Monday, April 04, 2016

Old School Kung Fu ’16: The Blade

He is wuxia’s most iconic underdog, who embodies a major chunk of Hong Kong film history. His first appearance came in The One-Armed Swordsman, a smash hit for the Shaw Brothers that made Jimmy Wang Yu an overnight superstar. Tsui Hark would reboot the uni-limbed hero for Raymond Chow’s equally storied Golden Harvest studio in the mid-1990s. It was a bit of flop at the time, but it has subsequently been recognized as an influential masterpiece. In celebration of Golden Harvest’s legacy, Tsui’s The Blade (trailer here) screens this weekend as part of Subway’s Cinema’s Old School Kung Fu 2016, with the support of Warner Archive, which has released a series of Golden Harvest classics on MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD (to order, fans must visit the Warner Archive collection:

Ding-on’s life has already been marked by tragedy. The master of a saber foundry took him in as a young boy when his father was killed by the Falcon, a feared assassin who supposedly has the gift of flight. Temperamentally, Ding-on is rather suited to pound away at the forge, but the master’s daughter Siu Ling perversely yearns to see a rivalry develop between him and the more hotheaded Ti Tau. The two apprentices are clever enough to avoid her clumsy mind games, but a more serious rupture develops when a gang of outlaws brutally murders a shaolin monk.

Like many of the men at the saber-works, Ti Tau wants to posse-up and administer some frontier justice. In contrast, Ding-on discourages their rash impulsiveness, in accordance with their master’s wishes. Yet, Ding-on will have an arm severed by the very same outlaws when he rescues the flighty Siu Ling from their clutches. Feeling essentially emasculated, Ding-on retreats to a life of menial labor, shacking up with Blackie, a young hermit living outside town. Yet again, Ding-on endures the beatings of nomadic outlaws, led by the sinister Skeleton. However, the partial burning of Blackie’s hovel leads to the discover of an ancient martial arts text. Much of the diagrams are missing, but what remain are still adaptable to Ding-on’s condition. By the time he has retooled his skills, Siu Ling and his old master will desperately need his help.

In a way, The Blade is a hinge film linking the Shaw Brothers releases that inspired it with later, more expressionistic wuxia, like Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time (which originally predated The Blade in 1994, but became more “auteurist” in the 2008 Redux version) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. Frankly, from the vantage point of 2016, The Blade is easy as pie to follow, but it was considered quite arty and adventurous at the time for its use of stunning, saturated colors and whirling dervish action cinematography.

There are still plenty of beatdowns in Blade, some of which are unusually violent. While Vincent Zhao has yet to reach the level of international popularity attained by Jackie Chan and Jet Li, he has serious skills and powerful screen presence. Viewers will have no problem buying into his lethalness, even with one arm literally tied behind his back.

However, probably nobody is as dangerous in The Blade as Valerie Chow, who causes no end of chaos and ill will as the temptress-prostitute. She makes the screen sizzle in her limited screen time. As Siu Ling, Song Lei has a slightly creepy Lolita-thing going on, but her unreliable narration adds a further layer of distinctiveness to the film. It is also hard to understand why Dickens Chan Wing-chung isn’t more of a name, because he makes quite an impression as the heroic but ill-fated monk.

There is no question The Blade is a masterwork from Tsui, possibly even a masterpiece. It is a great film to see on the big screen and also an ever reliable movie to own for repeat home viewing. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (4/8) and Sunday (4/10) as part of Old School Kung Fu at the Metrograph and is available for sale online at Warner Archive.