Swordsman at Large [蕭十一郎] (1971)
Starring Wai Wang, Tina Chin Fei, Margaret Hsing Hui, Chow Sam, Got Siu-Bo, Liu Ping, O Yau-Man, Pak Lam, Yue Fung, Chu Jing, Chang Yi, Chen Hung-Lieh
Directed by Hsu Cheng-Hung
Expectations: Pretty low, based on it being a Hsu Cheng-Hung movie.
As much as I’d like every movie to be made specifically for me, that just isn’t the case. Swordsman at Large is a great example of this, as it’s a handsome production of a rich, character-driven wuxia film in the old tradition of the genre’s roots, but as someone who highly values the changes and the advancements that Chang Cheh (and to a lesser extent Lo Wei) brought to the genre, I don’t care how handsome the production is, this is one movie that I just could not get into.
It must have been something of a big deal at its time, though, as it featured big name guest stars in glorified cameos. The stars in question are Chang Yi and Chen Hung Lieh, who basically come on-screen and promptly get killed. They mean absolutely nothing to the story of the film, but this is not the only moment in screenwriter Ku Lung’s script that is convoluted and meaningless in unnecessary ways. But this was Ku’s first credited script, so I can cut him some slack. He later went on to work with Lo Wei during the “Lo Wei Motion Picture Co., Ltd.” era, otherwise known as “the years Jackie Chan would rather forget” (and that I also just so happen be reviewing my way through currently!).
So what is this convoluted story that we have here? I honestly don’t have a good idea. There’s a sword called the Deer Knife that everyone in the martial world is after. This sword is everything you could want in a sword, just like all the other super swords that are the center of attention in these movies focused on a super weapon. Anyway, roughly 10 or so people are on the hunt for this sword, and the film’s hero isn’t really clear until a good way into the film. And even then the hero is something of an anti-hero, but not in a “this guy’s too cool for heroics” kind of way that you might want or expect from an anti-hero. He’s just kind of uninteresting, even if he does have some cool spike weapons that he hides in his sleeves.
OK, so the story… Everyone’s looking for the Deer Knife, but they’re also on the hunt for Xiao the Rambler, that anti-hero I mentioned above (Wai Wang). Why? I couldn’t tell, but I’m sure it was there somewhere. I was so lost trying to keep everything straight that I’m sure many of these little details flew past me. In any case, that’s the plot. Just a bunch of people looking for a sword and a dude. Everything else is related in some way to both of those pieces. There are sub-plots that grow during the film, including a slight romance that buds while Xiao and Miss Shen (Margaret Hsing Hui) seek refuge inside the hollowed out stump of a giant tree, but nothing that really takes precedence over the search for man and sword.
The “action” was handled by Mo Man-Hung, and I use quotes because to call the fights in Swordsman at Large action is a huge stretch. As this is something of a throwback to the old way of doing things, I guess Mo and director Hsu Cheng-Hung decided the action should also take a few steps back. Outside of a few quick moments and an OK end battle, everything else is merely passable. I guess it’s wrong of me to expect great action out of every film in the Shaw catalog, but with a story this convoluted it needs something to fall back on, and this one just has nothing. Perhaps if you went in knowing what to expect, it wouldn’t be such a shock.
This lack of quality choreography is a shame too, as there are some good ideas sprinkled throughout the film that deserve better. One of the characters (who I was never quite sure whether they were good or bad) wears eagle claw gloves as her weapons. I’m unsure how effective they’d be in an actual fight, but my love of visual camp says that these eagle claws were way too cool to think about such trivial things. The Deer Knife itself is also pretty awesome, with a hilt that looks like it was made from a deer leg or something. The sheath is also covered in the coarse, brown fur of a deer, creating a weapon that definitely stands out from the crowd.
The character of the Happy King, who is ultimately the villain of the film, is also a fantastically devious son-of-a-bitch who is a BEAST on the battlefield. At one point the woman with the eagle claws is meeting with him and before she can whistle the Chinese equivalent of Dixie, the Happy King goes all Kalima on her and rips her beating heart out. Told ya he was a beast! Through the movie he just hangs out in his amazing tent by the river, waiting for all the other characters to come his way and hopefully either bring him the Deer Knife, Xiao the Rambler or Miss Shen (who he calls by her wuxia nickname “The Great Beauty of Jiangnan”).
As much as I didn’t care much for Swordsman at Large, it is a gorgeously shot film. While it is something of a throwback (complete with a song!), if one were to directly compare it to Hsu Cheng-Hung’s earlier work on the Temple of the Red Lotus films, they would find that Hsu had matured and grown as a director considerably. I have to respect that, but it doesn’t change the fact that the film was nearly impenetrable to me. It does seem like it’s better than I’m giving it credit for because I couldn’t understand it fully, but I have to call it like I see it, and I was bored through most of Swordsman at Large. Proceed at your own risk.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the final Lo Wei Shaw Brothers film, Vengeance of a Snow Girl! See ya next week!