The Sword Master (Derek Yee, 2016)

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In 1977, at the age of twenty and making only his third film, Derek Yee got the starring role in Death Duel, a film by prolific Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen. After helping spark a revitalization of Cantonese language language cinema with his hit ensemble comedy The House of 72 Tenants in 1973, Chor had settled into his own little corner of the Shaw Brothers universe, making a series of lavishly ornate studio-bound wuxias, usually adaptations of novels by popular author Gu Long. The stories are intricate fantasy tales of swordsmen who travel the jianghu, the chivalric world that runs alongside but separate from the everyday reality of the Chinese peasantry, a world with its own hierarchical structures (usually based on swordsmanship) and complex rivalries and feuds. Unlike the Shaolin films that Shaws directors Chang Cheh and Lau Kau-leung were making at the same time, Chor’s movies are relentlessly ahistorical, existing entirely in a world of their own making (even the geography is fictional). The fights scenes are acrobatic and wire-aided and make occasional use of magic but more usually bizarre weaponry and poisons are featured. Chor fills his brightly colored sets with beautiful decorations, gorgeously landscaped backdrops and ornamentations that block  and frame our view of the scene: it’s the closest Shaw Brothers ever came to replicating Josef von Sternberg’s aesthetic. After the success of Death Duel, Derek Yee went on to star in several more Chor Yuen films over the next decade, the final days of the Shaws’ studio, joining Alexander Fu Sheng and Ti Lung as Chor’s primary stars in films like Heroes Shed No Tears, the Sentimental Swordsman movies, and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre Part I & II. But with Shaws in decline, wuxia work dried up and Hong Kong action cinema went in new directions: Fu Sheng died tragically young, and Ti Lung found himself overshadowed by his younger costar in A Better Tomorrow, Chow Yun-fat. Derek Yee turned to screenwriting and directing.

Never as prolific as many of his Hong Kong contemporaries, Yee has nonetheless had a productive and somewhat acclaimed career as a director. He won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best director for C’est la via, mon cheri in 1993 and One Night in Mongkok in 2004, and has been nominated for that award five other times. His 1996 film Viva Erotica, with Shu Qi and Leslie Cheung is one of the very best films I’ve seen in 2016. Cheung plays a young director with artistic aspirations who can only find work making a cheap soft-core porn movie. Shu Qi plays his star, a woman who comes to learn that she in fact has more to offer to art than her physical assets. Lau Ching-wan has a brief cameo as a successful director named “Derek Yee” who chats with Cheung and then runs and jumps off a pier, killing himself. Its the kind of weird, beautiful, romantic paean to art that one rarely finds among the work of martial arts actor/directors. Yee has made a handful of action movies over the years, along with comedies and romances, but now, with The Sword Master, he’s made his first period martial arts film. He’s gone all the way back to his beginning, remaking Death Duel in the style of 21st century digital wuxia.

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The story is about two swordsmen who have grown disillusioned with the cutthroat world of the jianghu, where all anyone cares about is celebrity and power. One, Yen Shi-san, cloaked in black with his face tattooed to look like a diseased skull, learns that he’s dying and retreats to a cemetery, where he works as a gravedigger. The other, the Third Master of Sword Manor, abandons his clan’s estate and finds work as an errand boy in a brothel, where he is known as Useless Chi. After defending a young prostitute (allowing himself to be stabbed multiple times by a pair of irate customers without flinching), he flees the brothel, knowing his identity will soon be discovered. He takes up with a friendly young man in a nearby village, who just happens to be the brother of the prostitute he saved and also happens to be located near to Yen’s cemetery. Eventually, all the forces of the jianghu descend on Chi and Yen and the village, led by the woman Chi was supposed to marry, the daughter of another powerful clan, along with a mysterious group of warriors in skull masks armed with nasty poisoned weapons. Everyone fights everyone while Yen resolves to defend the weak and Chi attempts to defend his new family from the psychotic woman who loves him without actually doing any fighting himself. It ends in a battle, followed by the inevitable duel between the two heroes.

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In tone, the film is faithful to Chor Yuen’s works: while lacking the distinctive overcluttered visual style it faithfully reproduces his bright colors and fanciful locations (the setting for the final duel, a fog-enshrouded mountain-top crowned by an ancient, white-blossomed tree, is pure Chor). But Yee and his co-writer and co-producer Tsui Hark, have slightly shifted the emphasis of the original film, amplifying the emotions and the romances while cutting down on the characters and miscellaneous swordsmen who appear only to be cut down after an action sequence or two. The result is less a reflection of a cutthroat world where everyone is driven by ambition, the desire to be known as the best, to rise to the top of the jianghu, where the only way a swordsman’s life can have value is by being known as a great swordsman than it is a soap operatic entanglement of intersecting love triangles. Chor’s films reflect the decadence of Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, a laissez-faire world disconnected from the mainland and from history, a ruthless capitalist paradise. The new film is from a different world entirely, and its characters are driven not by ambition but by thwarted desire. Everyone in the film loves someone who doesn’t love them back, the heroes manage to make peace with this, the villains are twisted into evil. But along the way, we’re treated with many a lush romantic interlude, including several momentum-killing flashbacks to the lifelong romance between Chi and his murderous girlfriend.

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For the fight sequences, Yee adopts the digitally-enhanced techniques of contemporary wuxias, with lots of slow-motion and computerized movements. It lacks weight and none of the performances or scenes are particularly exceptional, though neither are they ever bad. The fights are fluid and faithfully recreate the fantastical style of the Shaws movies, eschewing the rapid cuts of Tsui and Ching Siu-tung’s wire-fus of the late 80s and early 90s. The choreography is by Yuen Bun, who’s most famous for his work with Johnnie To, and while it lacks the virtuosity of the fights in this summer’s Call of Heroes (with Eddie Peng and Wu Jing choreographed by Sammo Hung), it’s a step above the action in Yuen Woo-ping’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. That film provides the best point of comparison, as an adaptation of wuxia literature harkening back to the 1970s, but reformulating the characters and motivations for an audience trained to accept personal melodrama as the only motivation for action heroics (see also: every Marvel movie). The Crouching Tiger sequel though gets the balance all wrong: the characters don’t make much sense and the action is too disconnected, even when it’s quite good (and Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh are certainly more charismatic and accomplished performers than the competent stars of Yee’s film: Lin Gengxin and Peter Ho). The Sword Master is the best version of what Sword of Destiny tried to be, a pulpy wuxia romantic melodrama. A throwback and a tribute to one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive filmmakers.

Mr. Six (Guan Hu, 2015)

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Playing this week at the Pacific Place is Mr. Six, a gangster drama which earned star Feng Xiaogang the Best Actor award at this past Golden Horse Awards (which are held annually in Taiwan and honor Chinese-langauge film). Feng plays Mr. Six, an aging Beijing street tough, now in his late 50s, who gets caught in a rivalry with a much younger gang. With the deliberate pace of Sixth Generation realism, director Guan Hu deemphasizes the more lurid elements of the Chinese gangster film, focusing instead on Mr. Six’s character and the ways in which he interacts with a Beijing vastly different than the one he dominated in the 1980s. As such, the film provides a wonderful showcase for Feng, a director of popular comedies and occasional actor, whose best known work in the US is probably his dark and very serious 2006 Hamlet variation The Banquet, which starred Zhang Ziyi, one of the overblown period films that followed the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero early in this century. His Mr. Six is amiable and steely, a quiet authority barely concealing depths of anger and disappointment.

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Memories of the Sword (Park Heung-shik, 2015)

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Opening this week at the Century Cinemas in Federal Way is this Korean wuxia film, a revenge tale bearing more than a little resemblance to a certain sic-fi trilogy and filled with striking sunsets, lovely fields, elaborate sets and digitally-enhanced swordfighting. Directed by Park Heung-shik, the man behind such award-winning films as 2001’s I Wish I Had a Wife and 2004’s My Mother, the MermaidMemories of the Sword follows in the footsteps of Zhang Yimou’s martial arts films Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower in that it is a highly melodramatic tale told in sumptuous, gorgeously photographed settings. Beginning with a young woman walking through a field of sunflowers, she puts down her basket and takes a flying leap over a giant stalk, soaring weightlessly through the air. Her joy as she lands safely, accomplishing what must have been a task she’d set herself for weeks if not years, is palpable. Unfortunately it’s the last bit of happiness in what becomes an unremittingly grim tragedy. Like Zhang’s films, the tastefulness of the enterprise undermines any life the genre film within might have possessed.

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The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To, 1993)

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Before becoming an renowned auteur, a favorite of critics and film festivals the world over, Johnnie To was known primarily in the West for the two films he made in 1993 in collaboration with director and action choreographer Ching Siu-tung. The Heroic Trio and Executioners star Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui as superheroes in a pre- and then post-apocalyptic Hong Kong, a wuxia Charlie’s Angels. Though he’d had a run of local hits, including back-to-back highest-grossing films of the years 1988 and 1989 (the ensemble farce The Eighth Happiness and the melodrama All About Ah-Long, respectively), none of his films managed to find much interest outside of Hong Kong, and his reputation, locally as well as abroad, was one of a competent professional filmmaker, subservient to the authorial personalities of his stars (Chow Yun-fat, Stephen Chow and Andy Lau) and producers (the gang at the Cinema City studio, where he worked alongside more accomplished peers such as Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam). But the prospect of beautiful women in sexy costumes flying around, doing weird shit and beating the hell out of people was enough to get the Heroic Trio films a home video release in the US, where more than 20 years later they remain among the most available of all of To’s films, standard content for streaming services. It was the first Johnnie To film I ever saw, I rented the old English-dubbed VHS from Scarecrow Video a long time ago. It plays tomorrow night in a definitely-better (hopefully subtitled) version in Scarecrow’s Screening Lounge.

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