After the prized Sunflower Scroll, detailing secret martial arts techniques, is stolen from the Imperial Library, Governor Gu quickly determines that the recently retired Lam Jam Nam is responsible for the theft and surrounds his family dwelling in a bid to deal with matters before any rivals in the Western Imperial Secretariat hear.

The cordon does not prevent master swordsman Ling Wu Chung (Sam Hui) and his apprentice Skinny Boy (Cecilia Yip) of the Hua Mountain Sect from entering Jam Nam's house to bring news from the head of their school. It is not what Jam Nam had hoped to hear: Sifu Ngok is unable to help. We soon learn that this is because he covets the scroll for himself.

Outside, the sinister Jo Lang Sim (Yuen Wah) and his men arrive to join the forces arrayed against the Jam Nam household. After Lam Jam Nam refuses to give up the scroll - which, ironically, he had hoped would protect his family from their enemies - Gu and his allies attack.

Everyone in the household is killed save Ling Wu Chung and Skinny Boy, who are charged by the dying Lam Jam Yam with finding his son, Lam Ping Ji, identifable by a distinctive cross-shaped scar on his shoulder, and telling him where the scroll has been hidden...

Given that credited director King Hu was forced to leave the shoot barely two weeks in, leading to recasting and reshooting by uncredited directors Tsui Hark, Ann Hui and Ching Siu-Tung in the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong itself, The Swordsman emerges as a remarkably successful salvage job on the part of producer/impresario Hark.

Admittedly, it can be hard to keep tabs on the various characters and factions and their relationships with one another. But this is perhaps part and parcel of the process of adapting any multi-volume fantasy epic and, even if unfamiliar with the background and setting, the viewer can still go with the flow, enjoy the ride and pick up on the basic sentiment that lust for power leads people to do bad things.

Likewise, while the action scenes are not the greatest ever seen in a Hong Kong martial arts, or swordplay movie, due to the limitations of some of the performers - Gu's underling Jackie Cheung, for instance, a pop star rather than a Peking Opera graduate, or wushu champion - and of technology - CGI and wire removal were unavailable, such that the superhuman leaps of the flying swordsmen had to be accomplished through judiciously placed trampolines and low camera angles - they are still both good and plentiful enough to satisfy all but the most demanding wuxia afficionado.

With high production values, lush cinematography and an overall consistency of visual style that belies the film's difficult genesis and suggests something of the regard with which Hu was held for such classics as Come Drink With Me and Green Dragon Inn, the films weaknesses are minor by comparison.

Though allowing for some humorous moments, Cecilia Yip Tong's passing as a boy - a stock situation in a genre where gender boundaries are fluid and desexualised characters in the form of zen masters and sinister eunuchs wield great powers as a consequence of their sacrifices - doesn't really work. Too great a suspension of disbelief on the viewer's part that no-one on screen would notice is required, even if the alternatives - having Yip play the role in a more macho way or using both male and female performers in it - might well have caused their own problems.

Rather more difficult to excuse is the excess weight given to the song The Blue Seas Let Out A Laugh. Played repeatedly throughout the film and tending to interrupt the narrative flow without providing much in the way of commentary, or clarification, it comes across as nothing so much as an unsubtle attempt by Hark to establish a signature tune to match that of Under The General's Orders in his Wong Fei Hung films.

In sum, so long as one does not expect something to match Hark's Once Upon A Time In China, Hu's A Touch of Zen or - inevitably - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Swordsman does the job as a fine piece of costumed martial arts/arthouse action.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2003
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Martial arts action extravaganza in the style of the Hong Kong greats.
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Director: King Hu, Ching Siu-Tung, Ann Hui, Tsui Hark

Writer: Louis Cha, Man-Leung Kwan

Starring: Jacky Cheung, Man Cheung, Sam Hui, Ching-Ying Lam, Shun Lau, Siu-Ming Lau, Ma Wu, Cecilia Yip Tong, Fennie Yuen, Wah Yuen

Year: 1990

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong/Taiwan


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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon