Judge Adam Arseneau doesn't need a name to write this review.
He doesn't need a name to make you dead.
The most recent in a growing influx of Shaw Brothers DVDs to land on North American shores, Soul of the Sword improves on the standard "ultimate swordsman" plot with some stylish direction and a deliciously mean-spirited protagonist laying waste to men and women alike. Seriously, he's a total douche.
Facts of the Case
In the world of swordfighting, no one rivals the King of Swords; a mysterious figure clad in black who cuts down all challengers. After watching an ambitious man fall at his blade—and then his distraught woman kill herself in sorrow immediately thereafter—a young nameless boy vows to grow up and usurp the title of King of Swords.
Flash forward a few years, and the nameless swordsman (Ti Lung, A Better Tomorrow) is a prodigious and ruthless opponent, slaughtering all challengers in his path. To beat the King, he will need to be culling, cold and merciless as a sword.
Even though few would mention Soul of the Sword in the same sentence as other venerable and more famous Shaw Brothers titles, this martial art romp personifies all that is good and awesome about the prolific Hong Kong studio: masterfully choreographed fight sequences and skillful direction on a shoestring budget, vibrant colors and crackling audio.
The plot is as lean and mean as its unnamed hero. In the first sequence, we meet the King of Swords—he's the bad guy—and the entire movie builds up towards a cataclysmic showdown fight at the end. The unnamed swordsman pursues his goal with relentless efficiency and brutality, sacrificing love and friendship and every other currency towards his goal. Pathos is replaced with copious amounts of crimson red blood. He gets briefly entangled in a romantic relationship with a young shopkeeper girl, but the moment the swordsman realizes how much his love weakens his resolve, he pretty much gets right out of that situation.
The most likeable aspect of this film—and the only thing that really sets it apart from hundreds of other SB titles—is the inherent unlikable protagonist, the nameless swordsman, a sneering and calculating man who throws down at the drop of a hat and slaughters everyone in range. In any other film, he'd make a perfect villain. Here he's the hero by default; his opponents are even more hilariously callous and despicable than he could ever be. It is all so over-the-top and campy, it is hard not to delight in its sinister thrills and cheer on the cocky and arrogant nameless swordsman as he taunts and torments his enemies. As for the ending, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happens in the climactic duel.
Stylishly directed by Hua Shan (The 14 Amazons) Soul of the Sword is a visually advanced Shaw Brothers film, full of colorful artistic flashes and delicately framed shots. Some of it dances dangerously into hokey territory, especially the copulating montages, but thankfully these sequences are brief. As for the fight sequences, they are on par with the film as whole—good, not great. The swordplay choreography has some satisfyingly brutal moments (plenty of blood) but a bit on the stiff side, especially when you compare them to some of the other SB films. Still, it's hard to complain, especially considering the film is essentially one unending string of fight sequences.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, Soul of the Sword looks great on DVD, doubly so when compared to some of the other Shaw Brothers titles out there in the world. The transfer has clean lines, strong blacks and crisp whites. Primary colors are pleasantly vibrant, with bright greens and reds. Grain is evident and the picture exhibits some amount of softness, but not surprising given the film's age and production values. Audio is a bit dicey, but not surprising given its Shaw Brothers pedigree. The Mandarin language mono is predictably hollow, scratchy and tinny, while the English stereo dub sounds much nicer, if cornier. Don't expect a modern soundscape with this title.
Extras are predictably slim as well—we get some trailers and that's it.
If you are growing your Shaw Brothers collection—and you really should be—Soul of the Sword is a welcome addition. It might not be a classic on par with some of its seminal contemporaries, but solid action, skillful direction, and a hilariously grim plot give this title some worth.
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