Eye For Film >> Movies >> Sword Master (2016) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
A land without peace. A warrior without an equal. A man without a name. Have we been here before?
We have, in fact: in 1977's Death Duel, several of whose stars return for this CGI-heavy remake - one of them as its director. It must have seemed like a peach of an idea, a return to the wu xia heyday aided by new technologies which could make those classic stunts flow more smoothly than ever. But without that old roughness, this film creates no friction. It glides by so smoothly that one barely even notices it.
Kenny Lin is Hsieh Xiaofeng, knows as the Third Master, a man so sick of violence that he fakes his own death in order to escape the demands of his clan, hiding out in a brothel where he works as a janitor. There he meets Hsiao Li (Mengjie Jiang), a woman who has entered the sex trade to provide for her peasant family but is keen to get out as quickly as she can. Helping her to escape, Xiaofeng falls in love with her, but there is to be no happy pastoral romance for this sweet couple, because two people are on his trail. One of them is Yen Shih-San (Peter Ho), a swordsman who wants to make hi name by taking on the only rival who might prove a match for his skills. The other is Mu-Yung Quidi (Yiyan Jiang), the woman Xiaofeng left behind, whose utter despair at his apparent death gives way to furious, empire-burning jealousy when she learns that he is still alive and in the arms of someone else.
This might sounds like a plot with a lot of potential but it's confusingly told (white subtitles, often on pale backgrounds, will present an additional problem for viewers who don't speak Mandarin) and its convolutions too often frustrate rather than ramping up the tension. Lin simple doesn't have the necessary charisma for the central role, too often failing to keep the viewer engaged and unconvincing as an object of obsessive desire. The other actors, however, fare better. Mengjie Jiang brings complexity to what could easily have been a throwaway role. Ho revels in a character afflicted by mysterious illness, with eyeliner as heavy as his cowl, grinning and grimacing his way through the film and bringing welcome energy in the process. It's Yiyan Jiang who is the standout, however. An accomplished actress not usually found in this type of production, she brings all her weight to bear as the spurned woman. A white snake coils at her breast, traditional symbol of the Chinese femme fatale, but it is her eyes that arrest the viewer's attention. She deserves a far stronger film.
Sword Master looks beautiful, with ravishing scenery, elegant set design and costuming that captures the atmosphere of romance and mystery whilst being period-appropriate and suitable for fighting in. As awards organisers frequently complain, it's getting harder and harder to determine what counts as animation and what as live action these days, and this is one of those films that really blurs the boundaries. Skillful wire work is highly polished with CGI and there's extensive use of slow motion, with those graceful robes whirling through the air as potentially deadly blows are exchanged. Alas, for all its prettiness, this strips away much of the thrill of the stunt work. It's hard to be gripped by the action when invited to gaze at it as if it were a watercolour painting. Furthermore, much of the action isn't really all that good, with the choreography falling short of most contemporary martial arts films and the direction sometimes clumsy.
Sword Master will hypnotise viewers new to the genre who are easily distracted by shiny things, and Yiyan Jiang's performance is almost worth the price of admission on it own, but martial arts aficionados are likely to be disappointed.Reviewed on: 06 Apr 2017