The Sword

Though Patrick Tam is considered one of the leading directors of what has been termed “The New Wave” movement of the early 80’s in Hong Kong, his debut film, The Sword, actually seems to look backwards rather than forwards. Almost as if the kung fu and ultra violent Chang Cheh sword-fighting films had not existed, The Sword seems to immerse itself nostalgically in the mood and style of the classical wuxia films of the 60’s and early 70’s
It has certain modernistic inflections – the hero has shades of gray about him, the cinematography utilizes some intriguing angles and transposition shots, a fabulous fade to red – but overall the film could easily be viewed alongside the films of King Hu. Like Hu, Tam has an incredible eye for detail, elitist artistic and cultural sensibilities and he uses the camera to paint scenes as much as film them. The film is beautifully shot – each frame looking meticulously planned out – and it generates a cool, urbane, formal and very aesthetic feel to it. It is the type of film in which one of the characters gently sips tea – excuses themselves – and goes off to commit suicide in a wordless display of honor and tact. To some degree this drains the passion out of the film – but it is so well filmed that I found it completely engrossing. It is almost as if Tam had to create this film – a homage perhaps to the classical films that he grew up with – before he could move on to the more experimental films that were to follow.
Before I make this sound like a dull walk through a beautiful art gallery, I have to mention that the action scenes – of which there are many – are incredibly entertaining. Again to a large extent they forego the extreme violence of the then contemporary films – but the sword fighting choreography is stunning and imaginative. Much of the credit for this must go to Ching Siu-Tung who choreographs the action with such verve and panache that much of it made me smile at the simple pleasure of watching it. Mixing the graceful clashing of swords with the measured use of trampolines and wires make it a visual candy store. Much of what Ching brings to this film, he utilizes later in his groundbreaking Duel to the Death.
Adam Cheng (who had just become a star for his turn in a TV series called The Story of Book and Sword and was to star in many sword films) is roaming the Chinese countryside looking for the retired Master Wah (Tien Feng) who is a legendary swordsman. He runs across a young, spirited woman who is being chased after by a nasty looking killer (Lee Hoi-sang) and he helps her out – though she is a fine swordswoman in her own right. Afterwards they decide to accompany each other in their travels – but Cheng soon crosses paths with his old girlfriend, Hsiao Yue  (Chen Chi Chi), and the viewer learns that Cheng left her ten years ago to begin his obsessive odyssey like search for Master Wah.
Hsiao Yue is now married to Norman Tsui who is a nasty piece of work. His right hand man is Eddie Ko – a ninja like assassin with total dog like loyalty to his master. Tsui doesn’t appreciate the fact that the old boyfriend to his wife is around and orders Ko to kill him. This is one of three terrific duels between Cheng and Ko that are suspenseful and edgy. Ching Siu Tung has Ko scuttling along the floor, moving in the shadows and hiding on the ceiling in splendid fashion as he tries to kill Cheng.
Finally, Cheng finds Master Wah, but his intentions are not what you expect – and though Cheng is basically an honorable fellow his actions begin a series of events that lead to tragedy and death for many of the characters. In the end he must face Norman Tsui and this final duel is an incredible display of cinematic and physical artistry as they fight to the last drop of blood and the final look of horror by Cheng at what he has wrought is a classic shot.
This film is available on VCD and though the transfer shows lots of wear and tear, the sub-titles are fairly easy to read and it is well worth your time. Hopefully though, a DVD version of this will make an appearance some day.

My rating for this film: 8.0