Sword Master (2016) Review
Limp Wristed Swordplay
Directed by Derek Yee (The Great Magician, Shinjuku Incident) and produced by Tsui Hark (director of the Once Upon a Time in China franchise and Twin Dragons among many others), Sword Master is the story of a swordsman known as Yen (Peter Ho, The Monkey King) who has become a well-known entity based on his intensely devastating technique. After nearly drinking himself to death and coming to the realization that he has an incurable disease, Yen is determined to defeat his highly skilled rival before his time expires. Unfortunately that rival has passed on recently and Yen has little meaning to exist. He finds a sanctuary in a local graveyard where he digs his own grave and spends his nights sleeping in the coffin he made for himself.
Meanwhile, a town drunk known as Ah Chi (Kenny Lin, The Taking of Tiger Mountain) becomes an errand boy for a town brothel. He is teased constantly but is the most morally righteous character of the film. Ah Chi feels useless and wants to die, but falls in love with a prostitute named Princess (Jiang Mengjie). But Ah Chi has a more luxurious history than he originally implies. Could there be a skilled sword master underneath Ah Chi's weak exterior?
Every character in this film is tormented in some capacity. Yen is on borrowed time, Ah Chi welcomes death, Princess finds her work demeaning, and Chiu-Ti of the Mu-Yung Clan (Jiang Yiyan, The Four) finds little meaning in life without her beloved by her side. It's as if everyone is struggling to exist in a cruel reality that keeps them from feeling purposeful. The film was originally presented in China as a 3D martial arts wuxia film meaning a ton of wire work is involved. These sword masters fly and spin in the air like it’s an everyday occurrence. Sword Master is also based on The Shaw Brothers 1977 martial arts film Death Duel, which is credited as launching Derek Yee’s acting career.
Sword Master has a complicated storyline that moves in a constant circle between the four main characters. They’re all connected in some capacity with Ah Chi being involved in a love triangle between Princess and Chiu-ti (torn between being rich and being poor) and Yen and Ah Chi being more connected than the film originally lets on. Flashbacks and current events blur together and are often indistinguishable from one another. Something that is never explained is the training shadow/tree ghosts that appear out of thin air whenever someone is willingly teaching someone else their swordplay. While convenient, the display doesn’t seem to teach much as Yen in particular plays in a pile of leaves to “teach” Ah Chi how to fight before the ghost shadows show up.
The film is attempting to portray peace over killing as its message, but it gets so muddled along the way. Sword Master gets wrapped up in telling its story in sporadic fashion as it introduces Yen first and then jumps to Ah Chi suddenly and follows him for nearly 45 minutes before eventually intertwining the two. Derek Yee’s martial arts extravaganza has a unique look when it first begins, but it doesn’t take long for cheap special effects and lackluster green screen techniques to turn their ugly head. It also seems like Yee tries to cram absolutely every samurai and traveling swordsman and vengeful spirit reference into Yen as humanly possible. Yen is this awkward mix of Drunken Master, The Crow, and Lone Wolf and Cub and his traveling companion has you reminiscing about the Afro Samurai anime.
You don’t feel one way or the other about any of the characters. You don’t care that Yen is on the verge of death, you have no investment in Ah Chi’s pitiful climb back up from his downward spiral, you feel little sympathy for Princess feeling hesitant about the future of prostituting, and Chiu-Ti is so boring that you want the exact opposite of her desires to transpire. In addition to the shadow ghosts, Sword Master adds these little details that don’t go anywhere. Divine Might is dead set on wearing baggy cloaks and twirling capes to look cool as they walk in slow motion and wear imitation Shao Kahn skull masks and the whole albino snake hiding in Chiu-Ti’s cleavage resulted in nothing more than a Scorpion ripoff. Mortal Kombat references aren’t what you expect to find in a film like this and while the unexpected can be a good thing this is just awkward and befuddling.
Sword Master offers nothing new to the wuxia or martial arts genres. The action in the film is flashy and overdramatic for all of the wrong reasons as each sequence lasts entirely too long or is overly theatrical and silly in execution. Despite the best efforts of Derek Yee and Tsui Hark, Sword Master is a bloated action film with mediocre visuals and a cast that takes itself far more seriously than everyone else will.