SWIFT SWORD – Another Shaw Bros. adaptation of Louis Cha
SWIFT SWORD (1980) is based on "The Sword Stained with Royal Blood," a novel by Louis Cha (aka Jin Yong) that was adapted by Shaw Bros. again, under its original title, a year later. (It was also made into a 1985 TV series and another movie in 1993.) SWIFT SWORD juggles the narrative around differently from the 1981 film, putting all the events from the past on their own timeline, dispensing with the need for all the flashbacks, resulting in a more streamlined, less convoluted plot line. It also takes place in a greater variety of settings, with the final battle staged on the grounds outside the mountain cave where a lost, crippled swordsman has remained a recluse. (In the 1981 film, his character was already dead by the start of the movie and seen only in flashbacks.) The character names are also different here.
The central character of the son of a slain Ming general, raised in isolation by a kung fu master, was played by Kuo Chui in the 1981 film. Here, his name is Xiaotong and he's played by Wong Yue, better known for DIRTY HO, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN and other Lau Kar Leung films. (His name is spelled Wang Yu in the credits, although he's not to be confused with the earlier Shaw Bros. star, Jimmy Wang Yu, of ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN and Chinese BOXER fame.) The lost swordsman, dubbed "Golden Snake" in the later film, is called "Swift Sword" Bai Yipeng here and his part of the story is told in the first 20 minutes of the film, although he does reappear later.
Long story short: After getting the treasure map from the cave and learning all the extra kung fu associated with it, Xiaotong goes looking for the treasure and gets mixed up with another traveler, Leng Ningzhi (Niu Niu), a female fighter dressed as a male who's just stolen gold meant to relieve victims of a drought. The gold was being carried by Xiaomei (Kara Hui Ying Hung), a girl Xiaotong grew up with. Xiaotong gets Ningzhi to agree to return the gold, but Ningzhi's grandfather (Lo Lieh) and his cohort, the "Cold-Blooded Five," get wind of the treasure map and follow Xiaotong on his quest, stealing the treasure after he finds it, and setting the stage for the final battle at the mountain cave. Ningzhi turns out to be the daughter of the lost swordsman in the cave, Bai Yipeng, and she wants to help Xiaotong fight the Cold-Blooded Five to get revenge for crippling her father. This summary leaves out a lot of narrative detail, but it's all presented pretty concisely in the film itself, packing a lot into 85 minutes.
Wong Yue is an energetic performer and skilled screen fighter, but he doesn't have the charisma or movie star looks of Kuo Chui, who played the role in the later film. Nor, given his history of playing charming rogues and lovable-to-not-so-lovable scoundrels, is he able to convey the sense of rock-hard righteousness that Kuo convincingly achieved. Also, as good a kung fu performer as Wong Yue often was, the martial arts choreography in this film harks back to an earlier, more fanciful style of Shaw Bros. swordplay, something that might have been made ten years earlier. Such an impression is enhanced by the constant shots of Wong Yue leaping up out of every steep hole he falls into or gaining entrance into compounds by effortlessly leaping over high walls whenever he needs to. This is miles apart from Lau Kar Leung. Still, the actor is surrounded by a solid cast of Shaw Bros. regulars, including fighting femme Kara Hui Yi Hung, fighting star Lily Li (in a non-fighting role as Ningzhi's mother), Ling Yun as Bai Yipeng, Lo Lieh as the corrupt grandfather, and a welcome host of dependable Shaw Bros. villains led by Chiang Tao and including Chan Shen, Frankie Wei Hung, Billy Tang, Dick Wei, Jamie Luk, and Yuen Wah.
But the real revelation here is Niu Niu (billed in the credits for some reason as "Esther"), who plays Ningzhi, the girl dressed as a boy for much of the film. Supremely cute, she just lights up the screen whenever she's in view. She has these big wide eyes and a radiant smile. She also pouts and scowls in a beautifully cinematic way and can shift from a bitter frown to a glowing smile in the blink of an eye. Candy Wen Hsueh Erh played the part in the 1981 film and did a fine job, but Niu Niu takes it to another level. Niu Niu also made a strong impression as Fu Sheng's wife in BRAVE ARCHER 2 and 3. She'd started out as a child star and can be seen playing a boy in THE SWIFT KNIGHT (1971), also reviewed on this site.
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