The wuxia pian is a cinematic genre that wanders in and out of favor among the theater going public, but it is one of the most aesthetically beautiful and emotionally moving genres in film. While there are some basic similarities between wuxia and kung fu films, both often feature wandering warriors, the differences far outweigh the similarities. Chief among these differences is the symphonic nature of wuxia narratives. Where kung fu films tell a story with a central them from beginning to end with all the intervening expository scenes necessary to define the motivations of the characters, the characters in a wuxia pian are the thematic elements. As Stephen Teo writes in Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions about wuxia auteur King Hu, "Hu is the most musical of martial arts directors. He composes his work like a symphonic piece where the recapitulation of a theme is imperative to the enjoyment." The compositional nature of wuxia as a genre is perfectly depicted in Derek Yee's aesthetically beautiful and emotionally powerful 2016 film Sword Master.
Sword Master is a remake of the 1977 Yuen Chor film Death Duel, updated with modern film effects and techniques and directed by Derek Yee who played the role of the lead character in the 1977 production. This is a film where a star performer returns to one of his key roles to direct the film with a new vision. Death Duel was a masterful wuxia film, but Yee's Sword Master has an underlying sorrowful and nostalgic emotional tone that allows it to stand on its own without any real need to be compared to the original save to mention the deeply personal connection the director has with the original film.
On one level Sword Master is a story of how two of the greatest swordsman eventually come to face one another in a fatal duel. How they get there, and their reasons for fighting, are complex. From the opening moments of the film, we know that the skull faced and doomed Yen Shih-San and the legendary Third Master of the Divine Sword Hsieh Shao-Feng must meet in a battle only one will survive. As the film progresses, the audience's emotions range from excitement at the skilled display that awaits to mourning that one of these men must die to accepting that the eventual outcome is not only necessary but beautiful as well.
Where Sword Master a kung fu film, Yen Shih-San would be pursuing Hsieh Shao-Feng for killing his master or some similar motivation and who the villain and hero is would be cleanly established. That is not the case in this tale told in sonata form, rather than straight forward narrative.
Following musical compositional stucture, Yen Shih-San represents Death and Swordcraft. From his makeup and music to his character's struggling with an illness of the soul that is killing him as sure as cancer, everything about Yen Shih-San radiates Death. When the film opens Yen Shih-San is on a quest to defeat all of the greatest swordsman in the world in order to secure his legend and to be remembered as the best swordsman of his era. He has forsaken everything in order to attain this end, he has even forsaken his obligation to protect the innocent from those who would oppress them. As a wandering swordsman, he has two obligations. To attain excellence at swordcraft and to defend the innocent. He is only focusing on one of those tasks and this has led to a corruption of his Chi, and his doom. After winning a fight in the opening sequence, he travels to the Divine Sword school in order to challenge their Third Master who is the greatest swordsman of the era. If Yen Shih-San can defeat the Third Master, his journey is complete. Sadly, Yen Shih-San discovers that the Third Master is dead and that everything he has sacrificed is for naught.
Hsieh Shao-Feng represents Humility and Righteousness. When viewers first encounter Hsieh Shao-Feng, he is known only as Ah Chi (or Useless Chi). In Hsieh Shao-Feng's first scene, he spend a night of self destructive excess in which he forsakes all of the material things in life after which he must become the janitor at a brothel in order to pay his debts. Hsieh Shao-Feng has attempted to leave jianghu, the world of martial arts, by forsaking all sense of pride and by abandoning the exercise of martial prowess. We do not know why Hsieh Shao-Feng has chosen this path, we only know that he would rather be beaten near to death than to harm another person. Where Yen Shih-San has chosen combat over Righteousness and Humility, Hsieh Shao-Feng has forsaken swordcraft for Humility and given that he defends the weak at the first opportunity (even though he does so without fighting) we know he has also focused on serving the innocent.
Each of our warriors is half of a whole. Each represents half of what a swordsman must be. Each leaves the world of martial arts, jianhu, behind at the end of the first act. But one can never leave the world of martial arts, to do so is to be destroyed and to watch those you love suffer. Such are the stakes, and so our two themes must interact in a cinematic equivalent to a developmental section and arrive at a recapitulation of the themes where they are resolved into a single theme and a warrior is made whole.
In order to accomplish this monumental task, there must be an external threat of sufficient scale to bring our heroes back into the world of martial arts and such a threat exists. With the death of the Third Master, the Divine Sword school can no longer keep its place at the top of the martial world. It can no longer protect the weak from the excesses of champions of evil who seek to spread suffering. A new school has risen to challenge the Divine Sword and to spread misery. This school provides the basis for one of multiple relationship triangles in the film. The triangle triangles of conflict include one between our two heroes and the new evil subjugating the masses, a love triangle between Hsieh Shao-Feng, his former fiancee/bride, and his true love, another love triangle between Hsieh Shao-Feng, an admirer of his fiancee, and his fiancee, a triangle representing the struggle between good and evil that contains Hsieh Shao-Feng, Yen Shih-San, and Shao-Feng's father, and another, and another, and another. There are relationship triangles to spare in this film and they each interact in ways that reveal the underlying motivations of the characters.
There is much to write about regarding the intertwining of relationships in Sword Master, but it is much better to watch the interactions of the relationships as they resolve. For in their resolution we unravel the following mysteries: Why did Hsieh Shao-Feng abandon the Divine Sword school and "kill" the Third Master? Why does the new threat exist? Why did Hsieh Shao-Feng abandon his fiancee and how can he have done so while still being a Righteous man?
All of these questions are answered in a film that is filmed beautifully with wonderful digital matte paintings that transport the audience out of our world and into the fantastic world of rivers and lakes that is the world of martial arts. The high flying swordsmanship is a joy to watch on the screen as the choreography and camera work combine to create vivid imagery that displays great martial prowess without brutality. One may never be able to leave the world of martial arts, but when watching Sword Master one finds that they don't even want to leave.