Sword Master (2016)
Hong Kong cinema giants Derek Yee and Tsui Hark join forces in this 3D martial arts epic
Been a while since we've dabbled in a martial arts movie hasn't it? Tonight's entry should remedy that pretty well, given the title is Sword Master. You don't get a name like that without being pretty good with a sword - unless I guess everyone else is incapable of so much as holding one and you get it by default. Regardless, the description blurb flat out tells us it's going to be an epic involving not one, but two Hong Kong cinema greats! At this rate, I don't see how it could go wrong - but then again I've thought that of other movies and been beat senseless, so let's see if this can live up to the promise of a sword or drop us a butter knife instead.
I'm going to be honest - not like I haven't been that before - the movie immediately drew my attention, well after the title credits anyways. Two people meeting on a bridge, getting ready to throw down on a stormy-looking night? One seeming more reluctant to do battle than the other, only until we get to see his full skull-tattooed face and hear that angry scream to signify playtime is over? The sweet handled sword with it's engraved blade? Why yes, you totally have my attention film. It continues that way for a while, keep me thrilled at what might be coming next - and then something happens. Without any real warning, we suddenly just shift to a different character - and then it happens again later, and suddenly things kind of just hop back and forth between a few characters.
While initially completely lost over what was happening, it turns out that the story is playing out in interwoven stories being told through the paths of four characters and two (maybe three) major clans. As the story progresses and it fleshes out those characters, it suddenly starts to make sense why it has done it - but that initial jump certainly had me worried that this crazy good swordsman from the beginning was a tease of some sort to get my interest and would never appear again. After a stint with the two newer characters it wants to focus on for a while though, it does come back to him, and indeed by the end the story actually comes full circle from the paths - leaving nothing promised and unfulfilled.
Due to the nature of all those stories flying about, it might seem a bit shallow at first. I mean, we start off with a classic martial arts rival sort of affair, only to jump to a random stranger at a whorehouse and flip between him and one of the workers for quite some time. At first, you wondering why there's this strange not-for-kids princess bride brothel story happening, but when it finally picks up it ends up having plenty of extra layers. Thoughts on killing, revenge, love, family, all that sort of stuff ends up drifting about for you to grab at if you are the type to like it.
Thanks to that long-play in the story, it also helps make at least three of the characters feel far more fleshed out. We get to see the effect that loosing a nemesis can have on someone so set on building a name for themselves, and than see a person who has essentially just lost meaning in their life find a new one. We get to see firsthand the reason for a spurned love long before we necessarily see that interaction. It manages to make all these strides without having them feel out of place or some form of jump - and it all ends up working quite well.
Of course, fights are strung about most of it, even if some of the middle has a lull in action-heavy scenes so it can focus more on characters. The fights are a fun mix of practical and CG - such as a few scenes of showing of techniques against ghostly figures akin to some video game's form of "shadow boxing" tutorial. Even though CG is in it, it doesn't feel like its done terribly and over abundantly - although there is some bad moments of CG in this movie (I'm looking at you weird flashback plastic horse thing). Still, the camera work and choreography work pretty well together, and although you don't have an overabundance of things like long-takes you also don't have to deal with absurd shakey-cam to cover up poor choreography. By the time you get to the final fight of the movie, you'll be hard pressed not to be satisfied by the action on display here.
Although there was an english dub available on the disc, I opted to leave it in it's native with subtitles - it's just a habit of mine when it comes to martial arts movies. Of course, this means that I can't really account heavily how well lines were delivered, but there is some good lines in there if the subtitles were accurate at all and some good inflections in various moments. The music sometimes felt odd - but no more so than any other modern type of movie - but never overpowered audio or foley you might be trying to hear. Costumes are a pretty diverse set, going from somewhat peasant-mundane down to "well these are obviously bad guys" skull masks. Weapons come in various forms, and most the key players feel pretty unique - although I'd wager it hard to not feel unique in a movie when your the only one with a skull-like tattoo on your face wearing that black wondering swordsman garb. There's also some fancier attire to check out in the brothel setting as well, looking like plenty of silks and paints.
This was a pretty dang fun movie. It wasn't really what I expected with it's multiple pronged story approach, although it did have elements of what I expected. Fights were fun, costumes were entertaining, and it all played out a pretty steady pace - even if that pace wasn't constant fights. Easily worth a rent for those who enjoy themselves some martial arts and sword fights - particularly of the Chinese kind - but some might be more motivated towards the love story that's in there or the deeper thought elements they could pick out of it. I'd wager best results goes to the person who just wants a decent movie with some fun action rather than someone who expects the moon on a platter, so check it out if you're looking for anything really mentioned before.