The Swift Knight [來如風] (1971)
Starring Lo Lieh, Margaret Hsing Hui, Chin Han, Fang Mian, Wang Hsieh, Chai No, Tung Lam, Wong Chung-Shun, Fan Mei-Sheng, Yip Bo-Kam, Shum Lo, Chan Shen, Lee Pang-Fei, Hsu Yu, Nau Nau
Directed by Cheng Chang Ho
Expectations: Moderately high.
While The Swift Knight starts out as a simple wuxia film that is seemingly inspired by the Robin Hood tale (as many are, although I’m sure there’s a Chinese equivalent that they’re actually based on), it quickly reveals itself to be a very different type of film than your standard Shaw Brothers fare. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it’s admirable for breaking parts of the mold and trying something different, but it also feels like something less than it could be because of this. In any case, The Swift Knight is overwhelmingly impressive, and a brisk watch for wuxia fans.
Lo Lieh plays the titular character with all the charisma you’ve come to expect from him. This was one of those rare good guy roles for him, and as with anything he’s given, he does a great job. But strangely enough in a film titled after his character, there’s actually a fair amount of focus on the characters that aren’t swift, or knights, or the Swift Knight. This is one of the major failing points of the film for me, because there’s not nearly enough Lo Lieh to satiate my desires. But in a film as fun as this, this is something of a moot point.
Much of that fun comes by way of our main villain played by Wang Hsieh. His sword is housed in a tiger-skinned sheath, which is on full display at the character’s introduction. Having such a flashy sheath can only mean one of two things: you’re overcompensating for some lack of skill, or you are a badass. Seeing how his character is named Zhu Pao of Hell, I’ll let you decide where he falls on that spectrum. In addition to his flashy sword, he also carries a blade attached to a chain, which he uses to both injure his enemies as well as pull them in closer. So… basically Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. This weapon had previously been used in the very lackluster Twin Blades of Doom (and perhaps in another film that I’ve forgotten), but The Swift Knight is where the weapon is truly given the dignity it deserves.
His villainous presence is later bolstered by another devious villain, a late-film addition to the rogue’s gallery that does his best not to openly fight, instead choosing to wield a small weapon that fires a deadly spike at his opponents. I guess it’s a good thing we have the Swift Knight on our side instead of the Plodding Knight. It should also be noted that many times this villain fires his weapon directly into the camera, creating a shot that makes the film look like it was designed for 3D. And this isn’t the only thing coming directly at the camera, it’s just one of many. If I didn’t already know that Lo Wei’s Magnificent Bodyguards (starring Jackie Chan) was the first Hong Kong film to be shot in 3D, I’d have thought for sure that The Swift Knight was. I guess they just tried to simulate it instead of going all the way. In any case, it adds a lot of dynamic thrills to the action, and it works completely as intended (as I perceive their intentions anyway).
Speaking of the action, there’s not a lot during the first two acts of the film. What’s there is great (including most of what I’ve already mentioned), but the majority of the first hour of the film is an unfolding wuxia drama about the bastard children of the Emperor, slowly bringing all the colorful characters together for an incredible finale. But before I get there, I want to make a note about the style of action seen in the film, specifically the first two acts. Instead of traditional large-scale fights, or even one-on-one battles, the bursts of action seen here are either extreme displays of power (by either the villain or the heroes, though not at the same time), or extreme struggles for survival. It’s mostly the former, which means that the action is done before you know it. This leads the first hour to be somewhat slow in spite of some incredible flashes of awesome.
But when the film does finish its slow move towards the finale, and it unleashes all its characters to play in the wuxia sandbox, The Swift Knight is pure gold. Beyond the excellent choreography by Lau Kar-Wing (a huge step up from his previous solo choreography gig on Valley of the Fangs), the sheer amount of wuxia thrills offered up for viewers is impressive. One of the best is found in the film’s wire work, which signals a very important change. Just about every wire-aided jump in this film follows an arc with its highest point in the middle. Characters are jumping forward and up, instead of simply swinging from point to point. So now characters fly up into trees, or across sets in graceful upward arcs. The film even features the first time in this Shaw series where someone has landed precariously on an object with the aid of wires (and without the aid of reverse filming). This is a huge shift, and while it was inevitable, The Swift Knight is a notable film for this reason alone.
Earlier I mentioned that The Swift Knight was a different kind of movie than a traditional wuxia, and by that I mean that instead of trading solely in broad melodrama and wild characters, The Swift Knight actually attempts to also feature understated, emotionally affecting scenes. This gives The Swift Knight a quality that in ways elevates it beyond simple genre fare and into the realm of art. Of course, those concerned with art films would have a hard time accepting a film with shots of flying dismembered limbs as art, The Swift Knight definitely attempts to elevate itself beyond the low-budget trash kung fu is often lumped in with. There are even a handful of flashback scenes bathed in deep, solid colors; the ones concerning the villain are in red, the kind scenes about a dying mother in blue.
But you might have noticed that I said “attempts” a few times, and this ambitious nature is also something of a weak point for the film. It gets the genre aspects down without flaw, but the artfulness seems a little forced at times. By splitting its focus I think it’s less of a film than it could be, but I honestly can’t complain too much about a film that offers as much entertainment as this one does. I suppose in the end I would’ve preferred a more conventional film, but I respect Cheng Chang Ho a lot for even attempting something like this at the Shaw Brothers, who were more about cranking out similar films than breeding artistic creativity. This was ultimately a big reason why they started losing talent to Golden Harvest, including Cheng Chang Ho after his next film (the international blockbuster that exploded open the doors to the US market for kung fu films: King Boxer AKA Five Fingers of Death).
I read somewhere that this was Cheng Chang Ho’s favorite of the films he made, and I can understand why. In addition to crafting perfectly edited, tight sequences of action, Cheng Chang Ho was able to flex his artistic muscles and try to bring something different to the genre. While the contemporary films of Chang Cheh were affecting and thematically impressive, they are based almost solely on wild strokes of melodrama, so what Cheng does in The Swift Knight is a completely different beast. I definitely recommend it to wuxia fans, but do take note that the first hour is more slow-burn than anything else.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is The Rescue from director Shen Chiang! I thought his last movie, Swordswomen Three, was OK, but The Winged Tiger was pretty awesome, so hopefully it’ll be more of that! See ya next week!