Tsui Hark had made wuxia films before Swordsman, but The Butterfly Murders was an offbeat blend of genres, including horror and science fiction, and Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain was an unorthodox attempt to merge wuxia with Western-style special effects fantasy films. Swordsman, which is an adaptation of a classic wuxia novel of the ’60s written by Jin Yong (Louis Cha) and which was originally meant to be directed by the classic wuxia director par excellence, King Hu, is a much more old-fashioned, traditional affair. Compared to Chor Yuen’s wuxia films of the ’70s and ’80s it looks more naturalistic, with abundant use of location shooting, although at the same time it pushes the development of wire-enhanced flight to new and more fanciful levels. It’s also true that while this film isn’t the genre-blender that some of Tsui’s other films are, it contains a heavy enough helping of Tsui’s usual populist, slapstick comedy to make it a far less sober , literary version of wuxia than, say, Patrick Tam’s anguished The Sword (1980) or Ann Hui’s Jin Yong adaptation, The Romance of Book and Sword (1987).
The original title of the film, which is also the title of the Jin Yong novel, literally means “smiling and proud in the martial world,” at least according to Calvin McMillin at Love HK Film. (I know that “jiang hu” is the term for the martial world, or underworld, of wuxia, where swordsman and other outlaws and outsiders live.) Sam Hui plays Ling Wu Chung, the “laughing swordsman” who likes to drink and sing. He and his sidekick, Kiddo (Cecilia Yip), who is disguised as a boy, are members of sect of swordsmen sent by their master to deliver a message to another swordsman. They thereby get entangled in a multiplex struggle to find a scroll that purports to hold the secret to supernatural powers. As typical in the wuxia genre, this is no clear cut good vs evil struggle, but rather a welter of conflicting factions and agendas in which allies and enemies shift from one side to another. If there’s a moral division explored, it’s between those who pursue power in the form of the scroll and those like Ling who attempt to remain carefree, but while Ling is the sympathetic hero, his attempt to remain free from the struggle for power is more of an ideal than a practice.
Swordsman is famous for having had multiple directors work on it after King Hu left the project. IMDb lists six directors, including, in fact, Ann Hui. It is also famous, therefore, for having a wildly mixed tone, which I suppose is true, although not actually all that unusual for Hong Kong films of the era. More problematic to me is Sam Hui as the protagonist. Hui was a very popular comedian (thus the “laughing” part, I guess), but I haven’t seen any of his comedies, as far as I know, so I don’t think it’s that he feels misplaced for the genre. I just find his performance unconvincing for some reason, and his martial arts ability certainly pales compared to Jet Li, who took over the role for the sequel.
One of King Hu’s strengths was his depiction of warrior women (cf Golden Swallow in Come Drink with Me and Yang Hui-ching in A Touch of Zen), and in my no doubt simplistic understanding of Chinese film history I’ve always understood Tsui Hark to be one of his disciples on that front. Swordsman has three main female characters, starting with Ling’s sidekick, Kiddo, who is (like Golden Swallow) a woman who disguises herself as a boy. This is a common trope in wuxia, as in Shakespeare, but Tsui often plays it in a very modern, gender-bending way. Here, however, I find Kiddo kind of annoying, perhaps because she’s meant to be an annoying younger sibling sort, but also because the slapstick around the danger that her gender will be revealed feels tired. More interesting are Sharla Cheung as Ren Ying Ying, who is the leader of the Sun Moon Sect who eventually sides with Ling against the factions pursuing the scroll, and her lieutenant, Blue Phoenix (Fannie Yuen), who wields snakes and bees as weapons. Both are effective warriors, although Blue Phoenix is also liable to screw things up through her disobedience. There is more than a hint of romantic feelings between Ren and Ling, and Ren performs one of those poison-removal rituals on Ling that are so common in wuxia (see Come Drink with Me) and so weirdly erotic.
There’s something slightly off about the Swordsman, but I don’t think I can put my finger on what it is. Maybe it’s just too many cooks spoiling the stew. However, most of the ingredients of the stew seem just fine, with the traditional evil eunuch who schemes for and against the imperial court, nice secondary roles for favorite actors Wu Man and Lam Ching Ying as old friends who oppose the evil eunuch and perform the title song together with Ling, and a wonderful old beggar in the forest who turns out to be more than he seems. Tsui and his collaborators would go on to create something altogether more powerful in Swordsman II, and then something altogether weirder and wilder in Swordsman III: The East Is Red. Swordsman is somewhat disappointing compared to those two, but it’s a step in Tsui’s development.