Jimmy Wang Yu is responsible for many vital Chinese martial arts flicks of the late 1960s and early 70s. 1971's "The Sword" is not one of them.
"The Sword" (original title: "Jian") follows the tribulations of a spoiled young nobleman who "has no worldly desires... except swords!" The man is obsessed with them, spending his fortunes on them, even keeping them nearby during sex - he is, after all, not interested in the woman, but in the blade. As the film opens, he's found a real beauty: a sword so precise that if you merely lay hair across the blade and gently blow, the hair will still be cut.
Ah, but others know this obsession is too much. "One day it will only bring your ruin," he is warned, and perhaps that day will arrive sooner than he thinks. The sword he recently obtained has only one other like it in the world, and he must have it, too, to complete the set. The new king has placed it as the grand prize in a tournament - all a trap to lure the young man, whose court has not yet joined the king's empire.
The rest is typical genre stuff of the era. Thrilling fight scenes break the monotony of a melodramatic plot and undercooked characters. The movie pulls out all the usual tricks, including a final showdown that takes place amidst a fresh snowfall. And yes, it works where it counts: those fights are mighty enjoyable, well choreographed and packed with the expected wows. "The Sword" was made shortly after Wang Yu's "One-Armed Swordsman," "Sword of Swords," and "Chinese Boxer," and in 1971 he was still at the top of his game. It shows here, with the sort of action sequences fans truly enjoy.
But there's an awful lot of emphasis placed on the in between bits, and those in between bits just don't have enough going for them to make the emphasis worth it. Despite solid opening scenes, the drama quickly falls apart. We never quite feel the tragedy of Wang Yu's character - the point of his obsession is played for more soapish, broader effect, thus diluting the potential emotional impact. And while it's admirable to see a martial arts film go for more, it never quite reaches its goals, leaving us yawning, not awestruck, by the personal story that holds the movie together.
"The Sword" arrives on DVD from Crash Cinema as part of their "Crash Masters Unearthed Classics" line.
Video & Audio
Crash Cinema proudly boasts a digitally remastered transfer on the DVD cover, but I can't buy it. With so much dirt, scratches, and other assorted print damage, and with a print that's quite washed out in spots, and a tinny soundtrack throughout, there's not a single sign that any restorations were done here. The print used still contains the same burned-in subtitles (in both Chinese and English) that likely accompanied the film on its original release. The subtitles are white and blurry; reading them becomes a major chore, especially in the later snow-covered scenes.
The only upsides to the disc are an anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) presentation and the presence of the film's original Mandarin audio - both are rarities in the world of old school martial arts on DVD. (No English dub is provided.) Yet the audio and video are so lousy that these plusses barely count.
Despite a DVD cover listing the movie's original trailer, it's not on the disc. Instead, we get trailers for two other Crash Cinema releases, taken from scratchy, ugly prints. No other extras are included.
Martial arts fans will do fine if they just Rent It and keep a heavy thumb on the fast forward button; after all, those fight scenes are well worth a look. Everyone else, however, should Skip It.
Note: For an interesting rebuttal, please visit this forum. The reader, unhappy with my opinion on the film, offers a portrait of the movie as an important work in the history of the genre. It's good stuff.