Three lords are waging battle against each other; as their battles intensify across the countryside, they are callous to the needs of their people and only want dominance over the land. One day, one of the lords is rescued by the skilled swordsman Master Ma. Merely seeing a man in trouble, Master Ma entered the fray with no desire of a reward or thanks for what he saw as his simple noble duty to defend someone in trouble. Master Ma returns to his village to find his people slaughtered and his family dead. Alone and despondent, Master Ma wallows in drunkenness and he is taken in by a street performer and soon is performing his sword technique in front of crowds so he can get money for more wine to drown his sorrows. After a failed poisoning by one of the lords, who he refused his services as a soldier, Master Ma is half blind and he and his sidekick are taken in by the lord he protected. But, this lord has another agenda and soon he manipulates Master Ma into ridding the land of his enemies.
Yellow River Fighter(1988) is a Mainland China film from the director of the Shaolin Temple film series that marked the debut of a young Jet Li. Yellow River Fighters style is one part standard swordplay action film with borrowed Japanese elements, from Kurosawalike grand army battles, to a Zatoichiish protagonist. While the film has its rough spots, overall it is quite impressive with many memorable scenes that rank up there with the best of the genre. Yellow River Fighter is not quite the poetry of Crouching Tiger and not quite the wild frenzy of Duel to the Death but somewhere in the middle, an entertaining work not without it's flaws and admirable in the scope it tries to achieve.
Why is it a mixed bag? Well, on one hand it has some large scale scenes of armies fighting, temples full of soldiers, massive scenes with extras, but, for instance, in the opening battle, we go from a large battle scene to the two lords alone, one being chased by the other, oddly the battle is just left behind. Likewise there are some fantastic location shots with terrific natural locations- a raging river, cliffs and waterfalls, and glacial mountains dripping into frozen rivers, but we return to these same locations a few too many times, narrowing the scope. Combing both of these minor quibbles, the finale begins inside a temple during a thunder/rainstorm with many people fighting, to then just the two main characters, our hero and our villain, beside a raging waterfall during a clear day. We get a cool hero, a skilled, noble man who has lost everything he cherished, suffers from a disability, but unfortunately in typical buddy film fashion, they had to give him an annoying bumbling sidekick. If the film were played straight as a more serious swordplay drama, like The Sword, it would have been far better, but for mass appeal they decided to throw in some buffoonery.
Now, the above quirks are not terribly bothersome, just awkward, and the good of the film, for me anyway, far outweighed the bad. The settings give it some great atmosphere. The fighting is not to the highest standard but is serviceable. Most of all, it has some scenes that are striking, including two sequences that are some of the most harrowing and heinous I've seen in a swordplay film. When Master Ma enters the fray trying to save his village, his little daughter calls out and starts running to him; he races to save her, but she is skewered by the evil lords lance, and the lord charges at Master Ma, his young daughter still impaled on the lance... Master Ma and the sidekick are sent to one of the evil lords castles, delivering a challenge by the lord that is using them; this kings palace is decorated with hanging bodies on the outer walls, and copses and decapitated heads along the courtyard. After barely escaping this madman, who is decapitating soldiers he feels failed him and drop kicking their heads across his pavilion, Master Ma and sidekick encounter an almost as unfriendly welcome in a valley of displaced common-folk, and it is here that Master Ma begins to realize he is blind in more ways than one.
The DVD: World Video
Picture: Widescreen. Well, World Video does not have the best reputation in terms of transfer quality, but this is a case where they are clearly making better strides in this area. While the transfer is not anamorphic, as far as older imports go, it is a decidedly clean and crisp print. There are a couple of spots here and there, general wear, and some minor artifacts, but for an independent Mainland China film it looks very good and should leave fans satisfied.
Sound: Dolby Digital Cantonese, Mandarin, and English tracks. Sound is pretty basic and unspectacular, but it gets the job done. All tracks suffer form some hollowness, but the dub is not terrible as far as dubs go, one imagines the sidekick and scene chewing villains are just as annoyingly cliched in Cantonese.
Extras: 8 Chapters--- Trailer--- Film Info--- Filmographies for Cheung Yam Yim, Yue Sing Wai, and Yue Hoi--- Web contact info.
Conclusion: Well, it is a neat little film. Certainly fans of the HK swordplay genre should check it out. Considering the shoddy state most films of its ilk, the transfer is pretty fair, surprisingly good, and worth giving the disc a look.