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
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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
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