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Sunday, March 27, 2016

THE BLADE -- DVD Review by Porfle

THE BLADE (1995) is my first full-fledged Tsui Hark film--I don't count his half-baked Hollywood debut DOUBLE TEAM with Jean Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman--and it really satisfies the curiosity I've had about this fascinating director ever since learning about him on an episode of Jonathan Ross' "The Incredibly Strange Film Show" way back in 1989.

A reworking of Chang Cheh’s 1967 classic THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, this action-packed sword saga of ancient China is like a lovingly-crafted assimilation of all that's good about Hong Kong's venerable wuxia genre.

Siu Ling (Song Lei) is a naive young girl living in her father's sword factory which employs the two men of her fancy, Ding On (Wenzhuo Zhao) and Ti Dao (Moses Chan).  When the orphaned Ding On discovers that his father was murdered by a fearsome tattooed assassin named Falcon (Xiong Xinxin, THE WOMAN KNIGHT OF MIRROR LAKE) he takes up his father's broken blade and sets out for revenge. 

Ling follows but is captured by bandits.  When Ding On tries to rescue her he loses his right arm and, after plunging over a cliff, is feared dead.

Ti Dao and Ling search for Ding On, who now lives on a humble farm with a strange hermit woman named Blackie (Chung Bik-ha) who found his nearly lifeless body and dragged it home.  When the bandits attack and burn down her farm, Ding On's helplessness against them compels him to train in martial arts and swordplay despite his disability. 

With his father's broken sword in hand, Ding On takes on the marauding bandits and then goes up against the bloodthirsty Falcon, who has never been defeated.

It's hard to summarize THE BLADE because the plot is so dense and comes at the viewer in dizzying waves of imagery which require some thought to fully assimilate.  (Not to mention what I found to be a necessary second viewing just to get it all straight.) 

In one sense it's a coming-of-age tale, since Siu Ling narrates the story and, in her quest to find Ding On, gains insight into the human condition and the various things others must do in order to survive.  (She never completely matures, though, since we see her still cavorting with her kitty before the final battle.)

Her lovesick infatuation with the two men, which develops during the course of the story into something more tortured and agonizing, adds to the film's coming-of-age angle in addition to its other motifs such as honor, loyalty, unrequited love, and retribution as a moral imperative.

Most of all, though, THE BLADE is one of the most dazzling, dizzying, often astounding action films you'll ever see.  In several major setpieces throughout the story Tsui Hark displays a brilliant visual sense that takes this kind of filmmaking to its own unique level.

It's almost impossible to count the number of camera setups used, with editing so rapid-fire that the scenes become almost subliminal.  Yet this is done skillfully and, more importantly, coherently, unlike the case of, say, the sometimes incomprehensible QUANTUM OF SOLACE. 

The director rarely uses slow-motion except to emphasize a moment here and there--his editing is too restless and impatient for that, bombarding us with flurries of eye-dazzling imagery that flash past as though in a dream. 

The camerawork appears unsophisticated at times but is raw and immediate, and during several scenes the constant use of close shots keeps us right in the middle of the action as though we're participants rather than watching from a safe distance.

This is especially true during the nightmarish early sequence in which Ding On loses his arm during his attempted rescue of Siu Ling from the bandits.  The whole thing is one long, disorienting blur of mud, blood, fire, thrashing limbs, clashing blades, splintering bamboo, pain, and fear, with Tsui Hark shooting and editing it the way one might imagine a frenzied orchestra conductor flailing his way through "A Night On Bald Mountain."

Subsequent fights scenes are similarly done in a frenetic free-for-all style that is always visually and emotionally involving, leading to a bloody showdown within the walls of the sword factory and a final confrontation between Ding On and Falcon which finds Tsui Hark's direction at its most hyperkinetic and free-form.

This loose approach also serves him well during character scenes, although he also accentuates such moments with beautifully composed close-ups.  The camera especially likes the interesting face of Chung Bik-ha as the comically eccentric Blackie, who gives one of the film's best and most likable performances amidst an excellent cast.

The DVD from Warner Archive Collection and Golden Harvest is in 16x9 widescreen with Dolby 2.0 soundtracks in Cantonese and English.  English subtitles are available.  No extras. 

With fully-realized characters and an emotional ending that resonates past the fadeout, THE BLADE is more than just an action movie.  But, wow--what an action movie! 

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