Directed by Hua Shan in 1978, Soul Of The Sword is a pretty impressive sword play film that stars Feng Ku as Lu Tien-Kang, The King Of Swords, a bad ass wanderer who makes pretty short work of anyone who gets in his way thanks to his deft skills with blades of all sizes. He's pretty much renowned as the best swordsman in all the land, though his large black hat and ominous black cloak protect his identity from everyone. A young boy watches one of his duels and tries to uncover his face, but to no avail.
Fast forward into the future a bit and that boy is now a man (Ti Lung) who, thanks to countless hours of training, has become a master swordsman in his own right. Like the King Of Swords before him, our nameless hero wanders around accepting challenges from anyone who would like to prove their skills against his own. The King Of Swords hears of this newcomer, but doesn't pay him much mind and doesn't suspect that someone as new to the ways of sword fighting could pose much of a threat to his superiority. Our wanderer finds himself attacked one night, and after making short work of his female opponent, winds up befriending a doctor named Chiu, but their friendship becomes more complicated when his life starts to resemble the life of the man who he saw The King Of Swords beat in a duel all those years back.
Soul Of The Sword is just as manic a film as you'd expect from Hua Shan, the man who gave us the cult classic Super Inframan a few years earlier in 1975. The fight scenes have a palpable energy and enthusiasm to them that makes them a whole lot of fun while the plot, as grim as it gets, keeps us interested throughout. As it all reaches its conclusion the story throws more to the whims of circumstance than it probably should have, there are just far too many odd coincidences here for the story to really stand head and shoulders above the rest, but it works well enough. If nothing else, it allows our characters to develop quite a bit and it provides a context for the many scenes of combat to exist within.
Ti Lung makes for quite a surprisingly nasty and sometimes rather tortured hero. As his story plays out, even as we realize the kind of hand that fate has dealt him it's not particularly easy to sympathize with him as he tends to slaughter anyone he doesn't care for. That said, this bizarre trait is enough for his story to hold our interest and he's quite a bit more complex than most kung-fu movie heroes. On the flip side of that coin, The King Of Swords' mysterious origins aren't quite as mysterious as the writers probably wanted them to be and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out fairly early on just who he is and how he ties into our nameless hero's life.
Pulling from the Spaghetti Westerns that were popular in the sixties on into the seventies as well as from other, more popular sword play films from both the Shaw Brothers stable of films and other martial arts film libraries, the picture isn't always the most original, but it's certainly enjoyable. It moves at a very good pace and delivers some deliriously violent set pieces. A fight that takes place towards the end of the picture in the rain has got loads of atmosphere to it and is as suspenseful as it is exciting. The cinematography allows the expert fight choreography to really shine while the different blades and weapons used throughout the movie ensure that there's a bit of variety here as well.
The film is a bit goofy in spots and a few scenes will probably seem unintentionally funny to many modern viewers, but Soul Of The Sword delivers all the action and mayhem you could want from a martial arts film and then some and it does so with loads of great style. It doesn't rank with the studios' best output, but it sure is a whole lot of fun.
Soul Of The Sword arrives on DVD in a progressive scan anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer and this is another of Funimation's typically decent transfers. A little bit of print damage shows up here and there but otherwise the source material used for this disc has been very nicely restored. Colors are bright and bold and garish, just as they should be, and they really bring out the splendor of the various costumes and studio sets used throughout the film. What looks to be some mild edge enhancement pops up here and there, but aliasing and compression artifacts are never much of a problem. Some DNR looks to have been applied sporadically but it's minor and if you're not specifically looking for it, you probably won't notice it.
The Mandarin language Dolby Digital mono mix is well balanced and easy to follow since the optional English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors, though there are spots where the sound effects are a bit higher in the mix then they probably needed to be. The score sounds good, never overpowering the performers, while the sound effects are presented at the proper volume as well. It's not a track that will amaze you, but it definitely sounds as good as it needs to. An optional English language Dolby Digital Mono dub is also provided.
Extras are disappointingly light, limited to a few trailers for unrelated Funimation releases and a forced promo spot for their Shaw Brothers line that plays before you can get to the main menu screen (which also offers chapter selection).
Soul Of The Sword is everything a great sword play film should be. It's violent, it's dark, it features some fantastic action scenes and showcases some great characters and great costumes. It might not ever get the recognition that other, similarly themed Shaw Brothers classics might, but it's just as entertaining. Funimation's DVD is, as is the case with all of their Hong Kong Connection releases so far, devoid of any substantial extras but at least manages to present the film in its proper aspect ratio with your choice of language options. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.