HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Title: Sword Master
HTS Overall Score:81
Let me tell you this. I’m an unabashed lover of Wuxia cinema and have followed the likes of the Shaw Brothers films, and Tsui Hark for many a decade (although some of Tsui’s 90s films are just painful to watch), and have a great fascination with the epic martial arts films. However I DO hesitate whenever I see a movie that is a remake of a classic Shaw Brothers film like this one is. There’s been a few decent ones like Donnie Yen’s “Wu Xia” that came out 5 years ago or so based off of “The One Armed Swordsman”, and then there was the very troubled “The Guillotines” (an obvious take on “The Flying Guillotine”), neither of which were very good. However, knowing that “The Swordsman” was based off of 1977’s “Death Duel” gave me some hope as the story was rather simplistic. Interestingly enough “The Swordsman” is MUCH more complicated and convoluted than “Death Duel” was, but has some very fun moments with Tsui Hark’s legendary high flying style of Wuxia despite the twists and turns that may leave some viewers a little frustrated with the story.
It may take till the 2nd half of the film to start figuring things out, but the film opens up with a tattooed assassin named Yen Shih-San (Peter Ho) who is on his way to fight his greatest rival, the Third Master, a skilled swordsman named Hsieh Shao-Feng (Kenny Lin) only to find out that his rival had died over a month ago. Furious and heartbroken, Master Yen limps away to a remote hilltop where he prepares to die from a lingering illness that is slowly sapping his strength. Unbeknownst to him (and the viewer for a good portion of the film, Hsieh Shao-Feng has actually just abandoned his post as heir to his father’s legacy and instead given up the life of a killer, instead taking on the mantle of a humble peasant by the name of Ah Chi where he toils as jack of all trades for a local brothel. While at the brothel he saves a young girl there named Mu-Yung (Yiyan Jiang) from the life that she’s living and begins to fall in love with her.
However, his anonymity can only be held on for so long, as one of the minions of the local brothel owner recognizes Ah Chi for whom he really is and word soon gets out to all of the governing Martial arts practitioners, including his slightly obsessive ex fiancé who both loves him and desperately wants him to pay for running out on her and “playing dead”. Not only does it draw the attention of Shao-Feng’s father and his fiancé, but the death cult and Master Yen’s desire to defeat Shao-Feng once and for all leads the young man with a decision to be made. Will he stay the course and give up his life of killing, or will he once again buckle on his sword and defend his new love and adopted family from those who will stop at nothing to destroy him.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=95089[/img]Derek Yee takes a hint from writer Tsui Hark and makes the story about as convoluted and unintuitive as humanly possible. Well, maybe not that bad, but the first hour really has the viewer struggling to get all the nuances of what is going on. It’s not until the midpoint of the film where some backstory is revealed that everything starts clicking into place with Shao-Feng and his relationship with all of the players in the game. You get really quickly that Ah Chi is really Shao-Feng, but it’s all the other players on the chess board that have you scratching your head for a while. Not to mention Yee does some really sudden scene shifts that have you rewinding and double checking to make sure you don’t miss anything.
The action is top notch, but it suffers from a weird mixture of CGI soundstage and being shot on location, which can look odd when placed next to each other. The fight scenes are blast to watch as Derek Yee goes full Wuxia on “Sword Master” and the end 20 minutes is worth the price of admission just to see all the gorgeous battles. Mainly the three way battle between the warring clans and Shao-Feng’s and Yen’s intervention into the squabble. Everyone does a solid job with their roles, but my main complaint is that the story gets to be a little bit confusing as Yee weaves in love stories, the prodigal son and a bizarre mixture of backstories that aren’t explained very well unless you already have previous knowledge of “Death Duel”.
Not Rated by the MPAA
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=95097[/img]Now, on to the good parts. The digital photography for “Sword Master” are nothing short of jaw dropping. The image employs a lightly cool look that is punctuated by bright colors and deep black clothing (look at Yen, his costume is impeccably dark and inky) to make up for a very complex looking landscape. Much of the film was shot on location, but there is evidence of a stage setting as well as copious amounts of CGI that give it a bit of a strange look at times. The CGI in Hong Kong films is never as good as Hollywood, but the set pieces and costuming are to die for (this is where the Asian market shines). Fine detailing is crystal clear from the clothing up to the added scars and tattoos on Ah Chi’s face. Blacks maintain a DEEEP inkiness and I couldn’t see any major artifacting besides a flicker of banding here and there. An overall excellent encode from Well Go USA
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=95105[/img]While the video was great, the DTS:X audio track for the Mandarin language is just stunning. I was simply floored by the immersive qualities of the track and was in complete aw the entire time. Overheads, surrounds, mains, LFE, they’re all used in a complex and constantly shifting soundstage that makes the listener feel like they’re in the heart of the action at all times. The tinking of throwing stars flying through the air, or the warbling metallic flex of the thin Chinese blades as they flex and bend in the air all come through perfectly. Dialog in the Mandarin language is crystal clear and void of any imperfections or imbalances among the chaos of the rest of the action. LFE is deep and throbbing, adding a pounding low end that just viscerally beats you over the head and shoulder with each and every punch, kick and crash of stone.
• "Mastering the Sword" featurette
“Sword Master” is a fun little action/romance/adventure/revenge flick that has some absolutely stunning visuals, but seems to suffer a bit in the story department. Upon close inspection it’s pretty easy to see that the film is devoid of much substance and instead relies mostly on the visuals and fight sequences to keep the audience engaged (which isn’t a horrible thing, as many a great martial arts film is likeable based upon those criteria). My only personal gripe was the fact that the lack of cohesion with the plot makes for a frustrating watch if you’re not familiar with Tsui Hark’s writing style and the Shaw Brothers backstory in creating the narrative. The final battles are amazing though and the video looks fantastic and the audio is jaw dropping. Worth a good solid rental for those of you who love Hong Kong cinema.
Starring: Kenny Lin, Peter Ho, Yiyang Jiang
Directed by: Derek Yee
Written by: Tim Nam Chun, Tsui Hark, Derek Yee
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 AVC
Audio: English: DTS-HD MA 5.1, Mandarin DTS:X (DTS-HD MA 7.1 Core) English and Mandarin DD 2.0
Studio: Well Go USA
Runtime: 108 Minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: April 11th, 2017
Buy Sword Master On Blu-ray at Amazon
Recommendation: Solid Rental
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