I grew up weaned on movies, and television serials from Hong Kong. And my affinity and liking for the martial arts genre, stem from old Shaw Brothers kungfu movies, as well as TVB Serials adapting works of renowned author Louis Cha - like Legend of the Condor Heroes (Felix Wong and the late Barbara Yung), Return of the Condor Heroes (Andy Lau and Idy Chan), The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (Tony Leung), Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Felix Wong), and Ode to Gallantry (Tony Leung). Even today, there are countless of remakes from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and even Singapore (which always never fail to bring on the laughs with its ridiculous costumes).
While drama serials enable the rich content to be translated to screen without losing much characterization, and allow for most of the plot lines to be told, it's a different case when movies are concerned. Filmmakers from Wong Jing to Wong Kar-wai have attempted to translate his works to the silver screen, but often achieved mixed results. It almost goes without saying that you can never condense Louis Cha's works into a two hour movie without slashing 90% of the story, and making sacrifices to plot and character development, sometimes even at the expense of characters. Staying true to the source is almost impossible, so certain artistic and pragmatic liberties have to be taken.
Huge stars often find themselves attached to projects based on Louis Cha's works, because of the potential box office success, and with it comes recognition and fame. However, the quality of works are debatable. Wong Kar-Wai had Ashes of Time, a conceived prequel story of sorts to the Condor series, using major characters of skilled pugilist, and imagining them at their younger days. Some have deemed it a load of mumbo-jumbo, while others hailed it as a masterpiece. You have those that infused loads of comedy, like Wong Jing's Kung Fu Cult Master, starring Jet Li as hero Zhang Wuji, in a movie adaptation of Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. This movie was the first of two parts, and was left with a cliffhanger from a sequel that was never made. Parodies like The Eagle Shooting Heroes by Jeffrey Lau were made, but these were easily forgettable movies.
Which brings us to Swordsman, or as the novel titled, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, whom Chow Yun-Fat took on the title Linghu Chong role in a TVB serial of old. Swordsman is part of a loose trilogy of sorts, the sequels being Swordsman II starring an almost different cast in leading roles, and Swordsman: The East is Red, made solely to capitalize on the popularity of actress Lin Ching-Hsia who made her memorable comeback role as The Invinsible Dawn from the second movie. Amongst the three, Swordsman is still my favourite, even though Swordsman II had more fantastical fighting sequences, no doubt made more exciting by the charismatic presence of pugilist Jet Li. Swordsman: The East is Red, was largely wasted, and save for Lin, none of the other cast members returned, and had a totally unrelated story from the original medium.
Not that Swordsman stuck closely to the intended Louis Cha version. As mentioned, plot lines were compressed, and characters sometimes appear and disappear with hardly a fight. What worked, was how the movie managed to sample the spirit of the novel, and translate it for the screen. The script and plot was kept tight, and revolved around the intense search for a missing martial arts manual, called Kui Hua Bao Dian, which is known to give the practitioner extreme prowess, as demonstrated in the sequel Swordsman II, but with a price.
Double crossings, hidden intentions, quest for power - these are familiar themes which are played to perfection by the characters, save for one pair, our heroes Linghu Chong and Kiddo, who are caught in the web of intrigue. In short, the movie pretty much summarized the battles and craftiness of the characters in their thirst for the book, and ultimately, we see the disillusionment of Linghu Chong in matters of "jiang hu", as sung in the song Xiao Ao Jiang Hu.
And oh, the song! If there's a song that maketh the movie, Swordsman will immediately spring to mind. It's an infectious earworm, but what elevated its status rather than being just another song played during the credits or relegated to background music, was its involvement as a plot element, in the bonding of friendship, the expression of disillusionment, and also, being so integral to the development of the story, in the form of revelation of true intentions.
Naturally, since the song is important, the God of Songs of the time, Sam Hui, was casted as Linghu Chong. There were reported protests against the casting of Sam, because of his lack of martial arts background, but I would like to beg to differ. Yes he's not a natural pugilist, but don't forget, the characterization is key upon deciding who gets casted. His interpretation and portrayal of Linghu Chong, in my opinion, is spot on (miles better than Jet Li), bringing a dash of suave and impish slyness, together with strong vocals and that devil may care attitude. Stuntmen were probably roped in to handle the complex fighting stances, especially when Linghu Chong executes his Du Gu Jiu Jian (Du Gu's Nine Swords), a reputable and formidable swordsplay technique able to counter any attacks, but hey, more than half the martial arts movie out there, have stunt folk fighting in the place of actors.
The rest of the cast were also top notch, like Yueh Wah, Cecilia Yip, Cheung Mun and even Jacky Cheung in a rare villainous role, although it was a pity that for the sequel, almost all of them were replaced, yet by another strong lineup like Rosamund Kwan, Michelle Reis, Jet Li, and of course, Lin Ching-hsia.
With a rich, strong story containing the essense, adequate interesting fighting sequences, awesome cast and memorable song, it's hard to find what's not to like about Swordsman. Never mind the rumoured reports that director King Hu actually walked out of the project halfway, and had folks like Ann Hui, Ching Tsui-Tong, and even Tsui Hark himself amongst others take over in a collaborative effort, this movie delivers, and will forever remain one of my favourites of the martial arts genre.
This collector's edition, digitally remastered DVD is a gem. The visual transfers are great, and clear too, given the many night scenes and fights that the characters find themselves in. The audio however, is suspect. I watched it in the original Cantonese 2.0, and there are clearly signs of out of sync dialogue and mouth movement, leading one to suspect that some actors were acting using Mandarin, while others were using Cantonese. Nonetheless this discrepancy fades after a while, and didn't bother for too long. You can select the Mandarin track though, which also comes in DTS and Dolby 5.1.
2 trailers are included, each running more than 3 minutes long. The first is the original theatrical trailer which featured quite a number of the martial arts fight scenes. The other trailer is a recut, jazzed up trailer for the DVD, but offers nothing much else. Standard fare, these two extras.
And more standard fare are the photograph stills from the movie. I'm always puzzled why such stills are included, given that the stills are viewed from a television screen, doesn't really make much sense since they're static images. The photograph slide show, with about 20 photos, are pretty much the same content as the still photographs.
Before you dismiss the extras, the gems are actually the interviews. It's a pity that there's a lack of commentary, but I suppose having 2 interviews are at least some form of redemption. There's one with the composer James Wong, which is worth every minute of it, and the other with cast member, the current God of Songs Jacky Cheung.
Jacky Cheung's interview runs for almost 13 minutes, and contains many anecdotes including the sharing of his experiences of acting in the martial arts movie. He's more renowned for his songs and singing prowess, and it's of course a surprise that he managed to snag a supporting acting award for his role in Swordsman. I thought he put up a convincing enough performance as a scheming, double faced man.
But what's probably the best part is James Wong's interview segment, running 8 1/2 minutes long. Here he reminisce how inspiration struck him into composing that signature song with the use of the simplest of chords and combining them into the tune (the final cut is the 7th version), as well as sticking to his guns on the lyrics coupled with his arguments with Tsui Hark on aspects of the music. He also shared anecdotes on Sam Hui's style of working, and praised his delivery of that signature tune.