It could be that The Blade (no, not Wesley Snipes’ tour de force) is Tsui Hark’s lost film. I’ve known about it for years, read scattered reviews, and picked up info here and there. After having seen it, I can say this… it’s definitely his most maddening, confusing, and disturbing (at least, of the ones I’ve seen). It may also be his most intense, savage, and beautiful. A retelling of the Shaw Brothers’ classic The One-Armed Swordsman, Tsui Hark takes the oldest of kung fu movie clichés — that is, avenging your murdered father — and distills it to its rawest essence.
The result is a highly stylized treatise on life and suffering, a surreal film where the ghosts of one’s past can be deadlier than any kung fu master and where honor and virtue are almost always swallowed up by violence and madness.
Hark wastes no time in preparing us for the brutality of his film’s world. In one of the first scenes, a group of bandits trick a dog into stepping in a trap. While it howls in pain and tries to get free, the men laugh in cruel joy. It’s immediately reminiscent of The Wild Bunch, which opens with a group of children torturing a scorpion with ants before setting the whole bunch on fire. Like Peckinpah, Hark’s world is far darker and dirtier than normally seen in other kung fu movies. You can almost smell the sweat, filth, and grime that coat the film’s scenes. No pristine Shaolin temples are anywhere to be found, and those with any shred of virtue are either killed or immediately forced into savagery to survive.
On (Man Cheuk Chiu, a.k.a. Vincent Zhao) and Iron Head (Moses Chan) work as apprentices at Sharp Foundry, which is renowned for its swords. On is quiet and reserved, whereas Iron Head has a furious temper that often gets both of them in trouble. Their relationship is strained by the antics of Ling, the foundry owner’s daughter (and also the film’s narrator). Ling is determined to start a rivalry between the two men for her affections, and plays the two against eachother. The announcement that On will be the foundry’s heir just worsens the situation between the two men.
Meanwhile, vicious bandits roam the countryside, terrorizing anyone they please. Iron Head wants to use the foundry’s swords to put an end to the rampage, and knows that as the new master, On will be too passive and weak. Then comes the revelation that On’s father was murdered by a mysterious and powerful swordsman. On sets out to avenge his father’s death, with Ling in hot pursuit. When the bandits capture Ling, On rescues her, but loses his right arm and gets thrown off a cliff in the process.
Presumed dead, On wakes up in the hut of a strange woman named Blackie (presumably because she’s that dirty). His only link to the past is his father’s broken sword, which he buries when he realizes that, armless, he’s unable to carry out any vengeance. Instead, he resolves to live in peace with Blackie. But, as these things go, the bandits don’t stay away for too long. After their house is burned down, Blackie finds a hidden book on martial arts. On tries to learn from it, but instead develops an unorthodox style of fighting to compensate for his severed arm and shattered weapon.
Technically, the film follows the same plot cycle of most kung fu films. It’s easy to map out the storyline within the first 10 minutes. But within that structure, Hark inserts a sense of madness and pain, of lostness, that is almost palpable. Rendered through Hark’s camera, The Blade’s world is often nightmarish, especially when Hark lets loose with all of his little stylistic embellishments. Hark’s camera is all over the place, disorienting the viewer and further cementing a sense of insanity.
The action lacks any sense of grace and finesse, but rather becomes swift and disturbing. They lack the flair and flash (not to mention Jet Li) of the Once Upon A Time In China series and their realistic (and often clumsy and brutish) physicality is a complete 180 from the effects-laden Zu. At times, the fights become unbearable to watch, not due to gore (though there is plenty of that), but by their sheer craziness.
The closest contemporary I can think of is Wong Kar-Wai’s surreal wuxia film, Ashes of Time. Both films mine similar subject matter; the subject of trying to live in peace with the past is a central theme. On tries to deal with the knowledge of his father’s true past, and responds with vengeance and resourcefulness. Ling must live with her ghosts, literally, as she grows increasingly unable to deal with the violence of the world around her and the weight of the lives she’s damaged. Unfortunately, she’s not so successful. The film’s final image, that of an older Ling living inside the abandoned foundry and imagining On and Iron Head’s visits with the help of opium may be the film’s most tragic shot.
The concept of violence begetting violence is another theme, as is the realization that sometimes those cycles cannot be broken, regardless of how much you long for a peaceful life. In this regard, I’m also reminded of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, another film that takes a genre’s basic concepts and creates a signature film for said genre. Not the most enjoyable or most successful, but one where a genre’s themes are seen in as raw and perfect a form as possible.
However, I hesitate at calling The Blade “brilliant” for no other reason than being unorthodox or challenging to the viewer. However, I did feel like I was honestly watching something unique and special with this film. Unlike some kung fu movies, The Blade is completely unswerving in its focus. No comedic relief, no silly sidekicks, and no needless romanticism, flaws that often seem to plague otherwise great films. For me, that shows a lot of confidence by the filmmaker in his subject matter. It’s also an interesting counterpoint to the more commercially viable films that Hark has made, not to mention his work with Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Regardless of how unremitting the film gets at times, how violent and maddening it is much of the time, The Blade is a brutally honest and intense film. Not the best film for a newbie, but for diehards, it offers something very fresh and insightful into our favorite of genres.