Soul of the Sword [殺絕] (1978)
Starring Ti Lung, Lin Chen-Chi, Ku Feng, Yue Wing, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Lau Wai-Ling, Lily Li Li-Li, Chan Shen, Chan Jun-Ho, Lam Fai-Wong, Keung Hon, Ng Hong-Sang, Lee Hoi-Sang, Wong Ching-Ho, Dave Wong Kit, Yuen Wah, Mama Hung
Directed by Hua Shan
Like its main character, Soul of the Sword has a singular focus. The Nameless Swordsman (Ti Lung) is on a quest to kill Lu Tien Kang (Ku Feng), the current King of Swords of the martial world. This is a common foundation in wuxia films, but in Soul of the Sword we also know why he’s on the quest right from the get-go. As a child, Nameless sees Lu kill a swordsman, followed by the swordman’s sweetheart killing herself with his sword. This traumatizes the young Nameless, and he vows to one day defeat Lu. You might expect some twists and turns, but this isn’t one of those complicated wuxias compressing a huge serial novel into 85 minutes. The only twist is that there isn’t one; this character is simply bent on defeating his seemingly invincible foe. While this isn’t reflected in the senseless title Soul of the Sword, the film’s Chinese title, 殺絕, is much more apt. According to the translation on the MDBG Chinese Dictionary (which I’ve found to be far superior to Google Translate), the title is a verb meaning “to exterminate.”
With everything hammering in on this singular desire to kill, the rest of the movie feels lacking. Many moments between Nameless and He Lian (Lin Chen-Chi) are meant to be emotional, but the film never invests the time to make them matter. The first half of the movie is like 90% fights, and the remaining 10% is hardly nuanced drama. This is, of course, perfectly fine for an action movie, but it’s hard to overlook when the second half suddenly expects us to care about its “consequences” for Nameless’s single-minded nature. As a viewer, you can see the threads and the themes, but Hua fails to pull them together or really say anything about them that hasn’t already been done better in other Shaw films. I suppose that’s the nature of lower-tier Shaw films, riffing on the bigger name directors’ hits (in this case, Chor Yuen), but I’d still like there to be some follow-through.
Where the film falters in emotions, it certainly delivers in action. Tang Chia choreographed his heart out for the film’s many fights, delivering a wonderful mix of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat. I wish they weren’t devoid of emotion, but it makes sense for this particular movie. Nameless’s introductory fight makes him seem like a charming, cocky character similar to Wu Song in The Delightful Forest. Unfortunately, Nameless’s only joy comes from the kill, not in a sadistic manner, but because every kill is one closer to his ultimate goal of killing Lu. Regardless, the action is high quality and entertaining, and it’s ultimately what makes this film hard to rate. Soul of the Sword could benefit from better writing and direction, but it remains a fun time at the movies in spite of these flaws.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s The Brave Archer Part II! Gonna need to re-watch the first one because God only knows how long it’s been! Haha see ya then (hopefully soon)!