In 1977, Derek Yee starred in the Shaw Brothers’ Death Duel, the role that launched his career. Jump ahead several decades, and Yee has made a name for himself as one of Hong Kong’s most respected directors, thanks to films such as Viva Erotica, Lost in Time, One Nite in Mongkok, and Shinjuku Incident. So it only makes sense that Yee would eventually revisit, as a director, the film that helped him make his name in the movie business.
Unfortunately, 2016’s Sword Master is a conflicted film that’s torn between gravitas and spectacle, and as such, never reaches the martial arts heights to which it so clearly aspires.
Yen Shisan (Peter Ho) is a wild, reckless assassin whose reputation and skill with a blade are as fearsome as his facial tattoos. All he wants in life is to find a worthy foe before he dies, and he believes he’s found such a foe in Ah Chi, the “Third Master” of the Hsieh Clan. Unfortunately, Ah Chi (Kenny Lin) dies shortly before Yen Shisan can fight him, which drives the tattooed fighter into a deep, drunken depression.
Ah Chi, of course, isn’t really dead. Tired of his clan’s violent ways and filled with regret over the constant bloodshed, Ah Chi faked his death and abandoned the wuxia lifestyle. He now intends to live out his days in humble anonymity as a brothel janitor. But, as these things always go, the past isn’t so easily escaped. Soon enough, Ah Chi finds himself facing an impossible choice: take up the sword once again or watch helplessly as his new life and friends are destroyed.
It’s a simple enough storyline, one that has played out in countless martial arts films where deadly rivals eventually prove to be closer than brothers. And in the best such films, the simple storyline can allow for a moving, even exciting exploration of honor, duty, revenge — all of the classic themes.
However, Sword Master never quite gets there. Part of that is due to the fractured and muddled storyline, which includes subplots about clan rivalries, attempts at romance, and some ill-timed slapstick humor. The acting doesn’t help either, especially Lin’s performance as Ah Chi. Sword Master tries to portray Ah Chi as a man broken and subdued by a life of violence, but there’s a fine line between broken and subdued, and wooden and boring. Ah Chi is mostly the latter, and thus the movie’s attempt to give him some sort of redemptive arc falls flat. Peter Ho’s Yen Shisan goes to the other end of spectrum, but he goes so far that his actions and motivations just become ridiculous.
Sword Master’s best storyline belongs to Mu-Yung Chu-Ti (Jiang Yiyan), Ah Chi’s fiancé from a rival clan who has been constantly spurned and abandoned by him as he rebels against his place in the martial arts world. At first, she seems like little more than an obsessed evil ex-girlfriend, but though she remains one of the film’s primary villains, her attempts to puzzle through Ah Chi’s guilt and maintain their relationship (even as he becomes enamored with a young prostitute named Li) lends her some viewer sympathy.
Even with weak acting and plotting, all can be forgiven in a wuxia film if the action is topnotch. Unfortunately, for a film named Sword Master, the action is surprisingly underwhelming. Much of that is due to the film’s heavy use of mid-quality CGI, especially for the film’s backgrounds and sets. While the CGI backgrounds occasionally give the film a theatrical aesthetic, it’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that you’re watching folks jump, punch, and swing swords against a green screen (and computer-generated foes). The action may be elaborately choreographed and full of gravity-defying stunts, but the near-constant CGI robs it of any impact, dramatic or otherwise.
While watching Sword Master, I realized that Ah Chi’s father was played by Norman Tsui — which got me thinking about one of his earlier films: 1983’s Duel to the Death. The Ching Siu-Tung-directed martial arts classic also focuses on two rival swordsmen and features plenty of crazy set pieces. Although it occasionally ventures into exploitation and grindhouse territory (thanks to some mind-bending ninja hijinks), Duel to the Death ultimately achieves a sense of gravitas and explores the usual wuxia themes to a far greater and more satisfying extent then Sword Master (and this despite Yee’s film benefiting from several decades’ worth of cinematic advances).