Tsui Hark is no stranger to making mainstream wuxia movies, having famously revitalised the old-school genre itself in Zu: The Warriors From The Magic Mountain <新蜀山劍俠> (1983) and Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻> (1991).
The huge success of the latter prompted Tsui to direct three sequels (Once Upon A Time In China II, III and V) throughout the early ’90s era with varying degrees of success (except for 1993’s Once Upon A Time In China IV <黃飛鴻之四王者之風>, where martial arts choreographer Yuen Bun took over the directing duty for the first time).
Then came The Blade <刀> in 1995, where Tsui took a sharp detour from making mainstream fares and opted for something nihilistic for a change. A change that saw the prolific director briefly returning to his roots, which recalled Tsui’s 1980 works of take-no-prisoners films seen in We’re Going To Eat You <地獄無門> and Dangerous Encounter – 1st Kind <第一類型危險>.
More like an antithesis of Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻>, with Tsui eschewing the commercial-friendly approach of its wuxia genre in favour of a down-and-dirty re-imagining of Chang Cheh’s 1967 classic One-Armed Swordsman <獨臂刀>.
The story — credited to Tsui Hark along with Koan Hui-On and So Man-Sing — is simple and economical enough: Ding On (Vincent Zhao, at his stoic best), an orphan who work in a saber foundry, discovers the truth about his father’s death has to do with the tattooed bandit, Fei Lung (Xiong Xin-Xin). However, he loses an arm while saving the foundry owner’s (Austin Wai) daughter, Siu Ling (Song Lei) from a group of bandits. Despite his physical disability, he refuses to give up and trains his only arm using the titular broken blade belongs to his late father.
At the time of its release, The Blade <刀> barely made an impact in the Hong Kong box office with just a paltry HK$3.3 million. Let’s face it, a gritty wuxia movie is hardly a crowd-puller. Not to mention the lack of big stars did contribute to the movie’s financial failure.
I admit I didn’t like it at first when The Blade <刀> was released back in the day. I found the fight scenes were incoherent and the fact that it lacked the grace unlike the one seen in his Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻> movies (for the record, my viewing exposure on Tsui Hark’s movies at the time were largely limited to Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻> franchise and comedies like the 1981’s All The Wrong Clues <鬼馬智多星> and 1985’s Working Class <打工皇帝>). I remembered it took me years before I revisited the movie and liked it better than the first time around. And having revisited the movie again recently, The Blade <刀> still resonates me a lot with Tsui’s raw energy in his direction.
He clearly wants us to see the different side of him. He may have reinvent himself as a mainstream director but he still willing to experiment with something that is beyond his comfort zone. The story may takes a backseat with this one but the way Tsui deconstructs the familiar wuxia genre is admirable enough.
In The Blade <刀>, everything here is cynical and pessimistic. Hope and love are just a wishful thinking, as evidently seen from Song Lei’s naïve character who has been harbouring her crush not only on Ding On but also Ti Tau (Moses Chan Ho). There are no heroes either, at least in the utmost traditional manner. Ding On may have been the protagonist of the movie but he’s hardly the kind of hero looking to save the day. Instead, he’s a person who is more interested in seeking vengeance against Fei Lung.
The Blade <刀> doesn’t skimp on violence and brutality while the harsh reality and lawlessness of its setting reflects Tsui’s go-for-broke filmmaking approach. He favours a lot of dizzying camera moves and extreme close-ups, which might takes some time to get used to them. The fights are messy but somehow they work well enough in this movie. The final scene, where Ding On confronts Fei Lung is easily the movie’s best moment and among Tsui’s most visceral set pieces has ever done in his illustrious career.