The Fastest Sword [天下第一劍] (1968)
Starring Liu Ping, Chu Jing, Go Ming, Han Chiang, Liu Wai, Chiu Keung, Lee Goon-Cheung, Law Hon, Man Gau, Chuen Yuen, Gam Lee-Sang, Man Man, Tai Leung, Ling Siu, Cheung Ching-Fung
Directed by Pan Lei
Going into The Fastest Sword I had little to no expectations. It featured no one that I recognized from a quick look at the cast list and I had never heard of director Pan Lei either. The Fastest Sword took me by surprise though, as it’s actually a very good martial drama that revolves around the classic story trope of the cursed warrior who wants nothing more than to leave his past life behind him. It surprisingly brings together nearly all the necessary elements for a fun film: great directing, quality acting & martial performance, and a well-written screenplay.
The film opens with a badass swordsman from the South (Liu Ping) taking on three combatants who have come to avenge their brother’s murder. He quickly takes them out and an old man steps up and challenges the swordsman to a duel. If the old man wins, the famous Southern Sword must stay with him and train for three years. The cocky young man agrees and within the space of a few seconds he’s bested by the bearded elderly master. The film then moves into what is the first real extended master/pupil sequence I’ve seen while doing this review series, and I welcome the scene with open arms. It isn’t the training sequences martial arts fans are accustomed though (so don’t envision Challenge of the Masters), but it features some of the best moments of the film, specifically when the master tasks his student with carving a statue out of a giant rock. The master gives his student his task and then says, “I’ll be back in six months.” It’s a fantastic scene and one that eventually leads our hero to seek a new life as a mason in a small town.
Pan Lei (sometimes credited as Peter Pan Lei) cut his directorial teeth on a string of thrillers and traditional dramas, including Lover’s Rock, Cheng Pei-Pei’s first starring role. His first martial arts film, Downhill They Ride, is one of the few Shaw Brothers martial arts films that was not released to DVD after Celestial Pictures snapped up the rights to their entire library. Downhill They Ride is also one of the earliest color martial arts films to come out of the studio, with only Temple of the Red Lotus and its sequel The Twin Swords being released before it. Now after seeing The Fastest Sword, I’m even more intrigued to see the film, as Pan Lei proved here that he’s one hell of a director.
Pan Lei’s camera captures the action in a way different than his contemporaries at the Shaw Brothers. He focuses on primarily using close-ups in the action sequences, which is both good and bad. On one hand it limits the visibility of the actor’s movements when seeing those movements is generally an important aspect of a Hong Kong fight scene. On the other hand it limits the visibility of the somewhat average and boring late 60s choreography, replacing it with tense, exciting close-ups skillfully edited together. Eventually these two schools of fight filmmaking converged and gave us the stunning fight scenes we know and love, but for now it’s more of a “one or the other” proposition. For this film, the reliance on close-ups works really well, especially in the final duel. That scene also features one of the ballsiest uses of ultra slow-motion I’ve seen since I watched The Avenging Eagle in the theater last year and I have to wonder if The Fastest Sword influenced Sun Chung’s trademark slow-motion infused fight scenes.
The Fastest Sword is an unsung Shaw Brothers film due to its lack of any big Shaw actors, and the fact that director Pan Lei isn’t nearly as well-known or regarded as someone like Chang Cheh or Ho Meng-Hua. Even if the actors aren’t all that well-known to Shaw fans, our hero Ding Menghao is played by Liu Ping, supposedly one of the greatest Taiwanese actors of all time. Director Pan Lei regarded him as a Mifune-esque personality and I can see where he draws the connection. Liu Ping is great here, and really shows off his skill as both a dramatic and a martial actor.
Despite a clichéd overall story, the writing (also by Pan Lei) is especially good and raises the film behind whatever genre trappings the story provides. Pan Lei’s wonderful shooting style and cinematography also help the film remain interesting, exciting and beautiful throughout. The final duel is awesome and is perfect punctuation to a drama-heavy martial arts film. The scene is one of the most tense, edge of your seat duels I’ve seen in an early Shaw Brothers film, and I would definitely recommend this film to fans of the studio. It definitely does not reach the heights of other genre offerings, and it has something of a different feel to the standard Shaw picture, but it delivers quite a lot of good in a small, unassuming eighty-four minute package.
Next up in this chronological series of the Shaw Brother’s martial arts films, it’s Doe Ching’s Twin Blades of Doom! Sounds good!