Produced and released in 1995, The Blade is seen by many HK buffs and cineastes as Tsui Hark’s best film and, for a martial arts movie, is the antithesis of his earlier Once Upon a Time in China series. You won’t find do-gooding Wong Fei-Hongs or righteous no-shadow kicks — the realm of The Blade is a very unheroic one. The Blade is down and dirty, muddy and bloody, ultra-realistic action film-making. Initially, sold as a remake of Chang Cheh’s 1967 classic The One Armed Swordsman, it actually covers much more ground and in true Hark style is a completely new take on an old genre. On its premiere, Hark described The Blade as being the martial arts movie he had always wanted to make. This is a dark, dangerous film, brutally and continually violent with a psychological edge that is uncommon in the Chinese martial arts cinema. Hark’s use of color and image is at times ravishing – there are sequences in this film that mark some of this director’s finest screen work.
The Blade stars newcomer Zhao Wen Zhao (the Buddhist monk in Green Snake) as Ting On, an orphan who has been raised by the owner of a foundry and trained in the trade of sword making. His best friend is Iron Head, played by Moses Chan (the serial killer husband from Intruder), and together they follow the strict regime of the foundry and enjoy the occasional commercial and carnal forays into the outside world. Hark’s view of this mythical martial arts world is at its misanthropic best (or worst) as we witness in the opening minutes the torture of a starving dog and the cowardly killing of a priest. Survival of the fittest and most treacherous is the way of life… fear is omnipresent.
There is a linking narration from Ling (Song Lei), the spoilt daughter of the foundry owner, who sexually teases and taunts On and Iron Head. Just as you begin to wonder what exactly Hark is up to, an emotionally shattering passage of film explodes onto the screen when On is told the real story about his father and how he had died. A superb montage sequence involving flashbacks and sword fights in torrential rain gives the film its much-needed dramatic core as Ting On sets out to hunt down his father’s murderer — a tattooed killer named Fei Lung (Flying Dragon). Fei Lung is played by Hung Yan-Yan (Clubfoot from Once Upon a Time in China 3), whose every move and word fills the screen with pure evil — an extraordinary performance.
After leaving the foundry, On is captured by bandits who mutilate him and leave him for dead — bad move!
The Blade‘s main subplot has Iron Head and Ling searching for Ting On. Maybe it’s the dusty, western-style landscape (it was filmed in China) but this section of the movie always reminds me of John Ford’s The Searchers, although with very different characters: Ling’s and Iron Head’s need to find On is driven more by guilt than by anything heroic.
Thankfully, Tsui Hark does allow some refreshingly natural characters into the story. Blackhead, an illiterate farm girl, has a tenacious grip on life but holds no illusions as to how harsh or unfair life can be. The petulant Ling receives some quite shocking, but much needed, life lessons from a village prostitute played by Valerie Chow — in another first-rate performance from this very underrated actress.
Hark and his co-writers also home in on the theme of personal identity and how important it is to peoples’ lives. On the film’s release in late ’95, HK audiences would have been extremely mindful of this notion with the looming ’97 handover to China.
If you’ve seen Hark’s Time and Tide, and liked its over-the-top action content, then prepare to be blown away by the fight sequences in The Blade. They are so well choreographed and edited that the close quarters savagery of these fight scenes can be genuinely frightening. Such a response will, unfortunately, show how slick and empty Hark’s more recent work has become (and I include Time and Tide in that). I never thought Tsui Hark would ever try and top the pole fight sequence between Jet Li and Donnie Yen which he created for Once Upon a Time in China 2 — but he has, with the final bout between On and Lung, the tattooed killer. Of all the martial arts fight sequences I’ve seen on film (video, TV, DVD etc…) this particular one still ranks, far and away, as the best.
Hark closes the film on an unexpected, humanist note about life and love — his cinematic genius almost tangible.