Thursday, 30 August 2007

The Swordsman (1990)

Chinese title: Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖), the name is based on Louis Cha's novel. More literally, it should be translated as "Laughing at JiangHu". This explains the 2 laughing scenes in the movie before they die.

While the 1970s - what I like to call the Bruce Lee decade - saw the unstoppable rise of kungfu genre at the expense of wuxia. The 1990s saw a resurgence of the wuxia genre. After all, nearly 2 decades of watching kungfu flicks, enough is enough. Who's better to accomplish that than the legendary wuxia director King Hu, who had never left wuxia in the 1st place?

King Hu was the 1st director in HK film industry who introduced us to the crafty cast of secretive castrates on the silver screen in his wuxia masterpiece Dragon Gate (1967).

The Swordsman (1990)Since I'm fans of both Louis Cha and King Hu, I can't live with myself without checking out this film. 1 is the best wuxia writer ever lived, and the other the master of wuxia cinema.

As with a typical Louis Cha's (pen name Jin Yong) novel, he usually created many factions who vie for power (by getting their hands on the secret wuxia scroll in this case). In this story, the factions consist of the Eastern Factory, Western Factory, Huashan (or Hua Mountain 華山派) Sect, and Sun-Moon Holy Cult (日月神教) of the Miao ethnic minority.

Another Louis Cha's universal theme is to portray the Head of the 'righteous' orthodox martial arts school like Huashan Sect as villain and the 'evil' Sun-Moon Holy Cult as good guys. Mr. Cha constantly warned and challenged us about the ready acceptance of common held believes. Because of time constraint of a movie feature length, usually the truth of the bad guy's machination take some effort to uncover. Louis Cha's stories are thus best viewed in a TV series (of which I have seen many). In this movie, the audience are simple told about it. In keeping with this theme of irony and paradox of life, the Sunflower Manual for ultimate power is again and again mistaken for a scroll containing the score for song about the absurdity of man's quest.

I was quite surprised by the casting of Sam Hui as the main role as he never played in wuxia (for good reasons, mind you). After watching, I realised that he needed to sing the theme song. After all, who would be better suited to sing a Cantonese song than the 2nd most popular idol of Cantopop (Roman Tam, the godfather of Cantopop, rarely acted, would be much worse fit than Sam Hui for this role).

Speaking of the theme song, James Wong wrote this catchy tune (that crawled under you skin). He's very much an one-man band for writing just about all lyrics and songs in HK films for several decades. Alas, stick to the writings. Good composers don't usually make good singers (only 1 Carpenter sung, the other composed). This is a very good case in point. He sung for both characters of the senior members of the Sun-Moon Holy Cult (Wu Ma & Lam Ching-Ying) by varying his keys, and killing his own great song sharply (with B sharp).

As for King Hu's walking out of the set 1/2 way (for whatever reason), I guess this is a reasonable suspicion as King Hu had never co-directed any wuxia film before. And look at his career, he's the opposite of Chang Cheh who's anything but inflexible.

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