Based on the 1975 novel, The Third Young Master’s Sword, by Gu Long, Sword Master is a spectacular mix of balletic action and costume melodrama brought to the screen by veteran actor turned filmmaker, Derek Yee (Shinjuku Incident).
When a powerful swordsman, the Third Young Master (Ling Gengxin) dies undefeated, it throws the insular world of ancient Chinese martial arts into an uproar. Hit particularly hard is the tattooed assassin Yan (Peter Ho), reckoned to be the only fighter with a shot at beating the Young Master. Dissolute, depressed and dying of an incurable disease to boot, Yan falls to drinking and moping over never having a chance to beat his greatest opponent.
Good thing, then, that the Young Master merely faked his death, having grown weary of the endless slaughter that is life as a top-notch warrior, and is hiding out with a peasant family under the assumed name of Anh Chi. Working as a janitor in a brothel, he becomes the protector of a prostitute, Xiao Li (Jiang Mengjie).
Meanwhile, in the background, the Young Master’s former fiancee, Murong Qiudi (Jiang Yiyan), enraged at being jilted by the swordsman and fairly certain he’s not as dead as he seems to be, plots revenge…
If nothing else, you get a lot of plot for your money with high-end Chinese historical action films (or wuxia, if you’re down with the jargon) and it can be daunting for a Western audience to try and parse the various titles, societies, clans and honorifics that are scattered throughout (Murong is also Lord of the Seven Stars Pond, for example, and we have no idea of the significance of that, if any). But essentially this is a love and revenge tale, and everyone can plug into those. Handsomely mounted by director Yee, Sword Master is packed to the gills with sumptuous set dressing, gorgeous costumes and beautifully if histrionically staged action sequences that see the participants somersault, flip and fly all over the screen while exchanging the occasional ringing clash of blades. It’s hugely enjoyable stuff, even if the operatic pitch of the performances can take some getting used to.
In truth, Sword Master is probably not the best entry level film for someone looking to dip their toe into Chinese action fantasy, not because it’s not good – it most certainly is – but in that it assumes a certain prior knowledge of the tropes and customs of the form. Having said that, if you know your way around the genre, this is a solid slice of entertainment.