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Sword Master (2016) (Blu-ray) (Hong Kong Version)
Tsui Hark (Writer, Producer) | Derek Yee (Writer, Director) | Peter Ho (Actor) | Kenny Lin (Actor)
Sword Master (2016) (Blu-ray) (Hong Kong Version)
This professional review refers to Sword Master (2016) (Blu-ray) (Hong Kong Version)

Benny Chan's recent Call of Heroes was a fine Shaw Brothers homage but Tsui Hark and Derek Yee one-up Chan with an actual Shaw Brothers remake. Produced by Tsui and directed by Yee, Sword Master is a retelling of the Chor Yuen film Death Duel (1977), which was in turn based on a swordplay novel by Gu Long. Immediately, what's noticeable about Sword Master is how much it resembles the Shaw Brothers original and its older aesthetic, with the same or similar costumes, and obvious sets and green screen work that approximate the filtered-skies look of Death Duel. Other filmmaking aspects also appear retro; Yee avoids stylization and more modern storytelling techniques for a simply-told, earnest and enjoyable swordplay film that strongly resembles the films that inspired it. Fear not, Sword Master also has current actors and snazzy CGI, so it's not completely old school.

Sword Master tells the story of the Third Master of Supreme Sword Manor, whose skills with a sword make him the dude everybody and his brother wants to take down. However, first the audience is introduced to Useless Chi (Kenny Lin), a morose slob who works in a menial job at a brothel. Chi avoids connections with others, but annoying customers push him to abandon his reticent ways and reveal himself as a man with martial arts talents. Meanwhile, tattoo-faced assassin Yen Shih-San (Peter Ho) gets a rude awakening. Yen went all surly and dark in his quest to become the world's supreme swordsman, a goal that places Third Master squarely in his path. However, after being hired by Third Master's former lover, Mu-Yung Chu-Ti (Jiang Yiyan), to kill Third Master, Yen learns that Third Master is actually dead. To be the best, you have to beat the best, but since Yen can't beat the best, can he be the best? Competitive clichés say, "No."

However, Yen Shih-San actually can duel Third Master because – SPOILER WARNING – Useless Chi is Third Master, and the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. But the road to a final fight between these two swordsmen is a twisting one, involving Yen Shih-San's planned retirement from the martial arts life, Third Master's friendship with an unfortunate prostitute named Li (Jiang Mengjie), and a threatened war between Third Master and Mu-Yung Chu-Ti's martial arts clans. Sword Master possesses a much more fleshed-out story than Death Duel -- in particular, Yen Shih-San is given a satisfying subplot in which his affinity with Third Master is deepened. There's room for plot twists and "ah hah" surprises but the film never attempts such trickery, with the narrative remaining transparent in its development. The resulting story is simple and resonant, if occasionally melodramatic, with themes concerning the dark nature of jiang hu, and how honor and pacifism should be respected. These are common and even corny ideas, but they're handled with restraint if not subtlety.

Action is more fluid and elegant than in the Shaw Brothers original. The sword duels are lengthy with movements that are easy to follow thanks to an effective mixture of camera speeds and intricate choreography from action directors Yuen Bun and Dion Lam. Overall, the sword duels are not that fast or energetic, but the intricate and exacting choreography compensates, and the slow motion allows actors to emote mid-duel. Larger battles between the warring clans are portrayed in a similar fashion, but with other weapons like flying claws or shurikens. Sword Master was shot in 3D, which complements the action scenes quite well. Not only does the 3D allow blades and arrows to poke the audience (a natural requirement in a 3D swordplay film), but the visuals look even better with the Shaw-style aesthetic of colorful costumes and bright sets. CGI is also used to spruce up some sword moves, particularly the fantastic techniques of Third Master and Yen Shih-San.

Acting trends old school, meaning that it's mannered and theatrical without being too flamboyant or self-aware – that is, excepting Peter Ho, who gives an over-the-top performance that's almost anime-like in its garishness. Ho steals the show anyway since Yen Shih-San is a likeable rogue who gets the most entertaining moments and the best character arc. Kenny Lin is generally fine in the lead; he's handsome and masculine enough to play a Shaw-type hero, but he also gets to show vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, Third Master is given to melodramatic moods, with Lin's overly-serious acting occasionally eliciting giggles. This isn't entirely Kenny Lin's fault, as it's doubtful any actor can scream "Nooooooooooo!" unironically and get away with it anymore. Anyway, Lin still does a better job than the actor who played Third Master in Death Duel: It was some guy named Derek Yee. Overall, the film's best performance belongs to Jiang Yiyan, whose theatrical, conflicted turn as Third Master's ex-lover and present enemy Mu-Yung Chu-Ti is compelling.

Sword Master doesn't revel in its status as an old-fashioned remake of a forty-plus year-old film. Derek Yee's participation, the art direction, and an appearance by Tsui Siu-Keung (who also appeared in Death Duel) offer nods to the original film, but the filmmakers don't angle for a reinvention or a postmodern take on the story. Sword Master is simply a good swordplay yarn told earnestly without any self-referential style or commentary. For a contrast, one only has to look at Peter Chan's The Warlords (2007), a remake of the Shaw Brothers film Blood Brothers (1973) that took the same story as Chang Cheh's heroic bloodshed classic but went with a muted color palette, gritty art direction, and a bombastic self-importance having to do with man, god, brotherhood, morality and justifying your big budget. Sword Master doesn't try to elevate its genre, and merely represents it respectfully and entertainingly – and hey, that's a perfectly fine thing to do. Given how postmodern movies have become, Sword Master is a welcome breath of fresh air.

by Kozo - LoveHKFilm.com






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