“The Blade” (刀) – 2011 New York Asian Film Festival Review

“This game started long ago,” Siu Ling (Song Nei), the woman who provides the voiceover for Tsui Hark’s “The Blade,” says toward the film’s conclusion.  “From one generation to the next, it never ends.”

This recurring existential state exists not only for Siu Ling, but all of the characters in Tsui’s 1995 re-imagining of Chang Cheh’s 1967 martial-arts classic “The One-Armed Swordsman.”  Tsui recasts the wu xia film as a psychedelically fractured, cubist extravaganza.  Everyone exists in a never-ending cycle of wrongs perpetrated and wrongs avenged.  The whirring blender of editing, whip pans, and frenetic movement Tsui hurls at us create a disturbingly unsettled state.

The one-armed swordsman of Tsui’s film is Ding On (Zhao Wen-zhou), an orphan designated to succeed the master of the sword-making foundry where he works alongside his close friend Iron Head (Moses Chan).  Siu Ling is the master’s daughter, who mostly out of idle boredom instigates a rivalry between the two men for her affections.  The foundry, governed by its master with strict Confucianist rigor, is an oasis from the harsh world outside its walls, where ruthless bandits terrorize the populace with wanton abandon.  Ding On later learns that one of these fearsome figures is his father’s killer, a fact hidden from him to prevent him from seeking revenge.  But in the world of “The Blade,” the act of vengeance is an inescapable destiny; Ding On takes his father’s broken sword, and goes after the killer and his gang of bandits.

The fights in “The Blade” are rendered in a series of dizzying camera movements, slicing and dicing the action to such an extent that it is often nearly impossible to discern the spatial architecture of the battles.  Tsui is less interested in capturing on film the athletic prowess of his actors (although this remains undeniable) than in creating an expressionistic universe in which violence and atrocity are as much a fact of nature as the seasons.  Tsui’s grimy atmosphere and his cavalier disregard for such conventional virtues as linear plot and character development doubtless contributed to its status as a colossal box-office bomb upon its initial Hong Kong release.

Tsui Hark proves a master of visual texture in “The Blade,” using its genre template as a springboard for his abstract action painting.  He adheres to the codes of the martial arts film in extremely loose ways, challenging our genre-based conditioning by being so uncompromising in his stylistics.  Tsui risks narrative and logical incoherence to create a symphony of sensorial overload that snowballs into a crescendo leading up to the final, climactic showdown between Ding On and his nemesis.  But the story doesn’t end there; in fact, there is no ending.  The film winds down on Siu Ling’s romantic reveries, where she lies in perpetual wait, and sometimes in need of rescue, from her two beaus, remaining in this state seemingly forever.

“The Blade” screens July 11 at the Walter Reade Theatre as part of the NYAFF section “Wu Xia: Hong Kong’s Flying Swordsmen,” focusing on recent and classic Hong Kong martial arts films.  This section includes two other films by Tsui (“Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain” (1983) and “Dragon Inn” (1992)), and his latest, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” (2010).  Tsui will attend several screenings, and will receive the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award on July 11 at the “Detective Dee” screening.  For tickets, go to filmlinc.com.