Chor Yuen, 1976
Cast: Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Tim Lei, Cheng Lee, Ha Ping, Guk Fung
Swordsmen Fu Hung Hsueh (Ti Lung) and Yen Nan-Fei (Lo Lieh) meet a year after their first fight for a final duel to the death. The stoic, lone wolf Fu and the showier, more boastful Yen put aside their differences mid-fight when Yen is attacked by a group of warriors. Fu is determined that he is the only one who will kill Yen, so they band together to hunt down and destroy the mysterious Yu, who is behind the attack. It seems Yu is an evil sorcerer in search of the legendary peacock dart, which will give him power over the underworld.
Fu and Yen race to find the peacock dart, which Fu takes in order to protect. Yu has the Peacock Mansion destroyed and one of the dart's young, beautiful protectors, Chiu Yu-Cheng (Cheng Lee) is forced to accompany the two swordsmen. Soon they are separated in order to protect the dart, Chiu gets kidnapped and Yen goes missing and is presumed dead. Fu fights Yu's bizarre and dangerous warriors to reclaim the dart and rescue Chiu, whom he has fallen in love with.
Though The Magic Blade is not in the upper tier of my favorite Shaw Brothers films, it is still well worth watching because of the odd, imaginative characters and twist-filled plot, which is based on a book by popular novelist Gu Long. I am at least partially biased against it because I prefer kung fu based Shaw Brothers films. My favorite swordplay epics are all Japanese chanbara, though Chang Cheh's One-Armed Swordsman, Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, and Wong Kar-Wai's later Ashes of Time. Originally known as Tien ya ming yue dao, The Magic Blade is part swordplay film and part standard wuxia revenge plot, though it oddly has elements of Sergio Leone's spaghetti western films. There is a ghost town, a sandstorm, a stoic, lone hero wearing a poncho and a sympathetic prostitute, among other things. What's so odd about this influence is that Leone was directly inspired by Akira Kurosawa, master of the chanbara.
Though is a sword fighting epic, there is nothing typical about the excellent choreography from Tang Chia. Though Fu is a swordsmen, he carries an interesting weapon that appears to be a machete-like sword that unlocks and spins with devastating affect. The fight scenes usually result from bizarre situations or involve Fu and Yen interacting with the oddest of villains. While all of Yu's top five killers have a specific theme and matching weapon, the best and most horrifying is an old woman known as Devil's Grandma (Ha Ping). She is witch-like, drinks blood, eats human flesh, hopes to bake our heroes into a pie and her food cart is stocked with exploding Thunder Bullets and hidden warriors. There is a surprisingly high number of female fighters in The Magic Blade, all of them evil. We even get a nice appearance from Lily Li, who has the best death scene in the film. There is also a backstabbing, transgendered assassin and the remaining villains are all outrageously costumed and brightly colored. The level of violence is surprisingly high as is the completely unexpected nudity.
Another strong point for The Magic Blade is that it is colorful and lovely to look. The cinematography is imaginative and there are a number of beautiful set pieces including a ghost town, a human-sized chess board, a tea-house full of dead patrons, the lovely Peacock Mansion and many other fantastical locales.
My least favorite part of the film were the two leads, Ti Lung as Fu and Lo Lieh as Yen. Though both actors appeared in a number of well-acclaimed Shaw films, I found Ti Lung flat and Lo Lieh unlikable. Part of the fault undoubtedly lies with the writing, which also makes Fu and Yen near invincible during the increasingly ridiculous fight scenes. The love story between Chiu and Fu is a also trite and annoying, but serves the plot. The odd erotic flavor to the film is jarring, probably because it is infrequently used. Fu's evil ex-girlfriend tries to seduce him to the dark side, there is a poor, sick girl willing to prostitute herself and a nonsensical lesbian shot that is completely disjointed from the rest of the film. Aside from this, the other plot-related non-sequitors and absurd twists felt surprisingly natural, due to the fantastic and eccentric elements that kick off the film.
Overall I recommend The Magic Blade as a worthy, entertaining installment in their long line of successful wuxia films. Image released it on region 1 DVD and did a wonderful job with the transfer, which looks too perfect to be from the '70s. There is fortunately a Mandarin language track and English subtitles, as well as a good number of trailers.
See this for Devil Grandma alone.