Thursday, April 21, 2016


Magic Blade is a 1976 Shaw Brothers release that blends wuxia and mystery. It was directed by Yuen Chor* (Killer Clans, Heroes Shed No Tears, Legend of the Bat) and stars Ti Lung (as Fu Hung Hsueh), Lo Lieh (as Yen Nan Fei), Lily Ho (as Yu Chin), Tanny Tien Ni (as Moon Heart), Ching Li (Chiu Yu Cheng), and Teresa Ha Ping (as Devil Grandma). The storyline is based on novels by Gu Long. 

Like Killer Clans, Magic Blade is a perfect blend of Gu Long story and Yuen Chor directing. It is gritty wuxia in that the ruthlessness of the characters and their passions are on full display on screen, it is fantastic wuxia in its swordplay choreography and use of elaborate weaponry. 

The story is fairly simple, two swordsman, Yen Nan Fei and Fu Hung Hsueh, meet during a festival to have a duel. In their previous duel a year earlier, Fu Hung Hsueh had been the victor so they are meeting for an appointed rematch. As they trade sword strikes, assassins leap in and try to kill Yen Nan Fei. This unites the men against a common threat, Master Yu who wants to rule the martial world. First he intends to kill the two swordsman who could stand in his way (Yen and Fu), then he wants to possess a mighty weapon called the Peacock Dart. This thrusts the swordsman on an adventure where they must elude Yu's assassins and obtain the Peacock Dart before he can get his hands on it. Along the way they meet Chiu Yu Cheng, the daughter of the Peacock Dart's protector and the three brave their way to Master Yu's manor. I don't want to give too much way away but the movie culminates in a wonderful final confrontation with fun twists and surprises along the way. The film itself is dark, moody but endlessly inventive with its antagonists and ambushes. 

Ti Lung as Fu Hung Hsueh
The movie puts a good deal of emphasis on the realities of a world where people spend all their time fighting. These are heroes with scars, who have drunk their fill of both wine and blood. Right from the start of the film the dialogue reveals the blood soaked haze that martial world has cast on them as Fu Hung Hsueh declares "I came prepared to kill, but I forget why I want to kill you." Yen then informs him that it is the other way around, that he is the one who wants to kill, because Fu Hung Hsueh beat him in their last match. The movie is filled with these kinds of lines and the opening does a good job setting the tone for the rest of the film. 

Devil Grandma taste's Fu Hung Hsueh's
blood and steals the show
One thing that truly sets this movie apart is the number of memorable villains. Gu Long is exceptional in this respect but in this film in particular the characters are all stark and entertaining. All the antagonists have a flair and gleam that works, everyone from the five assassins sent by Master Yu to Moon Heart, lady of the Ming Yueh Restaurant. Many are great chess players, poets and painters. But the most notable in my view is Devil Grandma played by Teresa Ha Ping (sometimes known as Hsia Ping). She is so cruel, wicked and unrepentantly nasty that is a pleasure anytime she makes an appearance. Devil Grandma is a terrifying side villain who works for Master Yu and loves to eat her foes after the've been defeated. Mid Battle she ruminates on the possibilities of 'stewed Fu Hung Hsueh, fried Yen nan Fei and braised Chiu Yu Cheng'. For me this character really steals the show. Later in the movie she tastes the wounded hero Fu's blood and declares "Your blood is delicious!". I've seen characters like this plenty of times, but rarely done this well. 
Yen Nan Fei (left)
Fu Hung Hseuh (right)

The Peacock Dart, which the heroes spend most of their time finding and protecting is a marvelous weapon. At first the viewer thinks it is simply some particularly well crafted dart or dagger, but in truth it is a metal disc fitted with darts that look like flower petals. How it works exactly is initially unclear, they state that it kills 'mysteriously'. When it is first used at Peacock Fortress by Master Chiu (the dart's original protector) it is particularly stunning and unexpected. 

But the Peacock Dart is just one among many weapons here. Weaponry has the ornamentation of costume here. Yen's sword is gilded and fitted with an unusual basket hilt, while Fu uses an elaborate spinning sword that allows for some truly spectacular choreography. 

Fu Hung Hsueh and Chiu Yu Cheng (Ching Li)
The fight scenes are all very well done. This is full throttle mid-70s style wuxia (so in a lot of ways it is reminiscent of other Yuen Chor films from this period, but everything seems particularly well oiled in Magic Blade. The action choreography was done by Tang Chia (also known as Tong Gai), who also did the choreography for Killer Clans, Avenging Eagle and many other notable films. In this particular case, I think the action sequences are quite good. 

But the fighting here is more than just swordplay. The scenes are engaging not only for the grace of movement and choreography but because they each present their own unique, chess-like, challenges. At one point there is a literal chess board incorporated into the battle. These set-ups work wonderfully because they also give the characters opportunities to exchange dialogue. Given the plethora of colorful foes, it all comes together well as a result. 

Magic Blade is a lot like Killer Clans and movies like it in that its focus is the dark underbelly of the martial world. The hero, Fu Hung Hsueh is good-hearted but perhaps weary of the bloodshed (or at least not attached to the pleasures of the world the way the other characters are). It certainly has its share of carnage and nudity (though not as much of the later as one finds in Killer Clans). But it is a touch sentimental in its approach (and I don't mean this as a criticism). There is one scene in particular, where Fu Hung meets a woman who hasn't eaten for three days and offers to sleep with him if he buys her a bowl of noodles. The whole exchange sort of shifts the focus from the  martial world to the he real one, in a very interesting way. And we find that it is a world with just as much pathos and beauty as the martial one. 
Master Chiu and his daughter
Chiu Yu Cheng 

Sometimes the wuxia films can load too many characters into a 2-hour film. This is especially a challenge if you are not acquainted with the source material. But Magic Blade manages to brim with characters from the very start and not overwhelm the viewer. I think part of this is because it does a good job establishing who each character is (even listing some of them clearly in the dialogue). Really though, I think the reason it works is because the characters are all so memorable and all contribute to the flow of the movie in their own way (and the important ones usually back again and again). 

Moon Heart (Tanny Ni Tien)
I personally love this movie. I think some people might be put off by certain elements but I still highly recommend it to wuxia fans, martial arts enthusiasts and gamers. If you like action, there are no big lulls. If you love colorful martial heroes, this film has them in spades. If you want clever dialogue and some sentiment to go along with your bloodshed, Magic Blade surely has them. It has everything I usually look for in a wuxia movie and more. 

From a gaming point of view, this is pure gold. You should be able to get five adventures and countless encounters (not to mention NPC ideas) from this. I didn't really get into them in my review much but it also has lots of inspiring locations (temples, villas, fortresses and inns).

*I have been very inconsistent with ordering of surnames on this blog, using this ordering as it has appeared this way in previous reviews on this blog page. Similarly the other names are simply in the order I most naturally lean toward. If you research these names online, surnames sometimes appear before personal names and vice versa. For example, Lo Lieh, is sometimes written as Lieh Lo. 

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