Swordsman and Enchantress [蕭十一郎] (1978)
Starring Ti Lung, Lau Wing, Ching Li, Candy Wen Xue-Er, Tang Ching, Lily Li Li-Li, Norman Tsui Siu-Keung, Shum Lo, Ku Kuan-Chung, Lee Hoi-Sang, Yu Hoi-Lun
Directed by Chor Yuen
Expectations: Pretty high.
Swordsman and Enchantress is Chor Yuen’s crack at Gu Long’s 1973 novel The Eleventh Son [蕭十一郎], originally written as a screenplay for the 1971 Hsu Tseng-Hung film Swordsman at Large. Both films and the novel share the same Chinese title, which is Ti Lung’s character name, Xiao Shiyi Lang, and literally translates to The Eleventh Son. According to translator Rebecca S. Tai’s introduction to the English version of the novel, it was common practice in Ancient China to name children based on their gender and order of birth. This was the first (and maybe only) Gu Long story written as a film first, and this genesis helps Swordsman and Enchantress to be one of the more easy-to-follow wuxias. My review of Swordsman at Large indicates it was “impenetrable” to me, so either it’s more confusing than Chor Yuen’s version, or I leveled up my wuxia-following skills considerably in the 10 years since. I didn’t even know who Gu Long was back then, so…
Swordsman and Enchantress hinges around the greatest weapon in the martial world, the Deer Cutting Knife, newly forged with nine kinds of steel by Xu Ruzi, King of Swords. The sword is able to cut through steel and its wielder will be revered as the leader of the martial world. Naturally, people want to get ahold of it, but Xu gifted it to Lian Chengbi of Brocade Villa (Lau Wing). The Four Lethal Leng Brothers guard the sword on its journey to Brocade Villa, but it never arrives as the skillful Little Lord (Candy Wen Xue-Er) bests the brothers and steals the weapon. She tells them her name is Xiao Shiyi Lang, though, who just so happens to be the only other person in the martial world who might be worthy to wield the Deer Cutting Knife. The problems for our main character only grow from here, and we haven’t even been introduced to him yet!
What I find most interesting about Swordsman and Enchantress is how the film ends. Shaw wuxias are generally quickly paced, expecting viewers to keep up with the flurry of swords and characters. Swordsman and Enchantress is really no different, except in its final scenes, where it suddenly slows to allow breathing room for resonant emotional beats to play out. I wrote something similar about the ending to Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre 2, but this is on another level. Many dense wuxias are held back by their reduced emotions, so I loved to see the indulgence here. Coupled with the gorgeous visuals of the moment, the scene leaves you with the lasting impact of the sadness and romantic melancholy of our characters’ situation. If the rest of the film was this affecting, it might be an all-time great. This is definitely a story that could soar with the right remake.
In terms of action, Swordsman and Enchantress fairs better than your average Chor Yuen film. According to the English titles, Tang Chia choreographed solo this time, but common collaborator Huang Pei-Chih is listed as the assistant choreographer in Chinese. No idea if that indicates a different working relationship on this film or not, but he (or they) craft battle after battle of stunning weapon-based martial arts. The action is shown in much longer and closer takes than is usual for Chor’s films, making it feel more contemporary. Along with Chor’s usual wide shots of acrobatic stuntmen fighting, this makes for visually exciting, interesting choreography. The rivalry between Lian and Xiao that drives the film allows some of those precious emotions to creep into the fights, too, elevating them beyond your general slice-and-dice action. A playfulness permeates the entire film, reflecting Xiao’s happy-go-lucky nature, serving as a nice counterpoint to the serious movements of the martial world.
This emotional underpinning to the story sets it apart from most other wuxias of the time, and it works more often than not. The mystery suffers, though, and leaves a good portion of the film predictable for fans steeped in genre knowledge. Like many things, I can see it from both sides and it leaves me somewhat torn. A re-watch would certainly help solidify my feelings, but I’m left wanting more. As a fantasy fan, I greatly appreciated the fun and quite unexpected turn the story takes towards the end, but Swordsman and Enchantress shouldn’t be viewed through this lens. It is a story of romantic longing caught in the martial world, and it achieves what it sets out to do.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the penultimate Chang Cheh film of the year, and his first release since The Five Venoms… Invincible Shaolin! That means I get to take my first dip into Arrow’s new Shawscope Vol. 2 box set! See ya then (hopefully soon)!