In this beautifully shot wuxia epic, a powerful swordsman is haunted by the destructive impact his deadly talents have on others. Weary of the bloodshed and violence from the martial arts world, he banishes himself to the humble life a vagrant, wandering the fringes of society. But his violent past refuses to let him go quietly. The master swordsman must regain the ability to wield his sword and fight those disrupting the peace he so desperately craves.
Director Derek Yee joins forces with producer Tsui Hark to bring this classic story of a master swordsman to life. With a mixture of complex emotions and unconventional characters, Tsui and Yee believe their collaboration has created a Sword Master that will both entertain and intrigue.
Like many genres, the Wuxia Martial Arts sub-genre has its ebbs and flows. When filmmakers are punching out good stories, you have some great movies to watch. When filmmakers fail to find a balance between the fantastical flying swordplay and an emotionally grounded story, they can be a bit of a mess. Director Derek Yee's Sword Master starring Kenny Lin and Peter Ho and produced and co-written by Tsui Hark is a display of the genre's best and worst tendencies.
Yen (Peter Ho) is a swordsman, a drifter with intricate and terrifying facial tattoos who roams from one village to the next searching for his equal before he dies from the disease ravaging his body. After defeating his latest foe, he learns there is a far greater sword master out there, Hsieh Shao-Feng (Kenny Lin). After questing to find this master, he learns that the man has apparently died. Distraught, Yen takes up a life as a peasant gravedigger in a small village awaiting his death. Through happenstance, Yen learns that Shao-Feng is alive and well living as a man of peace under the name Ah Chi.
As a small child Shao-Feng served the glory of his clan. When his father told him to kill - he did so. After a lifetime of seeing death and blood, Shao-Feng cast off his family name, took the name Ah Chi became a drifter working menial jobs in peace. As he's cast off the family name, he's also cast away his infamous swordsmanship. When Ah Chi's deadly past catches up to him, only Yen can convince his rival to do the right thing and take up the sword once more if he's ever going to reclaim his honor.
Sword Master is a stunningly beautiful looking fantasy martial arts film. It features incredible stunt work, amazing cinematography capturing gorgeous scenery (albeit much of it digitally rendered), and an impressive array of characters. The story about dueling swordsmen is an interesting premise as this is a remake of the classic Shaw Bros. film Death Duel. However, the state of the art upgrade of this story doesn't completely translate as well as it could have.
It doesn't take long for one to realize that Sword Master was designed with the 3-D market in mind. The opening duel on a bridge complete with CGI scenery and falling snow would be something to see and marvel at in three dimensions. Where the film starts to hit rough patches is when it moves away from the CGI rendered universe into a more traditional, practical world without the blue screen. This world feels real and tangible. Even the fancy wirework fight sequences have a grounded and gritty feel to them. The action and character drama are far more impactful here. Then the action will shift back to the CGI fantasy land and all of the action feels weightless and loses a lot of the excitement.
Had Sword Master taken a page from The Monkey King and The Monkey King 2 and kept the film a strict CGI-fueled fantasy, it would have worked. On the flip side of the coin, had Sword Master imitated Benny Chan's more grounded and realistic Call of Heroes and kept the action strictly gritty and grounded in a form of reality, this film would have worked equally well. What stops Sword Master from being truly great is the juxtaposition of these two dramatically different styles.
The story and characters have a lot of heart and make this film a worthwhile and somewhat enjoyable experience. If you're a seasoned veteran of the Wuxia sub-genre, you may be able to tolerate the fantasy/reality whiplash easier. Go into this film for the terrific action sequences and the great performances. Peter Ho and Kenny Lin deliver some terrific characters here as the two actors are clearly in their element mixing drama with swift and violent swordplay.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Sword Master arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Well GO USA in a Blu-ray + DVD package. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc and its DVD counterpart are housed in a two-disc sturdy snapper Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to previews for other upcoming Well Go USA releases before arriving at an animated main menu with traditional navigation options.
Presented in 1.85:1 1080p 2-D, Sword Master is a damn beautiful looking Blu-ray. I've frequently tipped my hat to Well Go USA for their ability to churn out problem free Asian import masters and they continue their grand tradition with this release. Before I get into specifics, the only gripe that I have is the lack of a 3-D option as this digitally shot film was clearly designed with 3-D in mind. In 2-D, the image displays a terrific amount of detail. From the etchings on swords to the costuming to the intricately creepy facial tattoos on Peter Ho's face, the image allows viewers to fully take in and digest the image. Colors are bright with sharp primaries and warm earth colors with accurate and healthy flesh tones. Black levels are deep and inky creating a terrific sense of three-dimensional depth. Now, this isn't necessarily a fault of the transfer but as this film was designed with 3-D in mind, there are a number of CGI effects and tricks that look downright awkward in 2-D. A scene with a snake early in the film is a simple taste of this where this rough CGI rendering doesn't look convincing in 2-D, but in 3-D it'd be like the fake shark in Jaws 3 and be perfectly acceptable. Again, not really a fault of the transfer but more for the decision to limit the presentation to 2-D rather than the originally intended 3-D.
Sword Master comes packed with a thunderous Mandarin DTS:X, with English subtitles available. There is an English language version track, but I found the dubbing to be a bit difficult to appreciate so I don't recommend that unless you have no other choice. The sound of swords slinging through the air, the crash of bodies as they break through wooden structures, the crunch of stone - it's a real treat with this mix. As I don't have a DTS:X setup, the defaulting DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix is still a powerful force to be reckoned with. There is a constant immersive quality to the mix that keeps surrounds active throughout the entire run. The punches, kicks and other heavy impact sounds provide a delicious LFE presence that frequently had me saying "wow!" Dialogue is clearly recorded and is never difficult to hear. Levels are a bit up and down, some of the big action scenes can be followed by a very calm and quiet conversation making you want to reach for the volume. However, you won't need to adjust much if at all as the mix stays pretty even throughout.
For a film with this much action and impressive production design work, there is a sad lacking of even the most rudimentary behind-the-scenes bonus content. What's given is hardly worth the time it takes to press the select button.
Mastering The Sword: (HD 1:27) This is a less a bonus feature about the sword fighting in the film than it is a cast rundown, more of an extended behind the scenes sort of movie trailer.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 1:32)
I almost loved Sword Master. I liked the film, even enjoyed the story and the great performances, but I can't shake Derek Yee's handling of the realistic practical worlds with the obvious CGI-enhanced fantasy elements. The two visual stylings feel too different and at odds and don't blend well. It's still a very entertaining film and Wuxia fans should get a lot of enjoyment out of it. But this wouldn't be the film I would introduce to genre newcomers. Well Go USA has given Sword Master a terrific video and audio presentation - even if it is lacking a 3-D viewing option. Sadly bonus features are virtually nonexistent. Martial arts fans should have a good time with this one - worth a look.