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.