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!).
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.
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.
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!