The Magic Blade [天涯明月刀] (1976)

Starring Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Ching Li, Tang Ching, Tanny Tien Ni, Lily Li Li-Li, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ku Feng, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Lau Wai-Ling, Cheng Miu, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Ku Kuan-Chung, Kong Yeung, Ng Hong-Sang, Chan Sze-Kai, Wong Ching-Ho

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Very excited to finally re-visit this.

The Magic Blade is a highly regarded wuxia in the Shaw Brothers catalog, and the nearly unanimous praise led me to review the film in 2010 (two months after starting Silver Emulsion). At the time I thought it was OK, but I didn’t understand why it was so well-loved. As the weeks went on, I kept thinking about the film, and how I must have missed something. I determined that context was the thing missing from my viewpoint, so later that year I began my chronological Shaw Brothers review project to fill my head with all the context I could handle. It’s now seven years later and I have finally arrived back around to The Magic Blade. It seems most people love the film right away, but for me I definitely needed the context to truly appreciate its mastery of the wuxia form.

The Magic Blade portrays a martial world full of strife and treachery. Like Killer Clans, it focuses on the dangers of the martial life and how prepared & alert one must be to survive against others’ devious intellect. The film opens on the deserted and quiet Phoenix Town, but this peace doesn’t last long. Out of the silence comes a procession of musicians, dancers, courtesans and other servants who prepare the town square for a grand display of entertainment for their master Yen Nan Fei (Lo Lieh). The celebration is cut short when a poncho-wearing Fu Hung Hsueh (Ti Lung) ominously appears out of the shadows. The two men have an appointment and a score to settle. Midway through their fight, though, a pair of expert assassins, Wood Devil and Tree Devil, ambush them. Fu and Yen are both swordsman of considerable skill and talent, and they have been targeted by the current leader of the martial world, Master Yu. Despite their vendetta to fight to the death, Fu and Yen team up for the time being to combat their shared threat.

Immediately, the film presents a very interesting and engaging dynamic between our lead characters. They wish to kill one another, but yet they are also a good team. Without Fu, Yen would have perished many times due to his lack of awareness and cunning. The film doesn’t go into this, but from his procession that opens the film, I imagine that Yen’s wealth has sheltered him from the day-to-day struggle of the martial world. Meanwhile, Fu Hung Hsueh is a quick-witted swordsman well-versed in strategy who roams the wild landscape at will. The characters are well-drawn and the film’s mysterious atmosphere only makes them more intriguing. It’s like seeing part of a mountain through the fog; you know the rest is there, but for now you can only imagine what its exact nature is. As much as this pair of lead characters makes the film great, their lack of a concrete, dramatically deep arc also hinders the film ever so slightly. It’s not a thing that the film necessarily needs, it’s just a small chink in the armor that makes it slightly less successful than my absolute top-end favorite Shaw pictures.

In addition to the two wonderful main characters, the secondary cast is filled up with some of the most colorful and memorable villains in all of wuxia cinema. I defy anyone to watch this movie and forget Devil Grandma! Anyway, Master Yu employs five fighters and dispatches them to take care of Fu and Yen, and each one of them has a unique weapon and style. Our heroes don’t merely fight them one-on-one (or two-on-one) either, each encounter is fraught with tension. The fights are more like punctuation to the grander scene of intrigue and atmosphere. The action of The Magic Blade isn’t always treated like this, but it never feels as rote as it sometimes does in other films. It’s an element woven deep into the fabric of this martial world, flowing naturally in and out of the scenes, no matter how brief or extended the action scenes may be. Tang Chia and Huang Pei-Chih deliver stunning choreography that blends the Lau Kar-Leung method of intricate, tight choreography with moments of supernatural abilities, which flows perfectly with Chor Yuen’s tendency to edit his fights a little more than the usual Shaw director. Our characters thus appear more superhuman than ever, laying a perfect foundation for later ’70s and ’80s wuxia to build from and exponentially expand upon. Where Killer Clans brought a new tone and focus to wuxia film, The Magic Blade goes a step further and also delivers an absolutely breathtaking action film.

Like Chor Yuen’s previous film, Killer Clans, The Magic Blade is an adaptation of a novel by Gu Long, which the film shares its Chinese title with (Horizon, Bright Moon, Saber [天涯‧明月‧刀, Tianya Mingyue Dao]). Horizon, Bright Moon, Saber is the fourth book in Gu Long’s five-book Little Li Flying Dagger (小李飛刀, Xiaoli Feidao) series, and it is also the third book of the Bordertown Prodigal (邊城浪子, Biancheng Langzi) trilogy that resides inside the Little Li Flying Dagger series. Get all that? 😀 The first book in the overall series was later adapted by Chor Yuen into The Sentimental Swordsman and its sequel Return of the Sentimental Swordsman, and the second book (and first of the internal trilogy) became Pursuit of Vengeance, telling an earlier tale of Ti Lung’s character in The Magic Blade, Fu Hung Hsueh. That books also became 1993’s A Warrior’s Tragedy, with Ti Lung reprising his role!

Re-watching The Magic Blade was a revelatory experience. It is a stunning piece of wuxia cinema that every fan should watch once (or twice 🙂 ) in their lives.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Hua Shan’s Brotherhood! See ya then!