Goddamn You! Your kung fu is lacking...

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Sword of Justice (1980)

Background:  This Taiwanese wuxia film was originally pencilled in for a dvd release on Toby Russell's Rarescope label - it featured in a 'coming attractions' trailer alongside other films such as The Monk's Fight and Witty Hand Witty Sword.  However, it was never released.  

A couple of years ago, a well-respected German collector managed to raise enough funds through a pre-order scheme to get copies of the aforementioned films taken from the original reels, and sent out to contributors.  Sword of Justice was meant to be released in a similar deal, but if memory serves me right, a copy of the Rarescope print was uploaded onto a torrent site before this could happen.

Since then a London-based fan has added an English dub track to the widescreen Rarescope print, and made some colour corrections.  For the purposes of this review, though, I'm using the original print, which is heavily worn and features burnt-in white subtitles.

The film stars Lau Seung-Him, Yau Pang-Sang, Lucia Cheung Siu-Lan, Ma Chin-Ku and Ching Paang.

Story: A formidable assassin, Shui Yi Han, sporting his trademark umbrella sword, arrives at the abode of his victim, and ruthlessly dispatches him down a well.  This prelude sets the tone for the story: crisp, atmospheric and clinical.  Famed novelist/screenwriter Ku Long is listed in the credits as a 'planner' for this film, and the themes and execution certainly bear his hallmarks.

Hero Lung Shan Lang (Lau Seung-Him) is introduced in a scene shortly after the credits.  A badass assassin kills a man in a nonchalant manner, which is witnessed by Lang.  Lang is 'the killer killer', a man whose mission is to avenge the death of his parents at the hands of the villainous Hai Dang organisation - a guild of assassins.  The idea of killing for money disgusts him, so he wants to rid the land of these morally bankrupt individuals.  Justice, not revenge (as he explains to one man).

On his quest to eliminate the henchman of the Hai Dang, and head of the organisation himself (Kung Ling), he assists the Seven Star Alliance Escort Company, which possesses a map of the whereabouts of Kung Ling's residence.  Kung Ling sends out his best scummers to smash the Seven Star Alliance, their head Lo Chien Fang, and Hero Lang himself.  A recluse assassin, Lu Tu Hsieh, who carves a wooden eagle to mark every man he has killed, is employed.  As is Shuai Yu Liu, a weasel-voiced hardcase (played by the action director Ching Paang).  Out of Hai Dang's reach is their former premier assassin Tieh Yuan, who now lives in a small house by the beach with a woman.  He is now a fisherman, and shuns his former life.

Hero Lang visits Tieh Yuan on his path to infiltrating and destroying Hai Dang, but faces a surprising foe at the film's conclusion.

Comments:  Wow.  This is a stunning film, on several levels.  Firstly, the atmosphere and cinematography is superb, and provides a living, breathing framework for the nature of the story.  The story itself is rather confusing, and needs several viewings to truly get to grips with (unless I'm just being thick - quite possible).  On first viewing, however, I understood enough of the plot to appreciate how the atmosphere generated by the music selection, camera angles, set design, and production choices really added to the flavour of the narrative.  The fabulous framing shots and the subtle lighting add to the rich texture of imagery created by the other effective qualities.  I'll not blow the game, but the way the camera focuses on the blood dripping from a sword, as both combatants freeze following a flurry of blows, is utterly fascinating.  The mood of this movie is exquisite - haunting, poignant, and often hypnotic.

Umbrella Assassin approaches the residence of his target

This brings me onto the action, the second reason for holding this film in such a high regard.  The martial arts are very satisfying.  There's a mixture of styles on show.  In some scenes, a duel lasts a matter of seconds, before the superiority of one fighter over another is swiftly and clinically confirmed.  One brilliant moment has Hero Lang killing a man before he can even unsheathe his sword more than a few inches.  There's definitely the influence of Westerns evident in scenes like this.

In other scenes, a one-on-one fight has more meat.  One such moment - the stand out scene of the film for me - has Hero Lang dueling with umbrella assassin Shui Yi Han on a bridge in the pouring rain.  They're holding umbrellas throughout the contest, which adds to the majesty of the moment.  The entire scene, though only a few minutes long, is the perfect marriage of lighting, mood, camerawork, and well-paced action.  Faster exchanges are punctuated by long pauses, as the duelists assess each other.  Water sprays off the umbrellas and swords as moves are elegantly performed.  It's balletic swordplay, and had me awestruck the first time I saw it.

There's also group battles - one particular moment in a dry riverbed has four Hai Dang assassins attacking the head of the Seven Star Alliance.  These are nicely choreographed by the action director, and the camerawork frames the shots nicely, mixing close-ups and distance work where appropriate.

 Hai Dang archers surround the teahouse holding the head of the escort company and his four best men.

Hell on

The choice of settings is also impressive.  As mentioned, the rainy bridge is a wonderful scene, but there's also some other stunning locales - a sandy shore, a dusty quarry, moody dark streets, a windy rural expanse, and the Hai Dang HQ is rather lovely, with a small lake, leafy trees and a picturesque abode.  The backgrounds are never dull, and their impact is maximised by the production values and cinematography.

Hai Dang

Another thing that adds to the experience of viewing this film is the quality of the print itself.  I realise that in the days of high definition this and 1080i that, many people would laugh at the frazzled nature of this print.  Whole scenes are rendered almost monochrome.  I have little idea about the richness of the colours in the original print, but on this one they're often very washed out and degraded.  The following screen grabs demonstrate this:

 Hero Lang 

A bloke getting skanked by an assassin. 

Seven hard bassas prepare to fight Hero Lang on the beach 

Superb lighting and atmosphere 

In spite of the obviously bust-up nature of the print, however, I love it.  It seems to add to the authenticity of this being a little-seen rare gem, rescued from obscurity for us to enjoy, in whatever condition it remains.  A rough diamond.  Kung fu flicks often have a well-worn look, which makes watching them feel a bit flea-pit; a tad special.  It's not really a mainstream genre, and the flecks of dirt and lines on the print simply adds to the experience of enjoying something more personal and specialist.  Coupled with the mood of the film and its cinematography, it's a very pleasing effect.  I'd love to see a crystal clear print to compare to this one.  However, I find myself wondering if the extra clarity and boldness would somehow reduce this rare kung fu film experience.  It's like old battered black and white (or sepia) photographs.  They have such charm, and you can almost feel the heritage in your hands; the experiences of the item.  I'm digressing here, but the bottom line is that I love this Sword of Justice print.

And that is the ultimate bottom line really.  I think this is a magnificent film.  It's confusing on first viewing, but the technical qualities shine through from the first minute to the last. On repeated viewings, the story and characters become clearer and a new level of appreciation unfolds.  Highly recommended.

The head of Hai Dang gives out his orders 

It's the end of the road for this lass.  Note the scratches on the print, and the overall washed-out look.  Awesome. 

Little moments like this are memorable throughout - during the blustery duel against the Eagle Carving Assassin, Hero Lang has a leaf land on his face.  It stays there for ages, before blowing off.  This fascinates the Eagle Guy (below)  

1 comment:

  1. Seems like a very good movie. Love the pictures you posted from the movie