Swordsman (1990) Movie Review

“Swordsman” is your standard Hong Kong-produced period martial arts movie. All the conventions of the genre are present, including the always popular girl mistaken for man because she wears man’s clothes big (this “confusion” will become comedy fodder at various intervals); the proclaiming of elaborate fighting stances by the person currently performing said stance; and the most popular period martial arts maguffin of all, that manual or scroll that contains instructions on how to become a super-duper fighting machine. (Gee, if only VCR manuals could do that…)

If you love all of the above (or at least isn’t bothered by just how recycled and been-there, done-that they are), then you’ll like “Swordsman,” a tale about two students from a distant kung fu school who wanders into a big helping of trouble involving an ex-official and a Eunuch trying to (what else?) usurp power. It seems there’s no such thing as a good eunuch in Chinese mythology, since I’ve seen the Evil Eunuch character surface numerous times in similar period films. I can’t help but wonder if being a eunuch has anything to do with their mean and cruel disposition? Just a thought.

The best thing about “Swordsman” is the easy-going manner of star Sam Hui, who plays Ling, one half of the wandering duo. Ling travels everywhere with Kiddo (Cecilia Yip), the girl-pretending-to-be-boy character. The two actors have an easy rapport and their scenes, no matter how silly or contrived, are easily the movie’s highlights. Hui plays Ling as so free-spirited and carefree that you can’t help but like him, which is a good thing because Ling has the uncanny ability to get involved in things that are way over his head. Yip’s Kiddo is something of an ing’nue, but there’s no denying that she plays off Hui well, and vice versa.

Plot-wise, “Swordsman” is a smorgasbord of the usual suspects. The Evil Eunuch wants to usurp the power of the Emperor, and thinks by getting his hands on the secret scroll and becoming a super-duper fighter will be the key. He’s aided by Jacky Cheung as Yeung and Wah Yuen as Zhor, an illiterate assassin with some impressive skills and a no-nonsense attitude about killing folks who get in his way. Ling and Kiddo, of course, gets in the way, but so does about a half dozen other sects, schools, and factions. When all is said and done, there’s a massive sword battle where all the factions take part.

“Swordsman” is not actually a martial arts film, even though it is heavy on the kung fu, although Fake Kung-fu. “Fake” means the swordfights and even the limited hand-to-hand combat (there are barely any here) are done in a style (and filmed in such a way) that clearly make obvious no one is actually doing anything real here. Which means everyone has special powers that allows them to use air and gravity as some kind of blunt object just by waving their hands or slashing their sword this way or that way. It’s all rather standard stuff, and nothing onscreen will convince anyone these actors know the slightest thing about actual swordsmanship. So if you’re looking for “real and gritty,” you’ll do well to look elsewhere.

Of course that doesn’t matter much, since the story rarely stops to explore the possibility that someone might actually know any real kung fu. There is one swordfight after another, some more successful than others. And of course there is plenty of contrived comedy such as the aforementioned bits with Kiddo’s gender. The whole Kiddo-as-man thing leaves me to wonder why, if these people are so good at training their bodies to do amazing feats like fly and explode trees from 20 yards away, is their perceptions (or at least their eyesight) so terrible that they can’t make out a girl in man’s clothing? I guess you’re just not supposed to ask that kind of questions. Silly me.

There are a number of good characters in “Swordsman,” including Fennie Yuen as Blue Phoenix, a member of a cult faction who can control all manner of creatures big and small, and sic them on her enemies. Blue Phoenix’s boss, simply called Chief, also has some good scenes with Hui’s Ling that hints at a possible romance. (The movie spawned two sequels that continued the adventures of the characters that first appeared here.)

“Swordsman” is the same old thing, and for fans of such, this one is a winner. The film has a laundry list as its director, but the driving force is obviously Tsui Hark, who takes producer credit and God only knows what else. Hark is an old hand with this type of movie and could probably do them blindfolded. Having seen a number of his films, it’s entirely possible that he actually did do some of them blindfolded, natch.

Siu-Tung Ching, King Hu, Ann Hui, Andrew Kam, Hark Tsui (director/screenplay)
CAST: Jacky Cheung …. Au Yeung
Man Cheung …. Ying
Sam Hui …. Ling Wu Chung
Ching-Ying Lam …. Kuk
Shun Lau …. The Eunuch

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