This is a hard film to write a synopsis for — while every word of the one above is true, it doesn’t really do The Magic Blade justice. While directors Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-leung were making the transition from the swordplay and wuxia films with traditional actors to kung-fu films with actors trained in martial arts, Chor Yuen made a long series of films based on the novels of Ku Lung. These are proper wuxia films, but with more of a sense of fantasy than others in the genre that I’ve seen, something that’s helped enormously by Shaw Brothers’ strength in set design and costuming.
Ti Lung stars in this film as Fu Hung-hsueh, a wandering, loner swordsman who doesn’t say a lot and coincidentally wears a poncho, looking and acting all the world like Clint Eastwood transplanted into the wuxia universe. As in many of of Chu Yuan’s films, there is a struggle for power in the ‘martial arts world’; at present, Fu Hung-hsueh is reputed to be Number One. Number two is Yen Nan-fei, played by another Shaws star, Lo Lieh. He’s unhappy with this state of affairs and the film opens with him challenging Fu, only to lose out for the second time. Then, however, they’re attacked by assassins concealed under the earth and inside a tree and both are drawn into the traditional intricate web of intrigue. Fu and Yen team up with a sort of tacit understanding that their rivalry will continue later on, when they’ve disposed of more pressing concerns.
We learn that a mysterious character named Mr. Yu is trying to gain control of the martial arts world and eliminate any potential challengers, such as Fu and Yen. Central to his plan is the acquisition of the Peacock Dart, a super-weapon kept by the inhabitants of the Peacock Mansion which is so powerful that it would allow him to defeat anyone that stood in his way. Fu and Yen go to the mansion where the head of the family plans to give the Dart to Fu for safekeeping and are ambushed, again, by Yu’s assassins. Fu manages to escape with (a) his life, (b) the Dart, and (c) the eldest daughter of the head man (played by Cheng Lee), who was given to Fu to look after when the head man is fatally wounded. We follow him for the rest of the film as he works to discover the identity of Mr. Yu and fend off his many, colourful assassins. And boy, are they colourful.
Like Eastwood in several of Leone’s films, and Toshiro Mifune’s characters in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro and Yojimbo, Fu has just wandered into the situation and is initially forced to react, then becomes drawn into the conflict himself. There are a number of fantastic scenes in this film as he does battle with a large collection of different villains. There’s Devil Grandma, who cooks her defeated enemies for stew, a battle waged on a giant chess board against enemies formed up in rank and file, and a fight against a group of rather limber martial artists who arrange themselves in the shape of the character Chien (’Sword’, I think?). One lovely scene has Fu and Yen walking into a teahouse whose patrons have all been killed and are left sitting at tables, immobile, as if they’re still eating and drinking. Fu also has an unusual sword which rotates on an axis and makes a whirring sound. This makes for some really unusual choreography as well — it’s actually very well done, which I find is often a rarity for “non-standard” weapons in these films. About the only thing that might be considered a negative is some rather cheesy (nowadays, anyway) use of coloured lighting and smoke effects, particularly for the devastating attack of the Peacock Dart, but it’s easy to handle in such a fantastical film and almost seems appropriate given the fun nature of the plot.
The DVD’s got an excellent remastered widescreen transfer from Celestial in Hong Kong, and has both a Mandarin (original) and English dub, as well as English subtitles. Also included are four trailers and a 50 minute documentary on wuxia films which is great viewing, although it’s very Shaw Brothers-centric. The subtitles aren’t great, but they’re bearable.
Ti Lung absolutely owns the screen in this film, overshadowing Lo Lieh considerably and delivering an excellent performance. The Magic Blade is absolutely worth viewing for fans of his acting and also for fans of wuxia or fantasy films in general.