THE MAGNIFICENT SWORDSMAN interesting swordplay drama with unusual casting
THE MAGNIFICENT SWORDSMAN (1968) is quite a change of pace from the usual fast-and-furious Shaw Bros. swordplay adventures being made at the time. It has its share of action, but the emphasis is more on story and character than martial arts. It has a relationship between a man and a woman at its core, but one based on mutual respect rather than romance and it has serious repercussions for both of them. Jiang (Huang Tsung-hsin) is a wandering swordsman hero who gets the upper hand in an encounter with a gang of robbers outside a small town and winds up being asked by a dying robber to go to the town to take something of his to Xiu Xiu (Shu Pei-Pei), the robber's sister. When Jiang arrives at her house with the news, the grief-stricken Xiu Xiu attacks him with a knife and wounds him. He explains to her the circumstances of her brother's death and she apologizes and nurses his wound. To make a long story short, the chief of the robbery gang is upset that the town is "harboring" Jiang and he makes various demands. He wants Jiang and he wants 3000 taels of silver. The cowardly townsfolk want the swordsman gone and agree to pay the money. The bandits attack anyway and bring along a villain with a whip, someone with whom Jiang already has a bad history. Jiang, of course, fights them all alone and the battle extends through the entire town as the hero guides his opponents into close quarters in back alleys, stalls, stables, yards and empty shacks to pick them off one by one, although the signature fight with the whip expert takes place out in the open street.
Huang Tsung-hsin normally played bad guys, but here he's a stoic, battered good guy with a wide hat that covers his face and a poncho, making him reminiscent of Italian western heroes, with guitar-based musical cues designed to underline that connection. Ching Miao plays the bandit leader. Tien Feng plays the whip-wielding bad guy. Shu Pei-Pei plays Xiu Xiu, the robber's sister, a girl living alone who fends off the marriage proposals of her callow boyfriend and winds up earning the ire of the townsfolk for letting the swordsman stay with her. It's a dramatic role, not an action one. Shu Pei-Pei was not one of the Shaw studio's great beauties, nor should this role have been played by oneit would have been a major distraction if, say, Li Ching or Chin Ping had played it. Shu is a very good actress and her character provides the emotional core of the movie. She stands by Jiang through thick and thin, recalling Chiao Chiao's character from Jimmy Wang Yu's two One-Armed Swordsman movies, the loyal farmer's daughter who became his faithful wife.
If I have a major problem with this film it's that the action scenes are all photographed with a hand-held camera. The rest of the film isn't photographed that way, only the fight scenes. It gets incredibly distracting when the camera comes off the tripod and starts jiggling all over the place, moving in too close and panning too quickly, or moving too far away and letting things pop up in front of the lens to block the action. However, the final fight is well done and makes use of large portions of the town backlot as the hero and his opponents wend their way through stalls, shops, yards and rooftops.
Not one of the best I've seen, but different enough from the run-of-the-mill Shaw Bros. entries I've been reviewing to make it stand out.
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