What Price Survival

Drowning with fatalism and saturated in romanticism, this film held me enthralled for much of its running time. Stunning rapid-fire images come at the viewer in scenes that you nearly want to breathe in and not let out. There are moments in time that you want to hold on to, an image that you have to retain, an expression that you need to remember. At times I had to turn off the film because I simply needed to slow it down.
With allusions to references as varied as the One Armed Swordsman, to Christ bearing his cross to Golgotha, to Oedipus being blinded and forsaken, the film takes on a layered sense of complexity that is thought provoking and yet not entirely clear. I came away from this film with many questions and no answers. It leaves you a bit frustrated because it is difficult to know how much of this apparent symbolism and subtext is valid and meaningful or simply thrown into the mix for stylistic and theatrical purposes. It left me wondering how much of the film I had truly understood.

This is a sword fighting film in which the action is fast and exciting – pushed along by blink of the eye edits – and yet it is often the quiet moments – the slow dance to a languorous ballad, the ravishing close up, the faces in profile, the look of betrayal or the sudden acknowledgment of impending death that capture your heart.

It takes place in the 1930s/1940s and yet the modern age doesn’t really seem to have encroached on their traditional world of honor and revenge  - a world in which guns never appear. In an odd choice the director shows many glimpses of the scenes to come during the opening credits – but it is done so quickly that it only rivets your attention rather than giving away too much.

Two swordsmen are in a duel with a great deal at stake. David Chiang (of many of the Shaw classic sword films such as The New One Armed Swordsman) is the head of a sword school and he is battling with Norman Chu who had broken away in anger from the school years previously to set up his own school. Chu is clearly the bad guy here and in a sneaky move (“feigned suicide”) is able to defeat Chiang. Rather than killing him though, he claims Chiang’s newborn son. Chiang’s wife slowly walks over to Chu and hands him her son – turns to Chiang and smiles for a brief moment before collapsing into the snow.

Norman Chu and Chaing's wife
Twenty years later the son has grown up to be Wang Ning (Wu Xing-Guo) and he has been brought up to believe that Chiang killed his mother and father. He has been waiting for his moment of revenge for many years. Wang is sort of part of a Jules and Jim relationship with Chu’s daughter, Charlie Yeung, and another student Jie. It is clear though that Charlie is in love with Wang when she tells him “good swords must come in pairs”.
Jie, Charlie and Wang
Finally Chu sets his long term plan in motion and tells Wang that it is time to meet his destiny. At the same time Chu has secretly enlisted the aid of Damian Lau – Chiang’s right hand man. Chiang learns that his son is alive and is coming to kill him. In a beautiful scene he goes to the grave of his wife and tells her that their son is now a fine man, but neglects to tell her what is about to transpire – only that he may soon be finally joining her.
David Chiang
The fight between the son and father is an incredibly powerful scene as the father tries to teach the son his philosophy of life between thrusts and the film is quickly going back and forth between the fight and Chu far away watching his courtesans perform. I felt like I was holding my breath for the entire scene.
Wang and Chiang
After the intensity of this scene, this film feels a bit deflated and goes somewhat flat. It isn’t until near the end that it really picks up again with the final showdown.
Damian Lau
The emotions of this film are right there on the screen – visceral and larger than life. Either you get sucked into this Greek tragedy  – or you may find it simply baffling and boring. I clearly was sucked in. Its very theatrical, beautifully filmed, has some wonderful sword fighting action - but is without a doubt overlayed with a layer of pretention - that I kind of enjoyed, but I could easily see it turning many people off. There are a number of logic gaps – why doesn’t Chiang tell his son the truth (well perhaps there are reasons but they are never spelled out) and the ending is stunning but also perplexing - but I think it is one of those films worth experiencing one way or the other.
One disappointment with the film is that CharlieYeung does not get as much screen time as I was expecting and is not involved with the action at all. Apparently, there are two versions with alternate endings. If you wish to know what they are - do a deja vu search for this film and look for a posting from Dale Berry.
My rating for this film: 8.5