A nostalgic film of sorts combining the type of plot line common in HK films of the 1970's with the high-octane fight choreography of the 1990's plus a smattering of Mainland New Wave.
Set in the turbulent years after the overthrow of the emperor and before the Japanese invasion before WW2 the film exists in a time when traditional kung fu fights can be logically mixed with gun battles. The hero of the title is Li San aka The Swallow Thief, so named because his leaping ability is so great that he seems like he is flying. We first see him in his Swallow Thief disguise distributing money to the poor and then attacking a sex slave trafficker and freeing all the imprisoned women. But we learn that Li San's main motive is to find his kidnapped girlfriend Chinny. This quest leads him to Peking where the local police suspect him immediately but they are a bunch of boobs so Li San doesn't have much to worry about. The local militia is a different matter. Li San quickly is befriended by a woman pickpocket disguised as a boy, a Peking opera actress whom he had freed from the trafficker and a lame soldier he had helped outside of town. Unfortunately Li San also comes in direct contact with the corrupt politicians, sleazy Japanese businessmen and a depraved ex-royal who employs a man with the same fighting talents as Li San. These all collide with his quest to find the brothel Chinny has been sold to. Lots of fighting and high leaping thievery ensue.
The film has a quick pace and breezy tone punctuated by scenes of real drama. The fights are typical of the 1990's, wide camera angles close to the fighters, swingy arm style and lots of quick editing. The plentiful wire work is very similar to Crouching Tiger with people just flying horizontally thru the air or climbing walls without seeming to touch them. The acting is very good in a traditional Chinese style. The stock characters will be very familiar to HK film aficionados but it's done with enthusiasm and isn't tired. The only warning I have is that the ending isn't what you would expect from a 1990's film that starts out so breezy. The ending actually made the film better for me.
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