The Magnificent Swordsman [怪侠] (1968)
AKA Vagabond Swordsman
Starring Wong Chung-Shun, Shu Pei-Pei, Tien Feng, Cheng Miu, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ma Ying, Chiu Hung, Shum Lo, Chai No, Ng Wai, Lee Ka-Ting, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Yau Lung
Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng & Cheng Kang
Expectations: Fairly high. Griffin Yueh Feng delivered a pretty good looking film before in Rape of the Sword.
While many martial arts films are influenced by Sergio Leone’s westerns, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as deeply indebted to the genre like The Magnificent Swordsman is. The film is a mash-up of the stories from Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, resulting in a more Western-leaning Chinese version of Kurosawa’s Fistful of Dollars remake Yojimbo. Jesus, I need to take a moment after deciphering that one. For the most part it works, but because everything has been done before (and better), The Magnificent Swordsman isn’t as good or exciting as it should be. Don’t get me wrong, the film is entertaining and fun to watch, but the lack of originality really hurts this one from being the film it could have been for viewers that have seen the films mentioned. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen those (and why the hell haven’t you?), then you’re likely to get a lot more out of The Magnificent Swordsman than I did.
The direction from Griffin Yueh Feng and Cheng Kang is very good, filling the frame in interesting ways and with intriguing angles. Like Yueh Feng’s previous film Rape of the Sword, it exhibits a very defined style with all the snap zooms and whip pans you’d expect from a Shaw Bros. film. The difference is that I feel Yueh Feng was one of the influential guys in creating what would become that “standard Shaw Bros shooting style,” as his films feature it throughout with confidence and passion, while other Shaw films of the era merely flirt with the techniques.
Wong Chung-Shun plays our quiet, wandering hero and he does a great job. His wide, weathered face fits the role of the traveling swordsman perfectly and his on-screen manner evokes the reserved honorable nature the character needs. He reminded me of Zatoichi a few times, but he’s basically the lone swordsman of Yojimbo that travels to a village with bandit problems ala The Seven Samurai. Instead of the village recruiting him and six other samurai though, they try to pay off the bandits and leave Wong to face the sixty or so evildoers all by himself. This leads to a Chang Cheh style ending where one man slaughters a shitload of others in spite of the odds against him, but where Chang excels in action filmmaking, Yueh & Cheng are clearly not as comfortable. The end fight is fun to watch (especially with Tien Feng playing a ruthless, whip-wielding mercenary), but it never comes close to anything Chang Cheh has done up to this point.
To compare this to Chang Cheh isn’t exactly fair though as Chang’s films are almost always shooting to create art that also entertains, while this film is pure entertainment artfully done. It may seem like a stretch to call Chang’s films artful, but it’s something I’ve always thought about him and after reading his memoir, it is confirmed. He was hyper-critical of his work and always striving to further his personal passions. If that isn’t an artist at work, then I don’t know what is. In any case, The Magnificent Swordsman is nothing more than light entertainment, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s no excuse for derivative stories. Tonally (and musically) it’s much closer to a spaghetti western than a Chinese martial arts film, with the visual cues and motifs of a traditional Japanese samurai film. In this way it’s similar to King Hu’s Come Drink With Me, which also had a distinctly Japanese feel to it. This culture clash is interesting to watch without a doubt, but the film overall is one that I can only marginally recommend. It is definitely one of the more interesting and well-made pictures coming out of the Shaw Bros in the late 60s, but it is pretty lacking in many areas.
Next up in this chronological series of the Shaw Brother’s martial arts films, it’s Ho Meng-Hua’s first martial arts film after completing the Monkey King series I reviewed a few months back, Killer Darts!