By the 1980s, the seminal Shaw Brothers Studios (formed by Sir Run Run and third brother Runme)was banging on all eight eclectic cylinders. While not pumping out the classics of their timeless tenure during the '60s and '70s, they were still churning out wonderful works of Hong Kong action expertise. From straight kung fu to fantasy epics, crime dramas and the occasional horror film/comedy, they were at the forefront of framing post-modern foreign popcorn fare. Sure, there was a decidedly cultural flourish to their work, an approach to wire-fu fighting and other exaggerated elements that made the movies stand out, but for the most part, the Shaws were challenging Hollywood at the very things it thought it did well - and showing them up time and time again. A perfect example is The Supreme Swordsman. While draped in the kind of dignity and honor of old world China, the attention to saber slashing detail and the execution of the endless fight scenes proved that Tinseltown couldn't hold a well lit lantern to these fabulous Asian kings.
As he makes his way across feudal China, challenging the greatest swordsman (and swords) of the country, the evil Qin Wu Xin has only one goal - to unseat them all and claim their weapons for his very own. When completed, his 'House of 100 Swords' will be the most revered in all the land, and he the supreme swordsman. The only problem is the famed Cold Eagle, an amazing piece of metal once owned by the now disbanded Black Magic Clan. Currently in the care of an old blacksmith and his weak-willed son Yan Bei, Xin thinks it will be a snap obtaining said item. Little does he know that the boy has been studying kung fu, and with a little help from the former fighting family, he will be trained to defend the sword's honor. As he schemes over how to secure his legacy, Xin must battle Bei for the Cold Eagle, with only the most worthy of them all capable of wielding its mighty powers.
As an early '80s example of the Shaws splash and spectacle, The Supreme Swordsman is a rapid paced delight. From the opening sequence which sees our villain strike down three other fighters in quick, well choreographed succession to the middle act which has a Three Stooges like set of monks tormenting our hero in training Yan Bei, director Li Pai-ling does dawdle. Instead, the former stunt planner recognizes the inherent value in keeping the metal blazing, and the entire film feels like one extended clash after another. This doesn't mean the movie is all action, however. Pai-ling adds interesting flourishes like a flying master, the aforementioned weird wise men, and a journey into a surreal subterranean realm where Bei finally learns the truth of the Black Magic Clan. Clearly, character and narrative arc are not as important as piling on the swordplay, and for that, The Supreme Swordsman definitely benefits. We don' need a lot of handwringing from ancillary characters or narrative splinters into unnecessary emotion. A film like this should be all stunt work, and luckily it delivers.
It helps that, for a while, we view Xin's ambition as commendable. While he can come across as an arrogant jerk, he is clearly the best fighter in the land. His House of 100 Swords idea also has an whimsical scope that makes his story so intriguing. By challenging and beating 99 of the best, he is clearly a warrior to be wary of. That's why his first comeuppance at the hand of an aging master is so memorable, both in what happens to his character and to his beloved sword. From then on, Xin is all bad, a deranged, driven villain who won't stop until he is fully satisfied. The trouble is, it takes Yan Bei about an hour to learn his value to the storyline. Before he falls in with the monks and is made into something more than an accidental hero, his spineless approach is grating. It takes everything actor Derek Yee has to keep us engaged. Once we get to the moment when things turn really mad, when the world collapses into a quasi-horror film of strange supernatural devices, his performance has prepared us for a smashing finale.
All Pai-ling has to do is maintain a high level of action and we will sit back and enjoy. The fights in The Supreme Swordsman really are something, a deft combination of the standard metal on metal byplay with outrageous sparks of physics defying genius. As the actors swoop and soar, as they stop mid-air to exchange attacks, we can see decades of future influence being formed. Everything from Big Trouble in Little China to The Matrix has found a way to incorporate such large than life theatrics into their style, and the results are riveting. Sure, the movie seems to rely solely on these nonstop splashes to move it along, and it would be nice to see a strong female character instead of some simpering, whimpering eye candy frequently tossed to the side for more mano-y-mano. Still, as a distillation of all the brothers' breathtaking cannon stood for, as a reason why Hong Kong action remains the cinematic standard bearer of such a genre type, The Supreme Swordsman is a wonder. It may not always work 100% perfectly, but when it does, it's a transcendent delight.
Representing the fabled Shaw Scope format in all its colorful design, the transfer of The Supreme Swordsman offered here is very good. Sometimes, the image is so clear you can see every detail in an actor's made-up face. In other instances, there is a softness and lack of clarity that can be confusing. It's hard to tell if this is merely a case of an old film failing to live up to the expectations of a 2011 high definition home video set-up, or if Funimation lacked the funds to really remaster the film. In either case, the movie still looks amazing, the 2.35:1 picture popping with the kind of panache that old prints of the title can't compete with.
The Dolby Digital Mono track, in the original Cantonese, is excellent, not too overmodulated, not too thin or tinny. The new English subtitles are easy to read and removable, and the overall aural aspects of the release are very good indeed.
Unless you consider a group of "coming soon" trailers any type of bonus feature, this DVD contains no real added content. Just the ads, and that's it.
While they would never again match the outright genius of something like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the work of the Shaw Brothers in the '80s continued their conquest of the action genre, a siege that would see someone like John Woo win the battle once and for all. As an exercise in action over art, The Supreme Swordsman is a wonderful metal wielding wonder. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it's packed enough to keep a contemporary viewer engaged while offering enough depth to pacify the panicky Hong Kong film purist. While they have definitely made better, more meaningful movies, this is still an excellent introduction into the wild, often unwieldy world of motion picture martial arts. With the right expectations, this will be a fun, fascinating experience.