actor and some of his action scenes desperately lack the assured hand of a master, yet let that not discourage fans of these films from seeking it out. All things considered, they should be relatively pleased with the results.

-Edgar Chaput

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly column about the Shaw Bros. film studio.

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted a podcast for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. In late 2017, together with another 00 agent stationed in Montreal, he helped create The James Bond Complex podcast (alas, not part of the Goombastomp network) in which they discuss the James Bond phenomenon, from Fleming to the films and everything in between. After all, nobody does it better.

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Shaw Bros. Spotlight

‘The Boxer from Shantung’ Does Not Aim High Enough

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The Boxer from Shantung

Anyone who has seen just a few Shaw martial arts films has noticed a trend: all of the stories transpire centuries ago, during the era of the many Chinese dynasties. The beautiful costumes, the intricate set designs, the legendary figures upon which writers and directors can find inspiration, the admiration of tactical warfare during the times, all of these and much more are reasons why the studio chose to set its stories in the distant past. As with all rules, there are exceptions. Just as not every single Shaw film is martial arts-based, not everyone is a period piece either. This week, the column takes a look at yet another Chang Cheh picture, The Boxer From Shantung, although this one is set in the 20th century in the city of Shanghai.

Ma Yung Chen (Chen Kuan-Tai) and Hsiao Chiang Pei (Cheng Kang-Yeh) are two friends working blue-collar shifts making water pipes for the city of Shanghai. The pay is as small as their landlord’s attitude is deplorable. While Chiang Pei is a rather fun-loving character, honest, friendly, uninterested in creating mischief, Yung Chen is cut from an altogether different cloth. His desire to leave their lifestyle far behind is far more ferocious. Determined to make a name for himself and his friends, along with earning tons of cash, Yung Chen’s rambunctious attitude almost gets him in deep trouble when stumbling upon the evil doings of a local mob, ‘The Four Champions’, whose leader, Boss Yang (Chiang Nan), does not take kindly to intruders. Lucky for Yung Chen, he knows a near-impenetrable style of boxing studied back home in Shantung. The volatile and cocky young man beats the living daylights out en entire hoard of Yang’ men. On that same day, he earns the favourable opinion of another, more benevolent boss, Tan Si (Chang Cheh regular David Chiang). With plenty of friends to help him out and a powerful, newly found ally in Boss Tan Si, Ying Chen makes his way up in the world as an enforcer, a protector, and finally a boss.

The Boxer from Shantung

The Boxer from Shantung may appear as a unique experience for its setting but said uniqueness is mostly a deception. Yes, a tale of gangsters in a much more modern setting does make for a fresh change of pace. The greater truth of the matter is that the screenwriter and directors (two principle directors for a single film being a first so far as this column is concerned) emulate the exact type of story familiar to fans of gangster flicks. Boxer is, at its core, a ‘rise and fall’ story, with the central character, the charismatic Yung Chen, works his way through the concrete jungle of gang warfare amongst heated rivals in order to make a living for himself, as well as gain increasing wealth and influence over local businesses and prominent individuals. Hence, the general story arc reserves few surprises for the audience, following the genre’s blueprints to near perfection, which is a bit of a shame given that one hopes that with an entirely new setting would liberate the filmmakers from the some of the tropes. Instead, they opt to follow the predictable plot points beat for beat, with only precious little signs of deviation, one example being the development of the love angle. There are not too many false notes per se, but the lack of chances taken is unfortunate.

The Boxer from Shantung somehow goes for something new, yet lacks originality…

It is a little strange to be watching a Chang Cheh (partially) directed film which features David Chiang playing only a supporting role. Chiang is a loveable type of actor, who can win an audience thanks to his easy charm and wit, and therefore the actor taking center stage has some rather big shoes to fill. In the case of Boxer, that actor is Chen Kuan-Tai, who fills is a perfect fit for said shoes, bringing his own brand of energy to the fold. It is always reassuring to see young, up and coming actors bring the best they have to offer right off the bat. Chen Kuan-Tai is definitely the sort of performer who adds barrels of life to a scene. It helps that the character he plays is cocky, street smart, ambitious, and remarkably gifted in the martial arts of his home province. It may be guessed that since the script treks a familiar path, the film could be used as a vehicle of sorts for young Chen Kuan-Tai. It does not necessarily make the film better, but the film’s star is now someone readers may want to peel their eyes for from now on. A little bit of credit should be shared with his co-star, Cheng Kang-Yeh. While he does play the supporting role, serving mostly as comic relief more than anything else, the performance is a fun one, if a little bit on the cheesy side.

The Boxer from Shantung

The necessity for not one but two directors is one to cause perplexity. As has already been written in this review, the story is easy to follow due to its familiarity, therefore causing one to wonder how exactly Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh Lieh collaborated on the project. There are few tonal inconsistencies and it is fair to wonder if their dual participation has anything to do with it. Some scenes are filled to the brim with energy and spunk, whereas others fall incredibly flat, lacking any momentum whatsoever. Oddly enough, the scene introducing David Chiang’s mob boss character is one such scene, in which he playfully taunts Ma Yung Chen, who at that point is just a nobody in the underworld, wandering the streets looking for a job opportunity. The scene is abnormally long, with each subsequent character reaction delayed for some unexplained reason, not to mention that there is no music, thus making it seem all the more hollow. This happens on a few occasions throughout the film and every time it plays out very strangely.

The action, when it erupts, is not of the most imaginative variety (nor is star Chen Kuan-Tai the most impressive fighter, moving a little bit slowly all things considered, even though he does give it is all), but what it lacks in creativity it makes up for in scale. Almost every single action scene involves the protagonist, sided with perhaps a couple of allies, fending off armies of Boss Yang’s men, many of whom enjoy attacking with little hatchets. These brawls en up being rather fun romps, wit plenty of bodies running, flipping, and falling all over the place. The best is saved for last, as Chen Kuan-Tai finds himself all alone against Yang, his strongest enforcers, and tons of other hoodlums inside a tea shop, fighting on both the second and first floors. To top it off, he receives a hatchet to the stomach, but of course, refuses to back down and takes out as many villains as he can anyhow.

There are a few significant opportunities that are lost in Boxer. Providing the film which a context so vastly different from the majority of other Shaw productions, in addition to favouring a lesser-known actor in the lead role with the more accomplished ones serving the secondary participation brought with it plenty of potential. Admittedly, upon learning that Chang Cheh had in fact directed a more contemporary action film, this martial arts fan’s curiosity was very much aroused. Ultimately, it gets the job done, which still means something at the very least. It is a competently made production. The problem is that it does not aim high enough.

-Edgar Chaput

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Shaw Bros. Spotlight

‘The Boxer from Shantung’ Doesn’t Aim High Enough

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on

The Boxer from Shantung

Shaw Bros. Spotlight

Anyone who has seen just a few Shaw martial arts films has noticed a trend: all of the stories transpire centuries ago, during the era of the many Chinese dynasties. The beautiful costumes, the intricate set designs, the legendary figures upon which writers and directors can find inspiration, the admiration of tactical warfare during the times, all of these and much more are reasons why the studio chose to set its stories in the distant past. As with all rules, there are exceptions. Just as not every single Shaw film is martial arts-based, not everyone is a period piece either. This week, the column takes a look at yet another Chang Cheh picture, The Boxer From Shantung, although this one is set in the 20th century in the city of Shanghai.

Ma Yung Chen (Chen Kuan-Tai) and Hsiao Chiang Pei (Cheng Kang-Yeh) are two friends working blue-collar shifts making water pipes for the city of Shanghai. The pay is as small as their landlord’s attitude is deplorable. While Chiang Pei is a rather fun-loving character, honest, friendly, uninterested in creating mischief, Yung Chen is cut from an altogether different cloth. His desire to leave their lifestyle far behind is far more ferocious. Determined to make a name for himself and his friends, along with earning tons of cash, Yung Chen’s rambunctious attitude almost gets him in deep trouble when stumbling upon the evil doings of a local mob, ‘The Four Champions’, whose leader, Boss Yang (Chiang Nan), does not take kindly to intruders. Lucky for Yung Chen, he knows a near-impenetrable style of boxing studied back home in Shantung. The volatile and cocky young man beats the living daylights out en entire hoard of Yang’ men. On that same day, he earns the favourable opinion of another, more benevolent boss, Tan Si (Chang Cheh regular David Chiang). With plenty of friends to help him out and a powerful, newly found ally in Boss Tan Si, Ying Chen makes his way up in the world as an enforcer, a protector, and finally a boss.

The Boxer from Shantung

The Boxer from Shantung may appear as a unique experience for its setting but said uniqueness is mostly a deception. Yes, a tale of gangsters in a much more modern setting does make for a fresh change of pace. The greater truth of the matter is that the screenwriter and directors (two principle directors for a single film being a first so far as this column is concerned) emulate the exact type of story familiar to fans of gangster flicks. Boxer is, at its core, a ‘rise and fall’ story, with the central character, the charismatic Yung Chen, works his way through the concrete jungle of gang warfare amongst heated rivals in order to make a living for himself, as well as gain increasing wealth and influence over local businesses and prominent individuals. Hence, the general story arc reserves few surprises for the audience, following the genre’s blueprints to near perfection, which is a bit of a shame given that one hopes that with an entirely new setting would liberate the filmmakers from the some of the tropes. Instead, they opt to follow the predictable plot points beat for beat, with only precious little signs of deviation, one example being the development of the love angle. There are not too many false notes per se, but the lack of chances taken is unfortunate.

It is a little strange to be watching a Chang Cheh (partially) directed film which features David Chiang playing only a supporting role. Chiang is a loveable type of actor, who can win an audience thanks to his easy charm and wit, and therefore the actor taking center stage has some rather big shoes to fill. In the case of Boxer, that actor is Chen Kuan-Tai, who fills is a perfect fit for said shoes, bringing his own brand of energy to the fold. It is always reassuring to see young, up and coming actors bring the best they have to offer right off the bat. Chen Kuan-Tai is definitely the sort of performer who adds barrels of life to a scene. It helps that the character he plays is cocky, street smart, ambitious, and remarkably gifted in the martial arts of his home province. It may be guessed that since the script treks a familiar path, the film could be used as a vehicle of sorts for young Chen Kuan-Tai. It does not necessarily make the film better, but the film’s star is now someone readers may want to peel their eyes for from now on. A little bit of credit should be shared with his co-star, Cheng Kang-Yeh. While he does play the supporting role, serving mostly as comic relief more than anything else, the performance is a fun one, if a little bit on the cheesy side.

The Boxer from Shantung

The necessity for not one but two directors is one to cause perplexity. As has already been written in this review, the story is easy to follow due to its familiarity, therefore causing one to wonder how exactly Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh Lieh collaborated on the project. There are few tonal inconsistencies and it is fair to wonder if their dual participation has anything to do with it. Some scenes are filled to the brim with energy and spunk, whereas others fall incredibly flat, lacking any momentum whatsoever. Oddly enough, the scene introducing David Chiang’s mob boss character is one such scene, in which he playfully taunts Ma Yung Chen, who at that point is just a nobody in the underworld, wandering the streets looking for a job opportunity. The scene is abnormally long, with each subsequent character reaction delayed for some unexplained reason, not to mention that there is no music, thus making it seem all the more hollow. This happens on a few occasions throughout the film and every time it plays out very strangely.

The action, when it erupts, is not of the most imaginative variety (nor is star Chen Kuan-Tai the most impressive fighter, moving a little bit slowly all things considered, even though he does give it is all), but what it lacks in creativity it makes up for in scale. Almost every single action scene involves the protagonist, sided with perhaps a couple of allies, fending off armies of Boss Yang’s men, many of whom enjoy attacking with little hatchets. These brawls en up being rather fun romps, wit plenty of bodies running, flipping and falling all over the place. The best is saved for last, as Chen Kuan-Tai finds himself all alone against Yang, his strongest enforcers, and tons of other hoodlums inside a tea shop, fighting on both the second and first floors. To top it off, he receives a hatchet to the stomach, but of course, refuses to back down and takes out as many villains as he can anyhow.

The Boxer from Shantung

There are a few significant opportunities that are lost in Boxer. Providing the film which a context so vastly different from the majority of other Shaw productions, in addition to favouring a lesser-known actor in the lead role with the more accomplished ones serving the secondary participation brought with it plenty of potential. Admittedly, upon learning that Chang Cheh had in fact directed a more contemporary action film, this martial arts fan’s curiosity was very much aroused. Ultimately, it gets the job done, which still means something at the very least. It is a competently made production. The problem is that it does not aim high enough.

-Edgar Chaput

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Shaw Bros. Spotlight

‘The Magnificent Swordsman’ Recycles from the Past but Feels Fresh and New

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Magnificent Swordsman Movie Review

Shaw Bros. Spotlight

At what point should movie watchers applaud a film which borrows heavily from other familiar sources for the quality of the filmmaking and when is it too apparent that said film is incapable of overcoming the fatal flaw that can be the lack of originality? It is a tricky question, to say the least, one interested in the very slippery slope of homages, remakes, nods, and the like in the realm of cinema. If one is being honest, there exists no singular answer encompassing all variations of circumstances under which directors, writers, and producers are either playfully playing tribute to other material or rather unashamedly ripping off of it. Even in the latter category, provided the new film is of quality and possesses just enough of its own identity, does there still exist sufficient grounds to dismiss said movie? A thought-provoking topic to be sure, one that may very well dwell in the minds of viewers who take their chances on the 1968 co-directed Shaw Brothers movieThe Magnificent Swordsman.

Swordsman, from the directing duo of Griffin Yueh Feng and Ching Gong, is the tale of one lone, stoic wandering swordsman, Jiang Dan Feng (Wong Chung-Shun), who finds himself involved with the sister (Shu Pei Pei) of a hoodlum who met his end when a small band of muggers tried to attack and vanquish Jiang, better known to the people of the land as the Magnificent Swordsman. The brother’s dying words were a plea that the protagonist returns his blade to his sister Xiu Xiu, and upon performing this noble warrior’s task the sister at first believes that it was Jiang who in fact murdered her sibling. He convinces her otherwise, even after she attempts to strike him down, causing injury. Jiang has little time to rest in Xiu Xiu’s home, however, as the town is quickly under the duress of a notorious gang led by the smug, murderous Huang Da Ba (Cheng Miu). The latter has been on the prowl for Jiang for some time already, infuriated by the expert swordsman’s capacity to continuously escape death. Xiu Xiu pleads Jiang’s case to the townsfolk, convinced he can be a staunch ally, yet time is of the essence as Huang Da Ba is not one to wait long before striking at his prey…

Watching Swordsman, it is abundantly apparent that directors Griffin Yueh Feng and Ching Gong were influenced by some very specific movies of the same era when making their own picture. The final product, as shall be reviewed a little further, is still very very good despite what some might fear. Unsuspecting viewers or those with a more cursory familiarity with the popular genre pictures of the mid to late 1960s shall not, in all likelihood, be struck with the sense that this film is practically a hodgepodge of three if not four tremendously popular movies made and released only a few precious years prior. Those who have seen Sergio Carbucci’s Django, Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy and Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro can still enjoy the show, but they most certainly will notice by little light bulbs going off in their heads every time a recognizable scene or characteristic appears on screen, in some cases even sounds. For one, the opening credit sequence features the hero walking the Chinese countryside, wearing his straw hat and carrying his trusty sword, as a ballad, unmistakably reminiscent of the one sung at the start of Django (albeit in Cantonese), roars in the soundtrack. Jiang is the silent type, preferring to project an aura of mystery about him by rarely looking upwards, thus frequently hiding his eyes from view. When his face is uncovered, viewers notice it resembles a melding of the man with no name and Sanjuro (could he speak Japanese, Wong Chung Shun might even attempt a Toshiro Mifune impersonation). He has arrived in a town harassed by a vile gang of mobsters that requires saving, even though the town itself deeply mistrusts Jiang. His fighting style is far removed from what Shaw fans have come to know and love. Rather than taking on enemies in an elaborate, near-balletic fashion, he remains calm and still, carefully holding onto his legendary, unbreakable sword. His moves are brief and lighting quick, exercising the greatest precision. In essence, he is more samurai than a traditional Chinese swordsman. Even the music comes off like a low key variation of various spaghetti western scores.

The Magnificent Swordsman Collects from Other Classics to Create its Own Special Identity

Should any of those converging ingredients, cobbled together from the aforementioned classics, be reason to scoff at Swordsman? Provided the viewer keep an open mind and allow the film to find its own identity amidst all of the blatant borrowings, the answer is a resounding ‘No.’ Whatever feelings some might have towards the practice of very direct inspiration, a movie can still create its own unique personality despite the similarities it shares with its predecessors. Griffin Yue Feng and Ching Gong have nonetheless concocted a wildly entertaining adventure with some terrifically exciting moments and characters that are easy to appreciate and grow invested in. Their film does not depend on the borrowed traits, it utilizes them as a platform upon which it creates its own voice. For every obvious copycat moment, there are two which remind the viewer the directors do in fact have a more sophisticated, compelling plan than mere mimicry.

For one, the action scenes are top-notch, offering a salivating amount of diversity both in regards to the setting in which each confrontation occurs and the visual presentation the directors adopt to convey the sense of danger and thrill. Close quarter combat has the cinematography throw the viewer in the thick of the sword swipes, ducks and side steps to avoid contact, just like the characters themselves. There are some unexpected and inventive moments when, as the camera rests behind an actor’s shoulder, the frame will swerve diagonally to the left or the right as the combatant who back is facing the audience moves around. Other times the frame remains beautifully calm, much like Jiang himself, offering a more classically panoramic view of the ongoing slaughter, slaughter being a morbidly apt term considering the amount of blood which occasionally spurts out of victims. The climactic battle, in which Jiang fends off Da Ba’s entire army to save the town, is fantastic for its creativity and scope.

Swordsman is also saddled with some impressive leads. At the centre of all the action is Wong Chung-Shun, who effortlessly gets into character as a sullen yet experienced fighter who commits himself to rid the land of what he describes as bullying. The difference with his character is that, when pressed, he is more vocal about his altruistic motives than either Django or Sanjuro ever were. True enough, having the character converse more openly about why operates the way he does subdues some of his potential mystique, although conversely, this makes his more human and easy to identify with. There are two villains in the film, the dominating presence being Cheng Miu as Huang Da Ba. Miu excels at playing these sort of tempestuous personalities. With such vim and verve, it becomes difficult to not get excited when Huang Da Ba barks orders. Playing second fiddle Tien Feng, who appears only in the second half as Golden Snake Whip, is a calmer, more mischievous individual who has a connection to Jiang’s past. Tien Feng, very charismatic, is a Shaw studio legend, making his limited screen time somewhat disappointing however

Finally, the story takes an oddly compelling turn once Huang Da Ba’s increases the pressure on the innocent townsfolk with an ultimatum. Word gets out that Huang Da Ba has hired another master assassin (that being Golden Snake Whip) for 3000 silver taels. Suddenly some people begin assessing the possibility of paying off Huang Da Ba in order to spare their lives, all the while Xiu Xiu staunchly defends Jiang and believes in his usefulness as a protector. Rather than slowly come to believe in Jiang’s virtuous qualities and utter command of ways of slicing people to bits, they continue to bicker and debate the quickest solution to their predicament, expressing no sympathy for either Xiu Xiu or Jiang. While some suggest the idea of taking the fight to Da Ba themselves seeing as they may have strength in numbers, the majority expressing the desire to just pay off Da Ba and kick Jiang out of town actually rules. There are no open-minded townspeople to be found here.

The Magnificent Swordsman is an example of how unsubtle use of certain traits from other movies is not a recipe for a lazy movie, provided the filmmakers themselves astutely juggle the old and new material.

-Edgar Chaput

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