The 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
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).
And 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.
But 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.
I 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.
After 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!