Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre [倚天屠龍記] (1978)

Starring Derek Yee, Candice Yu On-On, Ching Li, Karen Chan Ga-Yee, Cheng Lai-Fong, Candy Wen Xue-Er, Cheung Ying, Wang Lai, Helen Poon Bing-Seung, Wang Yong, Norman Tsui Siu-Keung, Ching Miao, Lo Lieh, Yang Chi-Ching, Chiang Nan, Keung Hon, Lam Fai-Wong, Yuen Wah, Ng Man-Tat, Cheung Wai-Yee, Stephen Yip Tin-Hang, Ng Hong-Sang, Lau Wai-Ling, Ai Fei, Tang Tak-Cheung, Teresa Ha Ping, Tin Ching, Chan Shen, Dick Wei, Ku Kuan-Chung, Hung Ling-Ling

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Incredibly high.

On the general scale:

On the Dense Wuxia Scale™:

I loved every second of Chor Yuen’s Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. It’s hard to be objective; I’ve been inordinately fascinated by Jin Yong’s Condor Heroes trilogy for years, and each film adaptation I see unlocks more pieces of the elaborate puzzle. Wong Jing’s Kung Fu Cult Master is one of my most treasured Hong Kong films, a love that grew from total, whirlwind confusion when I first saw it on a blurry bootleg in the late ’90s. Chor’s film is, of course, based on the same material, so the prospect of a Shaw Brothers’ Kung Fu Cult Master has always excited my imagination. It lived up to everything I hoped it would be, but conversely I can’t imagine remotely understanding the film without prior knowledge. It’s so densely packed that I imagine lots of Shaw fans don’t like this one, but again, I loved every second.

Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre is named after two legendary swords positioned to re-shape the martial world. The swords were forged from the Heavy Iron Sword of Yang Guo, the hero of The Return of the Condor Heroes, and son of Yang Kang, antagonist of The Legend of the Condor Heroes. During the swords’ creation, Guo Jing and Huang Rong (protagonists of The Legend of the Condor Heroes) hid the Book of Wumu (which the villains hunt for in The Brave Archer 2) in the Dragon Sabre, and the Nine Yin Manual (subject of The Brave Archer) & other techniques in the Heaven Sword. None of this is particularly necessary to the plot of Chor’s film, but I find that understanding the details, and connecting them to your knowledge from other films, allows for an appreciation of the adaptation that would otherwise be lost.

The Heaven Sword is in the hands of the Emei Clan led by Abbess Miejue (Wang Lai), and the Dragon Sabre is held by Golden Haired Lion Xie Xun (Lo Lieh), a Ming Cult chief who went missing after his family was murdered by his teacher Cheng Kun. Our hero, Zhang Wuji (Derek Yee), comes from an illicit romance between Zhang Cuishan, a student of Wu Tang leader Zhang Sanfeng (Cheung Ying), and Yin Susu, the daughter of the Heavenly Eagle Clan chief, White Brow Eagle King Yin Tianzheng (Ching Miao). The Heavenly Eagle Clan is an offshoot of the Ming clan, which all six of the “respectable” clans in the martial world want to destroy. Wuji’s parents sought refuge on the remote Ice Fire Island, where they raised Wuji with the help of Golden Haired Lion Xie Xun. Years later, they attempted to return to the mainland with Wuji, but were immediately assaulted. Wuji was struck with the incurable Freezing Palm, and his parents committed double suicide to protect Xie Xun and the Dragon Sabre’s whereabouts, leaving Wuji in the care of his surrogate grandfather Zhang Sanfeng. [Sidenote: Zhang Sanfeng is the character played by Sammo Hung in Kung Fu Cult Master, and his earlier days were depicted in Tai Chi Master (played by Jet Li)!] And now, with all that said, we’re at the actual beginning of the movie! 😀

Wuji and Sanfeng are spending the night at the pier, when their peace is interrupted by a Ming cult member and a girl fleeing a group of guards. They’re on their way to see the renowned doctor of Butterfly Valley, Hu Qingniu (Ng Man-Tat!), so he suggests taking the injured Wuji along with him. In return, he asks Sanfeng to take the girl, Zhou Zhiruo (played by Candice Yu On-On later in the movie), to Wu Tang for safekeeping. They agree, and 10 years pass. Although Hu throws every cure he can think of at Wuji’s injury, nothing stops the Freezing Palm’s damage from spreading. He finally declares him incurable, with only two years left to live, since the poison is now entering his heart. Armed with this fateful prognosis and the medical knowledge he picked up from his 10-year stay with the doc, Wuji sets out on his own. If he only knew just how momentous a journey it would be!

So yeah, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre is pretty dense. 🙂 These stories just aren’t made to be contained in a single movie, or even a two-film arc like this one. Chor Yuen’s version certainly requires some prior knowledge to keep up with, and even then it’s pretty tough! He did an admirable job at adapting the material, though, and the storyline is better represented than in Kung Fu Cult Master. Hong Kong audiences were familiar with the material, though, as the novel’s first TV adaptation played on TVB Jade from May 13–October 28, 1978, and, according to its Chinese wiki entry, set ratings records with nearly three million people watching. The first film released October 19, and its sequel followed a week later on the 27th. I imagine lots of Hong Kongers watched the films to experience story highlights from the TV series on the big screen (similar to how anime series often make compilation movies for the theaters). I mean, it can’t be a coincidence that Chor’s films debuted during the series’ final two weeks, when fan excitement would be at its highest; Run Run Shaw co-founded TVB, after all.

My excitement was different, but no less passionate! I most anticipated how Chor Yuen would handle Wuji finding and studying the lost Nine Yang Manual. I missed the dude chained to the giant ball from Kung Fu Cult Master, but I was pleasantly surprised by the idyllic oasis found in a hidden crevice of the world (and how Wuji stumbles into it!). I never left this state of excited anticipation, reveling in the visuals and the newfound treasures of Jin Yong’s martial world. Chor always had a great eye, but his work here is abundant with rich compositions rivaling his best work. The visuals are as layered and dense as the plot, with many wide and medium-length shots showcasing the full breadth and beauty of the autumnal martial world as rendered by art director Chan King-Sam.

In terms of the action, as is usual for Chor Yuen, it is not the highlight of the film. His sensibilities are elsewhere, and no one should ever go into a Chor Yuen movie expecting a traditional action movie. That being said, Tang Chia and Huang Pei-Chih were once again in charge of the action choreography, and they constructed beautiful battles to punctuate the scenes exceptionally well. The best action comes at the second act’s climax, as Wuji defends the Ming clan from the assault of the six clans. It plays much closer to a standard action film during this section, and the choreography perfectly blends with the narrative to push the story forward.

Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre is dense and nearly incomprehensible without some legwork, but this only deepens my love. It appeals to the investigator in my soul, the one who loves digging through record crates/obscure films/aged video games, etc. for hidden gems. I understand this is not what most people want in a film, and that’s perfectly fine. There’s plenty of other Shaw Brothers movies to scratch your particular itch. For me, though, a dense wuxia is a treasured experience, and this might be my favorite dense wuxia of this era.

Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre ends in roughly the same spot that Kung Fu Cult Master does, too, so I am pumped to finally find out how it all ends after 25 years of waiting!

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the second part of Chor Yuen’s master class on film density: Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre 2! It came out one week after the first film, in true serial fashion… and so will my review! See ya then!