Sword Master goes back to basics

The love affair between Third Master (Lin Geng Xin, right) and prostitute Xiao Li (Jiang Meng Jie) is almost absent in Sword Master.
The love affair between Third Master (Lin Geng Xin, right) and prostitute Xiao Li (Jiang Meng Jie) is almost absent in Sword Master.PHOTO: CLOVER FILMS

Wuxia epic plays it safe in storytelling, with a stiffly formal style from the 1970s that falls flat

REVIEW / ACTION

SWORD MASTER (PG13)

108 minutes/Opens tomorrow/2.5/5 stars

The story: This adaptation of Gu Long's 1975 novel kicks off with top swordsman Third Master (Lin Geng Xin) disavowing his calling and going incognito as a janitor in a brothel, where he meets Xiao Li (Jiang Meng Jie), a prostitute trying to save her family from poverty. His nemesis, Yan (Peter Ho), loses his will to live because his aim has always been to kill Third Master and win the title of China's top blade.

This big-budget update of the martial arts historical epic, or wuxia genre, finds the solution in going more-ish - more flying wire-work, more computer graphics, and longer fight scenes in a variety of landscapes.

Hong Kong director Derek Yee cannot be faulted for going the way comic-book movies are heading; after all, what makes money for Hollywood should rake in the moolah for Asian films too.

Yee (Shinjuku Incident, 2009) and the screenwriting team, which includes famed wuxia helmer Tsui Hark, play it safe in storytelling.

Except for cosmetic changes - literally, in the case of the face tattoo on Taiwanese-American actor Ho's Yan - the stiffly formal style is a throwback to the 1970s. Perhaps the tone is deliberately conservative, a reaction to the chilly abstraction of Hou Hsiao Hsien (The Assassin, 2015), mass choreography of Zhang Yimou (Curse Of The Golden Flower, 2006) or movie-musical sensibilities of Lee Ang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000).

The love affair between Third Master (Lin) and Xiao Li (Jiang) is so thinly worked out as to be almost absent; the audience is asked to assume its presence.

Only Chinese actress Jiang Yi Yan, as spurned-bride-turnedvengeful dowager Murong Qiudi, has the chops to breathe life into her semi-operatic part.

Meanwhile, Ho's drunk and heartsick Yan, while the most fleshed- out character of the lot, has a modernity that feels out of place in a classical setting.

Bringing it all back to basics is a laudable goal, but it should never feel this boring.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'Sword Master goes back to basics'. Print Edition | Subscribe