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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

THE SUPREME SWORDSMAN -- DVD review by porfle


A late-era entry in the Shaw Brothers' celebrated series of swordplay thrillers, THE SUPREME SWORDSMAN (1984) benefits from good production values and plenty of action, the only drawback being that sometimes it can't quite decide what kind of movie it wants to be.

The first two-thirds of the story are pretty straightforward, as we join master swordslinger Qin Wu Xin (Pai Piao) in his quest to defeat 100 of the greatest fighters in China and display their weapons in his "100 Sword House."  The film leaps right into the action with three straight duels, bringing Qin's bloody total to 99.  All that's left is for him to challenge you-know-who and claim trophy number 100.  But in a short-but-sweet exchange, he suffers a humiliating defeat.

Seeking a more substantial weapon in hopes of a rematch, Qin calls upon blacksmith Old Eagle, who is fashioning a special sword out of the best materials.  But he then hears of a legendary blade known as Cold Eagle Sword, whose location is known only to the elders of the disbanded Black Magic Clan.  Discovering Old Eagle to be the keeper of Cold Eagle, Qin kills him in another exciting duel and claims it for himself.  Old Eagle's son Yan Bei (Derek Yee) then swears to get revenge and begins to train under the tutelage of the former Black Magic Clan members, wielding his father's specially-crafted sword.


With this set-up, we're treated to one sharply-choreographed blade brawl after another in a fast-paced story that's briskly directed by Keith Li.  The action is fairly grounded in reality compared to other films of this kind, with wirework and fanciful elements kept to a minimum and the main emphasis on furious bouts of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat.  The actors' movements are speeded-up in some shots, which some may find distracting, but otherwise the choreography is impressive.

Shortly after the halfway mark, the original title character disappears entirely from the film, leaving the way open for either Qin or Yan Bei to assume the mantle of "Supreme Swordsman."  When their initial bout leaves Yan Bei wounded, he awakens in a cabin deep within a dark forest.  Here, the tone of the film changes dramatically.

We're suddenly introduced to three previously unseen elements--raucous comedy, weird magic, and a really cute leading lady--when Yan Bei finds himself in the presence of The Three Grandpas and their granddaughter, Qing Qing (Li Tien-lang).   The freaky old wizards overwhelm Yan Bei with their prankishness and beat him senseless until Qing Qing insists that they help the young warrior by teaching him their kung fu. 

Then things really start to get weird when Yan Bei gets drawn into an altercation in a nearby village and tries to rescue a kidnapped girl, which leads him into a strange hidden valley.  Here, he ends up fighting a trio of skull-faced zombies known as the Flying Corpses, a ghostly man named Living Dead who carries his coffin on his back, and an urbane stranger at a banquet table who attacks him with a large fan.


With this extended through-the-looking-glass detour, steeped in farcical humor and the supernatural, the main story seems to have gone off the rails.  The purpose of it becomes clear eventually but it takes awhile for the movie we were watching before to get into gear again, especially since the character of Qin has been absent for so long.

Finally, however, with his new knowledge of several different styles of kung fu and a powerful sword in his hand, Yan Bei takes on Qin in a rousing showdown that's worth the wait.  This sequence bristles with complex lightning-fast moves and stunts, and builds to a suspenseful surprise finish.

The DVD from Funimation is in 16:9 with Mandarin mono soundtrack and English subtitles.  The sound is a little sputtery in a few spots but not enough to bother me too much.  There are no extras save for some trailers for other releases.

Although THE SUPREME SWORDSMAN sometimes resembles two entirely different movies that have crashed into each other, they're both pretty good movies.  And the endless succession of fantastic swordfights should keep Shaw Brothers fans supremely satisfied.


Buy it at Amazon.com


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