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Monday, January 17, 2011

THE SWORD OF SWORDS -- DVD review by porfle

One of the early Shaw Brothers swordfests, 1968's THE SWORD OF SWORDS helps set the standard for similar films to come with its heroic protagonist facing overwhelming odds to defeat an evil clan amidst a flurry of clashing blades and aerial acrobatics. 

The Sword, which took ten years to forge and, like Excalibur, influences the prosperity of the country whose leader wields it, is in the possession of venerable teacher Master Mui Lingchuen.  On the verge of his death, he announces a competition to decide who is worthy to inherit the invincible blade and deliver it to the prince upon his coronation.  The contest comes down to two men--the kindly young Lin Jenshiau (Jimmy Wang Yu), and treacherous Fang Shishiung, secretly a member of the evil Shang clan. 

Lin emerges the victor, but The Sword proves a terrible curse as the Shangs begin a prolonged assault against both him and his loved ones.  His wife is kidnapped and beaten, his family brutalized, and just about everyone else who helps him along the way meets with violence.  Lin foregoes revenge in order to deliver The Sword to the prince, but is repeatedly drawn into battle as the Shangs' attacks become more brazen and vicious.  Finally he suffers a setback so extreme that it seems nothing can stop Fang from wielding the mighty blade himself.

Director Cheng Kong (THE MAGNIFICENT SWORDSMAN, 14 AMAZONS) does a solid job in this early kung fu effort, although the film retains a rough-hewn quality that adds to its charm.  Camerawork and lighting are very good save for several times in which those trademark whiplash pans get a little out of control.  There are also some pretty jarring transitions between actual locations and studio interiors.

The fight choreography is relatively simple for the most part--you can see how the filmmakers are still developing their staging and editing techniques, and laying the groundwork for the more complicated stuff that will follow in later years.  One showdown between Lin and Fang is wonderfully atmospheric, with a chilly wind giving way to driving snow in the midst of the battle, while another takes place in the pouring rain.  Wirework is sparsely used and varies in quality from crude to fair.  Some of the violence is pretty gory and there are more than a few gushing gouts of crimson. 

The story maintains constant tension throughout, mostly since we're always worrying about what's going to happen next to Lin and his family and friends.  Tragedy upon tragedy is heaped on our beleaguered hero until it becomes rather frustrating to see the bad guys running roughshod over the innocent characters at will. 

It gets to a point where we feel that no amount of vengeance by Lin could be enough.  We even wish he could be a little smarter and more cunning as Fang outwits him at every turn.  How he manages to overcome the grievous injury that eventually befalls him and strike back at the Shangs provides some uplift, but even in the final free-for-all battle for vengeance Lin is in for more soul-crushing heartbreak.

Jimmy Wang Yu (ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE) gives an earnest, sincere performance as Lin, and is much more realistic and vulnerable than the usual kung fu hero.  In one priceless moment, while torn between rescuing his wife and fulfilling his duties regarding The Sword, Lin actually faces us straight on and asks, "What should I do?"  In another, a volatile domestic scene finds the distraught hero hunched over in dismay as his angry father pounds on his back with a wooden stool.

Fang (Tien Feng), one of the most ultra-vile villains ever, will have you wanting to run him through yourself before it's over.  He just couldn't get killed bad enough for me.  Most of the other actors emote in the broadest, most colorful strokes possible, with much tearful melodrama and gnashing of teeth. 

The DVD from Funimation in in 16.9 with Mandarin and English Dolby mono, and English subtitles.  There are no extras besides some trailers for other releases.  The sound seemed to get a bit sputtery at a few points on my copy--hopefully this won't be a problem with all of them.  See if you can pick out the John Barry "James Bond" samples along the way. 

The arduous narrative finally comes to a head with a furious swordfight between Lin and the Shangs that boasts more energy and enthusiasm than finesse, ending THE SWORD OF SWORDS on a lively note.  This is a fun film with lots of action and drama, but the constantly downbeat tone will definitely give your emotions a workout. 

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