17 June 2007 | DICK STEEL
A Nutshell Review: (DVD) The Hidden Power of Dragon Sabre (1984)
The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre are two fabled weapons in Jin Yong's novel of the same name, and though I haven't read the original book, my recollection of the story goes back to the 80s where Tony Leung Chiu-wai was playing the lead role of Zhang Wuji in the Hong Kong TVB series. In fact, days were the those that I was weaned on plenty of Jin Yong martial arts stories through television.
Big screen adaptations of the novels are always difficult because one has to decide just how much material to squeeze into a two hour movie. And adaptations have ranged from the arty-farty remote resemblance like Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time, to the plain comedic like The Kungfu Master starring Jet Li, which was actually supposed to be two movies, but had the second part canned. And some, like The Hidden Power of Dragon Sabre, just reused characters and put them into new creative spin offs, which unfortunately, doesn't make much sense in its treatment.
I don't think this story is canon nor Jin Yong endorsed, since the background of some characters and artifacts have been changed. For example, the Jiuying and Jiuyang Zhen Jing manuals are not stored in both swords. Rather it was the war manual Wu Mu Yi Shu which was kept inside the Dragon Sabre. Also, combining both weapons doesn't produce laser beams like what's depicted in the movie (don't ask!) but rather, the clanging of two swords together will break them to reveal the manuals. But perhaps what's more ludicrous, is the fusion of some science fiction elements into the story, with a set I swear looks like a poor man's cousin of Star Trek coupled with a roof adorned by faux pas Biblical-like chapel drawings , and some God like element from a passing of a Caucasian!
That aside, this story tells of the aftermath of that in the novel, where the Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang collaborates with the villain Song Qingshu (Alex Man) to attack the Mongolians, led by a Princess (a very young Cherie Chung, in a classical flower vase role) and General Tieh Zhen, played by Ti Lung. The imperial forces under the scheming Qingshu, disguise themselves as Ming Cult members in the attack, thereafter framing Zhang Wuji (Derek Yee, in pre-directing days) who is leader of the sect. Familiar Ming Cult members like the Bat King and Wuji's Godfather the Golden Haired Lion also make supporting appearances, but this movie sits squarely on the rivalry amongst General Tieh, Zhang Wuji and Song Qingchu, who becomes a Dong Fang Bu Bai wannabe with his androgynous transformation, as well as superior martial arts skills.
But don't watch this movie for its martial arts or action set pieces. There are none which warrant special mention, and nothing truly groundbreaking or classical in that sense. The action scenes are long drawn, and sad to say, boring, with plenty of repetitive moves and exploding bodies. What's more, the special effects team was probably having a field day with the laser effects, and almost every battle feature so many laser beams, you will not be faulted if you think you're watching Star Wars. Unless it's the Liu Mai Shen Jian skill, I don't really recall Jiuying or Jiuyang Shen Gong being laser beam producing, and the final fight was pretty ridiculous for its light show.
As with many Shaw Bros kungfu movies, the ending does leave one wanting for a more satisfactory finish, since most of them usually stop short by the time the baddies get their just desserts. If the West have their spaghetti westerns, then these are the equivalent. Some fight scenes are violent, but blood doesn't flow as much as in some of its counterpart movies. Don't get me wrong, they're still plenty of fun though, with their outlandish costumes, stilted dialogue and cheesy kungfu moves.