The Swordsman of All Swordsmen has filed his amicus brief on debt forgiveness, and he wrote it in blood. Kung Fu Legend Joseph Kuo’s early wuxia film is back and digitally restored for your viewing pleasure, and it is a pleasure.
Clocking in at just 86 minutes, The Swordsman of All Swordsmen is almost entirely composed of excellent action, every fight scene unique from the last, and is driven by character beats. Tsai Ying-jie (Taen Peng) is captivating as a master swordsman tracking down the gang of assassins who slaughtered his family 20 years earlier. His vendetta is diverted from its course almost as soon as it begins when he is saved back-to-back by two mysterious siblings, Black Dragon (Chiang Nan), who makes him promise a duel to the death when the vendetta is over, and Flying Swallow (Polly Shang-kuan), who wants him to end the vendetta unfinished. An archetypal hero with an unbending moral code, Taen Peng’s Tsai is pushed to a breaking point by conflicting oaths and a gauntlet of armed guards.
While the story may seem like a simple premise for Kuo to hang his incredible filmmaking style on, The Swordsman of All Swordsmen wrestles seriously with what it means to be trapped by the unintended consequences of our promises. The young village girl whose potential betrothal is bandied about by everyone but herself. The son who swears revenge for his father. The Kung Fu master who can’t deliver on the gamble of his dare. Oaths of vengeance, promises of mercy, guarantees of victory, they all become traps for giver and receiver, and the only way out is to fight.
Throughout the many action set pieces of the film, not a single fight is the same because Kou’s direction makes every character distinct, then builds his battles around character first, plot second. For example, Tsai Ying-Jie (Taen Peng) fights with the empty, sharpened scabbard of the mythical sword stolen by his father’s killers. He’s always at what should be a disadvantage, having to get in closer than his frequent longsword opponents. Yet it’s this close-up battle that makes him so fun to watch. The film’s style is grounded and bloody, with moments of superhuman ability sprinkled in not as a fantastical norm, but as a desperate breaking of that norm. A flying leap is made by a fleeing coward. Superhuman strength is the reward of superhuman defiance. Plotters poison, brutes swing recklessly, blind men cast around aimlessly, and mythic heroes duel on the sand, giant waves crashing behind them. The camera work is simple but specific, letting the choreography play out as wide as possible like a good musical number, the character’s choices moving us through the beautiful settings more than the camera ever does.
The original shot in Cinescope aspect ratio helps the new restoration shines with its vibrant colors, which only accentuate the dream-like field of focus and swirling bokeh found on several of the old lenses. Between the stunning visuals and thrilling story, it’s no wonder that The Swordsman of All Swordsmen is the centerpiece of this year’s festival. It’s an absolute blast.
Screening Saturday, April 22nd, 3:30pm and Sunday, April 23rd, 1pm at the Metrograph Theater in NYC at 7 Ludlow Street..
For information on this screening and the other nine films, head to the official 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Swordfighting Heroes Edition webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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