Tsui Hark’s violent retelling of the One-Armed Swordsman
comes off as a revisionist spaghetti western set in
Ancient China. Zhao Wen-Zhou stars as On, a tormented
orphan who has worked at a blade manufacturer since
his father died years ago. When he discovers that his
father died saving his master from certain death at
the hands of Fei Lung (Xiong Xin-Xin), he leaves with
intent to gain revenge.
Ling (Sang Ni), his master’s
daughter, has a decidedly stranger affliction. She imagines
the world of Gong Wu to be her own private playground
of men who fight over her. On is one of her targets,
and he bears a scar she gave him when they were young.
When On leaves, she runs after him and is caught by
some bandits plaguing the countryside. On saves her
but loses his arm in the process, becoming “useless”
and unable to seek the revenge he must. He falls into
a chasm, lost to his former life.
While On recuperates far away,
his rival Iron Head (Moses Chan Ho) and Ling set out
in search for On, but instead of getting any real results
they find themselves immersed deeper in Ling's Gong
Wu. Iron Head "saves" a comely prostitute
(Valerie Chow) and then uses her for his own pleasure,
which horrifies Ling. Meanwhile, On is persecuted by
those around him as a cripple. Fed up, he takes his
father's broken blade and trains himself in a dizzying
martial arts style utilizing speed and athleticism to
compensate for his lost limb.
The concept of Gong Wu is used
by Tsui Hark for purposes of deconstruction. Gong
Wu (AKA: Jiang Hu), loosely translates to
the “World of Martial Arts,’ and is referred to as “Emprise’s
Field” in The Blade's subtitles. Hark uses rampart
voiceover from Ling to deconstruct the basic themes
and creeds at the heart of Gong Wu. Ling is an isolated
young woman who descends into near-madness as she cannot
comprehend the futility and desolation at the heart
of their world, where honor and heroism are sought through
violence, lust, and hatred. In Tsui Hark's new vision,
there is no heroism, just revenge begetting revenge
in a never-ending cycle.
Conversely, On’s story is more
traditional of the genre, as he triumphs over his inabilities
by honoring his father and challenging evil. His redemption
involves seeking revenge out of justice, and not hatred.
On ultimately becomes a force for good, a direct juxtaposition
to the darkness that Iron Head and Ling experience,
and thus the Yin to their Yang in the Emprise’s Field
that Ling tries so desperately to understand.
This sort of mixed message
is old hat where Tsui Hark is concerned. Arguably Hong
Kong's most frustrating auteur, his films can assault
the senses so completely that any semblance of an underlying
message can be completely lost. As a deconstruction
of the wuxia pian, it's arguable if The Blade really works. Unlike Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven, The Blade doesn't reach a definitive point that
subverts the genre's iconography. Instead, we get a
mishmash of stories and themes, and the probable outcome
of Tsui Hark having his cake and eating it, too.
However, artistically successful
or not, the film is undeniably visceral and engaging. The Blade is a triumph in style and film language,
utilizing techniques more associated with Wong Kar-Wai
than Tsui Hark. Regardless of any deeper message the
film may possess, this is a movie that'll stick in your
gut. It’s a visually exciting Hong Kong film and perhaps
Tsui Hark’s boldest statement as a director. (Kozo