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Existential Swordplay – SOUL OF THE SWORD

SOUL OF THE SWORD is a superlative Wu-Xia from the Brothers Shaw.

Most of my Shaw Bros. love has thus far been directed at kung-fu mastermind Lau Kar Leung (here and here), but there were other great directors and kung-fu choreographers in the Shaw stables, and plenty of great movies like this one – 1978’s Soul of the Sword [Sha Jue]. LKL’s once partner, Tang Chia handles the action choreography in this Wu-Xia film directed by Hua Shan (who gave us the classic Super Inframan), but it isn’t the action alone which makes this movie so watchable. Wu Xia: the closest thing Americans have to it is the genre of Western fiction – by authors such as Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey – but instead of The Wild West it’s an effervescent green Sherwood forest-like China, populated by colorful swordsmen with unique powers who endlessly greet one another: “I’m Fox Tail, carrying the jade sword of the mystic mountain.” “I have heard of you. I’m Fire Head, my teacher was your grand teacher’s teacher. I look forward to double crossing you soon.” The Wu Xia of the 60’s and 70’s (Come Drink With Me, The Magic Blade) were elegant and full of bluster, and in all honesty somewhat dull. But not this one – it’s grim, gritty and pulls no punches. Ti Lung plays “Nameless,” a swordsman on a quest to unseat the current “King of Swords” and become the greatest martial artist in the world (i.e. China). As an orphan, Nameless witnesses the masked King of Swords kill a swordsman whose wife then commits suicide, and the event inspires him to seek a life of power in order to defend the weak. But when we meet him as an adult he has forgotten all but his quest: he is arrogant, aggressive and cruel, with a single-mindedness which lays waste to friends and lovers. While today’s Wu Xia – like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero – are mostly critical of notions of heroism, this was one of the first to subvert conventions, and it is certainly more subtle and rewarding in its critique of the Warrior’s Code. The direction is slick, the acting superb (with Ku Feng and Norman Chu lending their talents), and the fantastic ambiguous ending underlines the existential crisis facing all heroic quests – whether they be personal journeys or great revolutions. But what really lifts the movie is the B story, when Nameless falls in love with the very same woman (the beautiful Lin Chen-Chi) as the one who’s suicide first set him on his journey (the beautiful Lin Chen-Chi). And it’s this surreal twist – of a swordsman haunted by a love which may destroy his quest – that raises the bar and gives the film a surreal, Buñuelian quality – like a martial arts version of Cemetery Man! And that’s just plain awesome – a surprise jewel in the Shaw Bros. treasure chest which I suggest you unearth immediately.

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