The Imperial Swordsman (1972)

imperialswordsman_1The Imperial Swordsman [大內高手] (1972)

Starring Shu Pei-Pei, Chuen Yuen, Yue Wai, Cheng Miu, Tung Li, Lee Wan-Chung, Tang Ti, Wong Chung-Shun, Liu Wai, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Shen, Kam Kong, Woo Wai, Siu Wa, Ma Ying, Tong Tin-Hei

Directed by Lin Fu-Ti

Expectations: High.


The Imperial Swordsman is a seriously ambitious film, one that reaches so high that it would be almost impossible to achieve what it sets out to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Shaws saw this film as something of a test run for more ambitious FX-filled films that would follow in its wake. As such, it showcases some excellent and beautiful model work that helps to broaden the scale of the film immensely, setting the scene with grand fortresses built atop mountain cliffs that tower above deep, flowing rivers.

Set during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor has learned that one of his own is working with the Mongolians in an attempt to invade China and take over the country. To stop this devious plot, the four imperial swordsmen (played by Shu Pei-Pei, Yue Wai, Lee Wan-Chung & Liu Wai) are deployed to recover evidence of the traitor and bring him to justice while he’s traveling. The Chief Imperial Inspector Yin Shu-Tang (Chuen Yuen) has already been working in the area, so they are to join up with him and thwart the traitor (who is hoping to hideout with his bandit buddies in their mountain fortress).

imperialswordsman_5And that’s it! There isn’t a shred of plot beyond that; after this point it’s pretty much all action. Choreographed by Leung Siu-Chung, a lot of the action is fun to watch, and coupled with the interesting camerawork from director Lin Fu-Ti (making his only Shaw film here) there is a lot to recommend. I really enjoyed the lengthy takes during the fight scenes, sometimes even capturing a healthy amount of one fight before panning over to another hallway to capture the struggles of an entirely different set of characters. During the finale, moments like these are then cross-cut with multiple other fights happening around the fortress. You definitely can’t say that The Imperial Swordsman is light on action.

imperialswordsman_3But as much as I hate to say this, the action definitely could have been better. The Imperial Swordsman stars a smattering of the studio’s lesser actors, with Shu Pei-Pei being the most prominent. While they all perform admirably, they were all lower-tier stars for a reason. They lack the simple charisma that the bigger stars bring to the screen, so while they are all perfectly fine actors and their fights are engaging, they hold the movie back from reaching its true potential. I feel really bad saying this, though, as it probably comes off like I only care about the big stars.

It’s not like that, I assure you, but when Lee Wan-Chung is cast as an incredible swordsman, it’s hard not to see it as the Shaws scraping the bottom of the barrel. And it’s not like he really proves himself in the role. They cut around his character’s fighting for the most part, and when they do show him it’s mostly just him bonking people on the head with a soup ladle. He does participate with Liu Wai in a good fight with one of the four guardian giants, but even this is the weakest of the giant encounters by far.

imperialswordsman_2I also must make mention of the set design, which is superb and beyond a lot of what had been previously seen at this time in the Shaw timeline (at least in the martial arts films, I can’t speak for the other genres). I was specifically taken by the entrance to the bandit’s fortress, a gated waterway leading to a cliff-side dock. The set is breathtaking and incredibly well-dressed, adding a layer of mystique and exotic charm to the locations. This is also augmented by the aforementioned model work, which works in tandem with the sets beautifully to create the film’s elaborate martial world. Being a big Shaw fan, I know that these sets will probably show up in later films, and I really look forward to seeing how they are utilized. The studio has always crafted great sets going all the way back to the first film in this review series, Temple of the Red Lotus, but what’s seen here is definitely a nice step forward.

imperialswordsman_4After all is said and done, I liked The Imperial Swordsman less than I had expected to. The characters are incredibly one-dimensional, even for a martial arts film, and it’s a pretty slow starter. I didn’t understand certain characters’ motivations intially and was quite confused, but it definitely just got better and better as it went on. Like The Delightful Forest last week, I imagine I’ll like this one better on a re-watch. It’s still a good film, and one that crams a ton of action into its final 30 minutes, but there are definitely better films from this era.

Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: Chang Cheh and Pao Hseuh-Li are back with Man of Iron, a sequel/remake of The Boxer from Shantung. That’s gotta be some kind of “time to remake” record, right? See ya then!

2 comments to The Imperial Swordsman (1972)

  • Well, once again I have to say I like this film much more than you. It might not be a masterpiece, but I’d put in near the top of the wuxia pians of the era.

    The thing about the film (which I’m pretty was meant to be translated as Imperial Swordsmen, as the Chinese language isn’t always clear with pluralism) is that a lot of what you say is true. The characters are pretty shallow. The actors are taken from the lower-ranks of the studio. The plot is quickly disregarded for pure action. And the plot, when it’s still around, is pure genre hokum.

    To me, what is most surprising, is that despite all this, all which should sink the film, the movie somehow manages to persist. Obviously the main asset is the film’s look. It has to be one of the most stylish films of the era, as clear from the surprisingly ambitious sets. And the construction of the narrative and the mise-en-scene manages to work within the confines of its stripped-down material. It’s almost like a platform video game, but in a good way. Once the film gets to the castle, I love the way the film, like the setting, descends ringlike towards the main boss, with varying levels of villainy along each stage.

    But there’s something else there. Somehow, and only after the plot gives away to pure action surprisingly, the film retains a quiet, mournful quality which comes out of nowhere but somehow feels sincere. It’s a straight ahead wuxia with simple lines of good triumphing over evil and awesome heroics. Yet it doesn’t feel simplistically feel-good. By the end of the film, when the heroes are all bloody and weary, we feel it.

    There’s a great scene that underlies this. The heroes, while exploring the fortress, accidentally come across the barracks of the henchmen, all asleep. A pained look of guilt and horror comes across the swordsmen’s faces, as they realize: they are going to have to kill every sleeping, defenseless man, because if they don’t, they’ll wake up and be a problem later. Despite the film’s barebone qualities – and maybe because of it – there’s lots of epiphanous moments like this throughout the film which make it work. If the film was much more star-packed, or had a more immediately grabbing narrative, I’m not sure it would have had the same effect. (Maybe in this respect it shares certain qualities with some of Sun Chung’s lower-budgeted, star-free” wuxia pians like The Devil’s Mirror and To Kill a Mastermind… the unassmuing front makes the eventual wallop all the more gratifying.)

    Much like Kao Pao-Shu and Teddy Yip, I’m really eager to see more of Lin Fu-Ti’s work. I hear his The Master and the Kid is suppose to be one of the best indie wuxias based off a Gu Long novel and partly inspired by the Lone Wolf and Cub series.

    • You definitely noticed a lot more subtlety than I did, so thanks for sharing your thoughts on the film. By the end the characters do feel truly weary, and I liked that a lot, but I failed to connect that with the rest of the stuff you mention. The film for all its stylishness is also rather subdued and different than the standard Shaw film. The mournful quality that you mention is definitely there, and I think that’s why I failed to connect with it as well as you did. I was unable to put a name to it, but you have done it well and that overall feeling definitely made me more distant to the film than I would have liked. I think it’s just personal preference in regards to the style of fight film we enjoy, but I look forward to re-watching the film with all of this in mind. I was definitely taken off-guard with how hard-hitting The Devil’s Mirror was, so I was sad that this one didn’t deliver as much as I expected it to. And that’s probably part of the problem, too. Damn expectations.

      And I totally agree about seeing more work from Kao Pao-Shu, Teddy Yip and Lin Fu-Ti. They all exhibit great qualities and made interesting films while at Shaw Brothers, so I imagine their work outside is also worthwhile. I think I’m most intrigued by Kao Pao-Shu, as it’s rare to see a female director working in martial arts films, especially at the time. And Lady with a Sword was excellent. At my rate, though, I’ll be lucky if I ever finish the Shaw series, let alone extra films! I better start practicing my internal kung fu so I can live a longer than normal lifespan!

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