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SOUL OF THE SWORD engaging Shaw Bros. mix of romance and swordplay
SOUL OF THE SWORD (1978) is a swordplay drama from Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio starring Ti Lung and featuring several superb fight sequences involving both sword fighting and kung fu. However, it's quite different from the studio's usual swordplay films, particularly those directed by Chor Yuen (THE MAGIC BLADE) and Chang Cheh (BLOOD BROTHERS), both of whom also worked frequently with Ti Lung. This one has fewer characters and more of an emphasis on the romantic relationship that grows between "Nameless" (Ti Lung), a swordsman seeking to unseat the current "King of Swords," and Ho Lien, a young woman shopkeeper (Lin Chen-Chi) with whom he falls in love. In between sword fights, the film addresses the question of how love affects a swordsman's destiny. Complicating matters is the fact that the woman is identical in appearance to a woman glimpsed by "Nameless" as a boy in the film's opening sequence. In that scene, a swordsman who challenges the King of Swords is defeated and killed and his woman companion (also played by Lin Chen-Chi) kills herself out of grief. This incident inspires "Nameless" to excel in swordsmanship so he can defeat the "King," but also haunts him with visions of the dead woman and has tragic implications later on. Ku Feng plays Chiu I, the last of the film's three leading characters, a clever doctor who befriends Nameless and offers him advice.
Directed by Hua Shan (INFRAMAN, LITTLE DRAGON MAIDEN), the film is beautifully shot and edited and includes an important cinematic feature less frequently used in the films of Chor Yuen and Chang Cheh. Hua Shan and his cinematographer provide frequent closeups of the leading performers, adding a powerful emotional lift to the story. It helps that Ti Lung is at the top of his game here, as both an actor and an action star, and that Lin Chen-Chi is a most beautiful young actress who photographs well from every angle. This is only the third film I've seen her in (the others are SPIRITUAL BOXER, also reviewed on this site, and BATTLE WIZARD), yet I find her among the most riveting of Shaw Bros. actresses. Breaking with the conventional model of Shaw Bros. beauty, she's thin and angular with a long nose and thick lips too big for a small face but balanced by piercing eyes set wide apart and a nice space of forehead. The cumulative effect is just mesmerizing and the cameraman seems to agree.
One of the small number of significant supporting characters is Yien (Norman Chu), a rival swordsman who has unsuccessfully courted Ho Lien, only to see her fall for Nameless. His attempts to settle matters are equally unsuccessful, although he gains an ally in a vengeful swordswoman who'd lost a female partner to Nameless's sword earlier in the film. (Kung fu diva Lily Li has a cameo as the ill-fated partner, with awkward shots of a nude body double spliced in.) The large number of cast members listed by IMDb for this film is presumably accounted for by the numerous quickly-glimpsed and hastily-dispatched opponents of Nameless.
The consistently exciting action is staged by Tang Chia and includes a number of sword duels and larger-scale fights in which Ti Lung faces off against multiple opponents, including one memorable confrontation in a studio-built bamboo forest. Ti is also forced to fight without sword in more than one battle and uses his kung fu skills to great effect. The fights may not be as brutal or bloody as those found in Chang Cheh's films, but they're also far less gimmicky and stylized than those in Chor Yuen's films. This is a film that relies more on character and relationships and less on tricks and plot twists. There's a very moving and evocative Chinese music score tying it all together, a welcome change-of-pace from the mix-and-match, cut-and-paste scores we often hear in these films.
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