Made in 1976
Director – Chor Yuen
Producer – Runme Shaw
Action directors – Wong Pau Gei, Tong Gai
Cast – Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Ching Li, Tanny Tien Ni
I have spent the last couple of years ricocheting between brain dead temp work and stints on social security. Many nights I have returned home after enduring shifts of reception work that made me despair of the human race or interviews at my local Job Service Agency fending off attempts to get me to embrace a career in telemarketing. Fortunately this is all behind me now (I have recently been successful in landing a job I like). But my challenge over the last 2 years has been keeping the nasty grey world I have inhabited from eroding my sanity. Fortunately for me I had a way – I knew of the existence of kung fu and wu xia movies. I knew the answer to my problems was to collapse on the couch, suck back a cheap bottle of rotgut cleanskin red wine, and watch a chopsockie. Whether it’s an old Shaw Brothers extravaganza or a Jet Li New Wave spectacle, there is nothing in the world like a martial arts film to blast the cobwebs from your brain and purge the toxins from your soul. It’s amazing how much the Shaw Brothers fanfare at the beginning of one of this seminal production house’s films can cheer me up (what the hell is Shawscope anyway?). A favorite movie of mine – one that I have often reached for after the greyest days – is the wu xia pian The Magic Blade, produced by Shaw Brothers and made in 1976. The martial arts film genre is a huge and varied one that has something for everyone. Those who like their chopsockies flavored with heavy doses of testosterone tend to favor the films of Bruce Lee or Chang Cheh. I prefer my martial arts films to be more on the fantastical or whimsical side. I feel that The Magic Blade delivers these qualities in spades.
I will not summarize the plot of this film as I do not want to give anything away. When I first watched this movie I knew nothing about it. As scene after scene unfolded, each more extravagant and imaginatively choreographed than the last, I literally felt my eyes widen. Many fans of the martial arts movie genre love these films for their creative audacity and The Magic Blade does not disappoint. Each scene has something that catches the attention. This might be a quirk of character, an aspect of staging, the way the choreography incorporates sets or props, or a plot development. The plot has been arranged so that the movie flows smoothly from one lavish set piece to another. The many villains of the film are enjoyably sinister to watch, and are a varied lot with each boasting a peculiar character trait. My personal favorite is the cannibalistic Devil Grandma – a vile, cackling octogenarian with a novel approach to food vending. A special mention must also go to Tanny Tien Ni, who, in her role as a femme fatale, raises smirking and sneering to Gold Medal Olympic level standards.
Against a cast of such dynamic baddies, Ti Lung holds his own as the hero of the movie. He wears a costume that, sadly, reminds me of the poncho made out of regulation blanket that my Girl Guide troop leader instructed me to make and wear to our camps when I was a wee slip of a girl. He carries this garment off with far more élan than I did, and manages to combine soulfulness and nobility in his depiction of a lone wandering swordsman. Ti Lung always ramps up the eye candy quotient in any movie he is in, but he is quite a good actor as well. There are 2 scenes which demonstrate this. The first is where Ti Lung and the film’s heroine (nicely played by Ching Li) discuss the lonely life of an itinerant swordsman in an idyllic setting bedecked with flowers. The second, set in a windswept alley, is where Ti Lung’s character interacts with a woman who has fallen on hard times and been forced to turn to prostitution. This scene is so moving it literally reduces me to tears. These 2 quite lovely and sensitively acted scenes are deftly incorporated into an otherwise pot boiling plot. They add dimension to the film without slowing it down.
A special mention must go to the art direction in this film – it is gorgeous. Exotic, beautiful, and sometimes gothic sets, props and costumes are a definite part of this film’s appeal. The colours are vivid and lush, and the detailing on many of the props and costumes is really nice. Overall, the film is very well shot. I often think of kung fu movies as being more like filmed physical theatre than the classic ‘realistic’ western films I grew up with. This sense of theatricality is pleasantly reinforced by the luscious art direction in The Magic Blade.
I am not sure what else I can say without giving too much information away. All you red blooded blokes out there will be rewarded with the sight of someone’s breasts and a tiny bit of lesbian fondling in the final scenes. All viewers (regardless of gender / sexual orientation) will find themselves rewarded with a stylishly made and well acted fantasy action that is jam packed with inventive fight choreography and leavened with doses of fruity melodrama. The Magic Blade is wu xia pian at its entertaining best. Get a DVD copy and save it up for the next time you have a particularly bad day.
August 22, 2010 at 3:22 pm
If your very good review hadn’t already convinced me, the clip would have — I definitely have to see this!
My favorite martial arts movies are the ones in which the fighters are very well matched and their bout goes on for quite some time with no blood being drawn — not just because I am queasy about any bloodletting but also because it gives you a chance to actually SEE some martial techniques. Much as I love Zatoichi, for example, he defeats his opponents in the blink of an eye, so one doesn’t get much chance to study his technique. If The Magic Blade has many scenes like this one in this clip, it’s well worth seeing…I’m definitely adding it to my list!
August 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did
August 22, 2010 at 10:53 pm
Excellent review! Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one. I reviewed it a couple months back. I didn’t like it as much as you do, but it is a really fun movie. I remember thinking that the fights were too short though.
August 23, 2010 at 3:18 am
Thanks for reading! And thanks to JP for having me here
August 26, 2010 at 12:20 pm
Having seen a few martial arts movies, my question is —
aside from Red Cliff which was phenomenol, there is so much repetition in theme and action that my feeling is that the genre has been milked dry. How much longer will it last?.
Guys correct and enlighten me.
August 26, 2010 at 3:44 pm
The genre is definitely mostly stale right now, but people like Tony Jaa are still very exciting and bringing something new to the screen. The new Hong Kong film Gallants also skillfully brings back old conventions and modernizes it for 2010.
I would say that the genre will last as long as there are quality film martial artists, which is a dying breed. In Hong Kong when most of their big names left to make films in the US (early 2000s), the industry almost collapsed and now only Donnie Yen seems to be making anything of note in the genre. At some point a new kid will emerge and re-ignite the fire.
August 27, 2010 at 12:01 pm
Well a look at the history of this genre would prove you wrong. While there maybe some dispute as to when “martial arts” films actually started, I would argue that the Chanbara era (post World War II Asian movies that were action-based, with dark and often violent characters, that also happens to be my favorite type of film) was the start of what we would now call the Martial Arts movies. Even today remakes of numerous Chanbara movies have hit the silver screen like “Zatoichi” (2003) and “Ichi” the female version of the popular character. Since then Martial Arts movies consistently are popular films among a wide array of audiences.
For example we had Bruce Lee in the late 1960’s until his untimely death in 1973. Also through the 1970’s the Shaw Brothers Studios (of which the Magic Blade emanated from) made mountains of popular films. There was also the popular T.V. series (probably my favorite) Kung Fu staring the late David Carradine. Chuck Norris made numerous popular martial arts films in the 1980’s like the Octagon and in the 1990’s through today stars like Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li and Jacki Chan routinely appear in theaters.
Moreover, even the recent and popular Hong Kong Triad and Japanese Yakuza films all have significant martial arts components in them. So either the Martial Arts film genre has been able to adapt as time moves forward, audiences simply like them even if they have been “milked dry” or both
August 27, 2010 at 6:05 pm
In response to Dr H’s comment:
When I watch these movies I do see a lot of repetition of themes, and a heavy use of stock characters and ‘stock’ situations. But I am constantly intrigued and enchanted about the ways in which martial arts movie makers over the decades have responded to these things. So many of the artists of these films have responded to these stock themes and characters in a way that required innovation, creativity, audacity and indivuduality. Of course, every genre of cinema will have its share of hacks who do make tired looking films, but mostly when it comes to martial arts movies I feel that I am not watching a genre of cinema that has become stale, but rather a cinema that offers endless variations on its themes.
August 27, 2010 at 9:53 pm
I agree Dangerous, one of the reasons martial arts films do seem to die is because they are highly adaptable and can have a vast array of back stories whether they are historical (like Red Cliff) or other time pieces to modern day street thugs. I think they are great in general.