What started as a search to fight the world's greatest swordsman ends up becoming a poignant journey of redemption and finding inner peace in Sword Master, making it a welcomed, unexpected surprise in what should have been a standard, straightforward martial arts flick. Loosely based on the wuxia novel by Gu Long, the film toys with a disjointed narrative for the first half without exactly being nonlinear, jumping between various events and locations. But as the audience follows two strangers on separate journeys, the pieces slowly come together, gradually revealing that their paths will soon cross. How exactly is not explained in detail. Rather, the plot steadily progresses forward, sprinkling just enough tidbits to maintain interest, such as a hired assassin, Yen Shisan (Peter Ho), wandering the countryside in search for whom he believes is a worthy opponent, a mysterious Third Master of the Hsieh clan who turns out to be have unexpectedly died.
In the opening moments, we find Shisan about to duel a man wanting revenge for his brother's death, in which Shisan wins with very little effort. In this ballet-like fight sequence, the character immediately proves himself fascinating, particularly when sporting a large tattoo across his face. It looks like a bolt of lightning coming from the forehead striking down on the tooth-filled grin of a skull covering his lower jaw but strangely spread open like a hawk's wings. Later, without directly talking about the tattoos, he explains they are outward representation of how he sees himself: using his skills and talent with a sword for murder has turned him into a monster. In that brief conversation, we essentially learn his obsession to fight and possibly defeat Third Master is an effort to regain some sense of purpose and meaning in his life. That failure changed the course of his life to find a burial site near a village in need of a savior from a tyrannical crime boss.
Meanwhile, an apathetic and morose drunk vagrant wanders into the same village, working at the local brothel doing the menial, degrading jobs for a place to stay. Allowing everyone to call him useless Ah Chi (Lin Gengxin), he's a quiet, unquestioning servant that nonetheless remains interesting, largely due to Gengxin's performance. Befriending the young opportunistic prostitute Hsiao Li (Jiang Mengjie) and her poor family, it starts becoming clear this nameless stranger also carries a dark secret: he's running from a past life that won't let him forget. It's not surprising that Chi turns out to be the believed-dead Third Master, and neither is it a spoiler since the film doesn't treat it as such or as some type of shocking twist. But there is, however, a great deal of mystery constantly swirling around him while walking around with a miserably downtrodden expression, even while being stabbed multiple times to protect Li and miraculously surviving. The filmmakers simply string the viewers along until given confirmation of what they already suspected.
By the time director Derek Yee arrives at the moment when Shisan realizes who Chi really is in Sword Master, the audience is fully invested in these two men and their separate quest for meaning and atonement. While hoping Shisan chooses to use his deadly skills as a hero to protect the poor village, we cheer Chi, whose real name is Hsieh Shao-Feng, to abandon his former life in favor of a simple, humble existence as a farmer. Unfortunately, forsaking that life also means deserting the woman who has love him since childhood, the deeply wounded and clearly damaged Mu-Yung Chiu-Ti (Jiang Yiyan) who kill anyone standing in her way of having Shao-Feng back. In fact, it's her broken-hearted tale that I found most entertaining because she provides a harrowing poignancy and purpose to the high-flying dramatic action, especially in the last quarter. Her pain provides the plot with the opportunity for Shisan and Shao-Feng to find peace, as well as a good story to all the dazzling visuals and martial arts choreography.
The wandering swordsman meanders his way unto Blu-ray with a highly-detailed, near-reference quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode.
The video is continuously razor-sharp, exposing the smallest smudge and thread in the clothing while fine lines in the buildings and furniture are plainly visible in any given scene. Every blade of grass and leaf is distinct, even from a distance, and individual hairs are separate and discrete from one another. Most impressive are the lifelike facial complexions, especially the tattoos on Yen Shih-San's face. Unfortunately, much of the CG work looks cartoonish and shoddy, and the much of the photography comes with an unattractive digitally sterile appearance, the sort that makes the whole thing seem as though it were a made-for-television drama. Nevertheless, contrast is spot-on with clean, brilliant whites, and black levels are true and accurate with excellent shadow delineation. For the most part, primaries are vibrant and animated while also showing a lovely array of secondary hues throughout, especially during sunsets and scenes inside the brothel, giving the 1.85:1 image a comical, upbeat energy. However, worth mentioning is a strange effect where reds can sometimes look more purplish or hot pink, but this might be due to the stylized cinematography and not a fault in the encode.
AudioThe Third Master picks up a sword and fights his enemies once more equipped with a highly satisfying DTS:X soundtrack. Although much of the action is contained in the fronts, the design makes excellent use of the entire soundstage, continuously generating a wide, broad sense of space. The musical score and a variety of off-screen effects spread across all three channels and into the front heights with ease while maintaining crystal-clear clarity and distinction during the loudest, action-packed moments. Often, the sound of rain, thunder and leaves travel into the overheads and surrounds, along with the various flying weapons used throughout, creating an awesomely immersive, dome-like soundfield. The low-end is shockingly palpable and occasionally authoritative, digging deep into the ultra-low depths in a few spots, sending an amusing rumbling effect that rattles the walls. Amid the brash action and mayhem, vocals remain precise and understandable.
Well Go USA brings the martial arts drama to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a Blu-ray and DVD on opposing sides of the standard blue, eco-vortex keepcase. Sadly, the bonus material is wanting, sure to disappoint those impressed by the stunning production design. In fact, there is really only one supplement: a minute and a half introduction of the cast with a few bits of BTS footage called Mastering the Sword (HD). All that's left is a theatrical trailer.
Going into Sword Master, I was half-expecting the standard martial arts flick, but I was surprised to find a poignant tale about redemption and a madness driven by heartbreak. While the drama grounds the film with a sense of purpose, the wuxia action dazzles the eyes with impressive fight choreography and picturesque visuals. The Blu-ray also debuts with an excellent, near-reference quality audio and video presentation that will please owners and martial arts fans. Unfortunately, with a disappointing collection of supplements, some might want to give it a rent before purchasing while fans will be more than happy to add the film to their collection.