Wuxia is one of the genre staples of Hong Kong cinema. In Chinese literature, tales of heroic swordsmen wandering the realm and combatting evil have a history dating back centuries. In cinematic terms, the genre can be traced back to 1925 and 'Lady Knight Li Feifei', produced in Shanghai by none other than the Shaw brothers' Tianyi Film Company.
The genre's early popularity ebbed and flowed. But in 1966, director King Hu's 'Come Drink With Me' amalgamated traditional wuxia movie elements of heroic fantasy with a more realistic depiction of violence, revolutionising and revitalising the genre. In 2000, wuxia films found a new and wider audience thanks to the success of Ang Lee's 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'. It was a huge box office success and was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning four. Its success in the west paved the way for films such as Zhang Yimou's 'Hero', 'House of Flying Daggers' and 'Curse of the Golden Flower' to be released in international markets. Now we've got screenwriter and film critic Li Yunbo's independently crowdfunded 'Wild Swords'.
The Nameless Sect, one of the most famed assassination schools during the Wangli period, was thought to have been massacred by the rival Tang-men Sect. In the bloody aftermath, star pupil and suspected culprit, Chang Weiran, disappeared.
Ten years later, a thief named Guo (Zhang Xiaochen) is arrested and escorted by the hired Wang Yidao (Jian Zhao) and his team of bodyguards on behalf of an unnamed client. Guo appears to be connected to the fallout between the two warring clans. The journey to escort the man to justice coincides with the mysterious arrival of masters who are eager to find out what Guo's relationship is to the notorious Chang. These include the masked Bai Xiaotian (Sui Yongliang), a former member of the Nameless Sect who shares a history with Chang, and Tang Wuque (Eric Hsiao), a representative of the Tangmen Sect with a ton of knives.
Ruthless clans. Friends turned rivals. A fateful duel. A dude with gruesome scar across his mouth. Flashbacks aplenty. 'Wild Swords' has a lot in common with Takayuki Yamaguchi's Jidaigeki martial arts drama manga (and, later, via Studio Bones) anime 'Shigerui'. In that tale, it is the Kogan School that is questioned by Seigen Irako and thus a lifelong animosity between him and Gennosuke Fujiki, a Kogan style student, ensues.
Chang begins as a mythical bogeyman, but what emerges is a portrait of a supremely skilled but philosophical warrior who is at odds with the "survival of the fittest" nature of his clan.
There's also a heavy dollop of Akira Kurosawa's 'Roshamon' in the way that the story of the destruction of the Nameless Sect is told from multiple perspectives, each one in increasing detail that fills in the narrative blanks. Chang begins as a mythical bogeyman, but what emerges is a portrait of a supremely skilled but philosophical warrior who is at odds with the "survival of the fittest" nature of his clan.
Although 'Wild Swords' shares a lot of the themes with these Japanese stories (and, to a degree, the American western), Li Yunbo's film is much lighter, more fun and distinctly Chinese. The visuals are arresting, while the action choreography is satisfyingly stylish and varied. It's low-budget, so there isn't much in the way of gliding through the air or dodging typhoons of raining arrows, but there are plenty of sword duels in front of stunning natural backdrops and close-quarters projectile weapon attacks. The acting is also strong, with Sui Yongliang the standout as the creepy Bai Xiaotian.
While 'Wild Swords' is unlikely to revolutionise the wuxia genre, the film's surface pleasures are considerable, with a satisfying mystery and a handful of sequences that seem almost musical in their graceful choreography and composition.