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THE SILENT SWORDSMAN - a vintage Hong Kong swordplay adventure
THE SILENT SWORDSMAN (1967) is one of a group of Mandarin-language Hong Kong swordplay films from the mid-1960s that represent a transition from the old Peking Opera-style costume films, filled with song, to the more hard-edged, martial arts-themed films that began with ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (also 1967). While the film is endowed with beautiful outdoors cinematography (with location work in picturesque settings in Taiwan), every plot point is presented in a highly formal and theatrical manner, designed to stress the importance of the codes governing the heroes' behavior.
The plot has to do with the efforts of the Sun Moon Sect to overcome the intrigues of corrupt officers and get much-needed troop reinforcements to the border to join the besieged forces of the loyal General Yuan. When Sun Moon's leader, Uncle Hung, is assassinated, the young swordsman Master Shen is appointed head of the sect and charged with the mission of bringing the treacherous General Liu to justice and freeing the troops to relieve General Yuan. In the course of his travels, Shen becomes the object of attention of two beautiful sisters from a Northern tribe, one of whom will save the life of him and his companions at a crucial moment.
The swordplay action in the film is very simply staged, without a great deal of attention to martial skills or styles. It's more like a standard Hollywood swashbuckler than a Japanese samurai film or later HK swordplay films like THE NEW ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971), in which the variety of weapons and the staging of the fights took center stage. What's more important in this film is the interplay of loyalties and obligations. The characters generally act together as a group. While the hero, Shen, undertakes part of his mission alone, he is clearly acting for the group and consults with them and reunites with them before any major action is taken. Everything is discussed and certain harsh actions are seen as absolutely necessary to fulfill the group's codes, as when a revered teacher must confront and punish his own child after the boy has unwittingly revealed a sect member's hiding place as a result of being tricked by the enemy officer. The women in the group are all treated as equal partners in any decisions made and actions taken.
The movie is filled with all sorts of interesting details that may seem old-fashioned to modern HK fans, but will be fascinating to those who wish to explore the roots of HK cinema. In one scene, Shen visits the camp of the Northern fur-clad tribe (never identified, but possibly Mongol or Tartar) and enjoys a feast and watches an elaborate ethnic song and dance performance. There are several songs on the soundtrack, including one lip-sync'd by the hero as he practices his swordplay in the great outdoors.
The performers include such old HK hands as Tien Feng (as Master Wu of the Sun Moon Sect), Yang Chih Ching (as Uncle Hung), Chiao Chiao (Jimmy Wang Yu's wife in ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN), and, in smaller roles, Wu Ma and Lo Lieh. The hero, who is made up and costumed to resemble Jimmy Wang Yu in his 1960s swordplay films, is played by a young Chang Yi, who, ten years later would pop up as a formidable villain in many fine kung fu films of the late 1970s (SHAOLIN TRAITOROUS, CHALLENGE OF DEATH, EAGLE'S CLAW, etc.).
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