Ideas are often one thing, whereas execution is entirely another. There are plenty of films which sound incredible, but the finished product seems entirely devoid of the potential. This is the best way to describe the frustration that comes from co-directors Yingli Zhang and Haonan Chen’s wuxia genre-hybrid The Emperor’s Sword. It possesses political intrigue, arguments of personal fealty versus country loyalty, artfully intended fight sequences, and some humor to go with its heart. The issue is that, though you can see what the filmmakers are attempting, none of the disparate pieced blend together and their individual portions lack flow resulting in a film left imagined rather than experienced.
The premise of The Emperor’s Sword is fairly straight-forward: in the midst of country upheaval as the Qin dynasty is replaced by the Han dynasty, all of the leaders loyal to the previous emperor are murdered save for one. This girl, the daughter of a lord is given the responsibility of transporting a sacred sword from their besieged home to a temple. Those in league with the new emperor seek the sword out as they believe in its rumored power which is bestowed upon the wielder. Assisted by a select few who once served under the previous emperor, the girl makes her way, each step more treacherous than the last.
Originally released in 2020, The Emperor’s Sword came available to U.S. Hi-YAH! Subscribers in July ahead of the physical release this month. Like the streaming edition, the physical copy does not have any bonus features specific to the film unless you count the behind the scenes elements shown during the final credits. All that the physical edition contains is presentation settings and previews for other Well Go USA releases. As a home release, the presentation is surprisingly fantastic when viewed on my 43” 4K UHD television via an Xbox X with sound provided by a 5.1 Dolby surround system. At one point, as a scene was showered with rain, I legitimately thought it was raining outside, the sound was so clear and immersive. The same is for the dialogue, easy to parse and no need to adjust the volume between action-led and dialogue-led sequences. Visually, while not OMG stunning, there’s some solid detail in the presentation, much of which we come to expect from modern HD releases.
Outside of the above, though, there’s little positive to expound upon. The premise, while interesting, doesn’t go anywhere, executed like it’s lopped off half the story in order to keep the action going. Characters are introduced in the beginning, most of which are called “The Seven Gentlemen” who fought to preserve the Qin Dynasty yet are never seen again. Those we do see aren’t explored in any kind of meaningful way. There’s an entire back-and-forth with a minion of the lord in charge trying to move his way to a power position, only to screw up and move one of the former Gentlemen to the forefront. This doesn’t do much more than delay the wayward Gentlemen into the narrative, whereas the one’s we do meet are either a ronin (the Japanese term for a samurai without a master — an odd term to use considering the film is set in China) or is retired and reluctant to engage in battle. There’s an attempt to explore the concept of loyalty and how it doesn’t end with age or titles, but it never pays off in any kind of meaningful way. It’s mostly platitudes mixed with pensive looks.
The Emperor’s Sword does at least offer a few interesting action sequences which lean into the wuxia style the film primarily operates under. However, rather than trusting in the stunt work of the cast, the film leans heavily on slow-motion to create a sense of awe and the camera seems to shy away from showing most confrontations. For all of the complaints over the length of Zach Snyder’s Justice League, the slo-mo isn’t used as frequently as is joked. It is, however, used exactly as much in Sword. This not only fails to enhance the drama of the moment, but it also succeeds in padding the run-time. One either is or is not a badass. A badass is not created just by slowing down an actor’s movements. If we were able to see more of the action, then perhaps I might feel differently, but the number of times the camera opts to place the action just barely in the frame makes it difficult to actually understand what’s going on when it happens. This is not hyperbolic, either. Multiple times the camera zips around the action in a very cool, smooth manner, except we can’t see what’s happening at all. Often, even when we can, the cuts are so rapid that there’s no sense of momentum or connection. Given the truly epic stuntwork seen in other Well Go USA 2021 releases like Raging Fire, Hydra, and Silat Warriors, or the stylishly executed ones in the not-yet-wildly-released Seobok, stuntwork we can see, that’s given space and time, can not only provoke an emotional response from the audience, but it can entice them to lean in. There’s nothing but distance from Sword.
There’s nothing more frustrating to me than writing a review for a film that I don’t connect with, especially when I can see what it’s going for. It wants to establish a wondrous mythology — hence the inclusion of the sword as a macguffin — except the sword never presents any kind of power whatsoever. It is an instrument of death and defense, but that’s it. In that same regard, The Emperor’s Sword is itself equally empty of anything resembling the weight of the period or the personal sacrifices it seeks to explore; it’s merely just an instrument for entertainment, except it’s so imbalanced in tone and the narrative somehow incomplete that it barely entertains. The memory of those before us who we seek to immortalize in cinema deserve better.
Available for streaming on Hi-YAH! July 16th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital November 9th, 2021.
Final Score: 1 out of 5.