Fighting with edged weapons fell into obscurity after the advent of the gun. The old European blade skills almost died out, as did the Oriental arts of Arnis, Escrima, and Silat(which were derived in part from the fighting art of the Spanish Conquistadors).
The science of blade fighting smoldered weakly for five hundred years in remote outposts of Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan where the gun never quite captured the imagination of peoples who had truly understood steel.
Recently, for reasons which are still obscure, blade skills have enjoyed a renaissance as a legitimate martial art in the United States. A sub-culture of knife fighting students has emerged which will be the audience of this excellent movie.
This film stands almost alone as an artistic representation of training and fighting with edged weapons. Early in the movie Tcheky Karyo carries off a chilling and realistic knife-fighting sequence which makes the hair stand up on the neck. He then plays the instructor, showing the viewer the simple beauty of how an art thousands of years old can be transmitted.
Peter Coyote makes us see the mental and physical journey of the student. At the climax of the movie he manages to project truly the mind-set needed to face steel with steel as he goes toe-to-toe with the true master in a duel to the death.
The training sequences in this movie are clear expressions of real techniques used in the old arts of Arnis and Escrima, with elements of European blade practice thrown in. The film could actually be studied as a training aid.
A certain amount of "Hollywood" was included to extend the final fighting sequence for dramatic effect, but this will not be noticed by the novice and should not interfere with the enjoyment of any viewer interested in the arts involved.
This film is an example of the movie being better than the book. Rubim Fonseca's book "The High Art" contained only the germ of the grim plot which the movie fully exploits. For some reason, after having his character learn the high art, Fonseca has him put the knife away in a drawer and back away from the brutal reality of the science he has learned, contenting himself with amorous conquests rather than the quest for vengeance which was the real core of the book.
This movie will have a limited but loyal audience for many years. It is sad that there will probably never be a DVD version in which the frames could be stopped to better understand the science involved.
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