6 January 2003 | BrianDanaCamp
THE MAGIC BLADE - stylized swordplay adventure with Ti Lung
THE MAGIC BLADE (1976) is a Hong Kong swordplay film from the famed Shaw Bros. studio done in a stylized fashion that has less in common with the studio's kung fu films of the era but recalls instead the more fanciful "wuxia" swordplay adventures of the mid-1960s (TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS, TWIN SWORDS). Director Chu Yuan (aka Chor Yuen) takes a simple framework and, with the help of lavish sets, elegant costumes, a top-notch cast and imaginative fight choreography, creates a heroic saga in the grand style that wears its literary origins proudly.
Ti Lung, always a charismatic martial arts performer, plays Fu Hung-Hsueh, a super-swordsman who wears a long poncho (a la Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name") and keeps his special broad sword, with a revolving handle, in a sheath underneath. He is out to kill a competing swordsman, Yen Nan-Fei (played by Lo Lieh, of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH), but winds up partnering with him to fend off attempts by the powerful Lord Yu to have them both killed to insure Yu's control of the martial world. Much of the conflict centers around attempts to get hold of the almost mystically powerful "Peacock Dart" weapon which is entrusted to Fu by its owner, Chiu (Ching Miao), who entrusts his daughter, Yu-cheng (Ching Li, Ching Miao's real-life daughter), to Fu as well. Along the way, teams of killers attack on a regular basis, leaving the heroes (and heroine) little time to do anything but fight, let alone eat or sleep. The action culminates in a massive confrontation at Yu's island stronghold, where Fu has to take on Yu's team of specially skilled assassins.
All the confrontations are stage managed by the villains as dramatic tableaux, arranged on sprawling Shaw Bros. studio sets (with one fight filmed in an outdoor forest). At a roadside restaurant, Fu notes that the motionless customers and staff, frozen as if in mid-meal, are all dead and proceeds to draw out the killers hiding among them. Later, the heroes confront the malevolent "Devil Grandma" (Ha Ping) and Ku Wu Chi (Norman Chu), one of Yu's "Five Fighters," who directs his soldiers to create a giant, life-sized chess board on which to oppose the heroes, who must face such living pieces as "Cannon," "Horse" and "Chariot."
Director Yuan, working from a book by Ku Lung, as he did the same year with KILLER CLANS (and many subsequent films), opts for a slightly fantastic aura with characters who can make the requisite high leaps and acrobatic flips expected of Hong Kong swordplay heroes and also wield a host of exotic weapons in settings of exquisite décor and lush lighting. The theatrical tone of the film eschews the grittier, hard-edged martial arts violence of Chang Cheh's and Lau Kar Leung's kung fu films of the era (SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS, THE MASTER KILLER) and instead draws on the stylized swordplay adventures of the 1960s, most notably those directed by King Hu (COME DRINK WITH ME, DRAGON GATE INN, A TOUCH OF ZEN). However, director Yuan exercises greater control of his goings-on, keeping 90% of the film in the studio and avoiding some of the awkward shifts in tone that occasionally marred Hu's work. Yuan masters the theatricality, while incorporating frequent swordfights (seamlessly choreographed by Tang Chia) and keeping track of a large number of elusive characters. A case can be made that Yuan's style looks forward to the more exaggerated effects employed by producer-director Tsui Hark in the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s and early 1990s (A Chinese GHOST STORY, SWORDSMAN II, THE EAST IS RED, etc.).
The cast of THE MAGIC BLADE features some well-loved Shaw Bros. regulars, including kung fu diva Lily Li, up-and-coming villain Norman Chu, portly Fan Mei-Sheng, and the always dependable Ku Feng. Ching Li makes a lovely and sturdy heroine. Another striking actress, Tien Ni, appears as the enigmatic beauty, Ming Yueh Hsin, who manipulates the heroes at several points along the way. With an enticing smile, high cheekbones and slightly sleepy eyes, she casts an elegantly sexy image that is hard for the heroes (or the audience, for that matter) to resist. Finally, the two fighting stars, Ti Lung and Lo Lieh, are both in fine form here in roles that are changes of pace for both of them. One wishes their characters and relationship had been developed more, as would have been the case in a Chang Cheh film, but then it would have been a very different kind of film.