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It's quite ironic how the world turns, isn't it?  I received this DVD in the mail literally on the day that The Matrix: Reloaded was to hit cinemas the same night, so I decided to watch The Swordsman to basically get into the mood for the more futuristic of its cousins later on.  I know I'm going to have the brain-spike removed from my head for saying this, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Swordsman but was less than impressed with the movie I saw that night.  All I can say is that even though the DVD housed a much more confusing plot, it seemed to gel better as a movie than its contemporary counterpart did.

Swordsman, The
At the peak of the Hong Kong film industry there were two main genres - kung fu and swordplay - although John Woo managed to bring in a third one to this list later on, that being gunplay which was immortalised by his continual assocation with Chow Yun Fat.  Anyway, The Swordsman is the film that regenerated an interest in not only the use of swords in a movie, but also period costume drama which could be indirectly linked to the inspiration of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  It also spawned the age of the much overused gravity-defying "wire-fu" that the Once Upon A Time In China series of movies is most famous for - this style of filmmaking is meant as a visually symbolic feast for the eyes rather than anything that is "realistic" (much like what happens in The Matrix and even more so in its sequels).

The Swordsman had a very troublesome production as the original director King Hu deteriorated from an unknown illness (to us anyway) and nearly all future direction was replaced with Tsui Hark.  What strikes me about many of the Hong Kong films of yesteryear is that huge amounts of time is spent filming the sequences but not nearly as much attention is paid at the end for post-production of these elements with editing, sound and visual effects (if needed) - this isn't the best way about doing things but it does still give a raw energy to everything.  Fans of the genre will also say immediately that its sequel (starring Jet Li in the main role this time) is definitely superior to the original, though.

Swordsman, The
Any attempt to summarise the plot here would be like trying to play snooker with a piece of rope, it's virtually impossible.  Set in a period long ago, the characters essentially revolve around what is known to them as The Prized Sunflower Volume, a much sought-after document that is said to contain mystical passages that can increase one's martial arts skills to that of teleportation and telekinesis.

Some typically evil henchmen who pass themselves off as official representatives of The Western Imperial Secretariat steal this book from the Royal Library, then seek out to destroy what remains of the old regime and form a new society based on their dishonesty and deception for their own means.  They decide to blame all their own atrocities on a peaceful community called the Sun Moon Sect.  Along the way are two members of the ancient Hua Mountain Sect who have been betrothed to help defend one of these last remaining Imperial factions from this determined enemy.

To say anymore would confuse you to tears (if not already), but suffice to say that this is Hong Kong cinema in its most classic style.  Originally "The Laughing Swordsman", it stars the pioneer of Canto-Pop music Jacky Cheung as the hero and typecast villian Yuen Wah who is most famous for his roles in Eastern Condors and Police Story 3: Supercop.  And this is the type of film that uses many extreme closeups to hide the many trampolines and extra crew pulling on the many wires outside of frame.

Swordsman, The
And even if you can't remember the movie after watching it, you will never be able to forget the catchy song that plays throughout the film (which is meant to be a code of sorts for the plot).

Even though the source elements are obviously not in as good condition as the more expensive of other Hong Kong film productions, HKL has still pulled out all the stops to present this film in the best way possible for DVD.  Much of the moving images have major telecine wobble and pull-out that is reminiscent of the cheaply made films made way back in the 1930's for Hollywood, especially between cuts of differently filmed sequences.  However, this is probably the worst of the imaging offenders.

Colours are actually quite strong even though most of the film exhibits a pretty soft focus throughout and the blue-filtered night time sequences tend to show the worst of this with a somewhat blurry image onscreen.  Grain is quite evident but well rendered and does not pose much of a problem when viewed in full motion.  Black levels and shadow detail are for the most part strong and deep, as well as the contrast which leaves little doubt as to what's happening.  Overall, a pleasing transfer that has no doubt caused HKL many sleepless nights to deliver the best looking image conceivable.

Cripes, where do I start?  Actually, Bey Logan (the commentator for this movie) has stated for the first time about a particular man who is HKL's main sound remixer for nearly all their remastering jobs and it's a wonder that he has not been mentioned before.  He is basically the unsung hero of HKL when it comes to delivering as practical a soundmix as possible for many of the Hong Kong movies for DVD, but unfortunately I cannot track down this piece of commentary to tell you what his name is so he will remain still unsung for the moment.

Anyway, this particular film must have given him nightmares to try and sort out this terrible cacophony of sound elements into some sort of cohesive whole.  The choice to create a full 5.1 spread of this soundmix is one that wouldn't have gone astray if it were just a 2.0 one, but the occasional use of supporting sub-woofer moments is a welcome one, although the surrounds are virtually non-existant according to my ears.  The English and Cantonese audio tracks serve their purpose admirably but it is obvious at first that the lip sync is sometimes worse than what comes out of a typical Pokemon cartoon, but this is not at all the fault of even the original soundmixers at the time.

Swordsman, The
Both of these audio tracks house the same music and effects for each, which are the usual over-the-top schwings and slashes, but replacing the dialogue itself with their respective languages.  The Cantonese voices are actually distorted slightly, but the English ones sound much clearer except for some instances when they become lost in all the action around them.  Adding to this dilemma is that the English dub is usually shortened to match closely to the actor’s lips, and this becomes even more confusing when watching the subtitles that have been more eloquently translated.  And just to make things more interesting, the English voices exhibit many regional accents that come from England and its surrounding areas, which makes for an extremely interesting range to listen to (especially when you go from stuck-up tea-party varieties to the more guttural Cockney and even Irish dialects).

The opening two minutes to the film actually present the logos of the many different distribution houses that have been attributed to releasing this film in the cinema and DVD so far.  This part of the running time isn't actually the movie itself, so it's unusual to dedicate so much time to just the companies that have had a hand in its release.  Fortunately, Bey Logan makes valuable use of this otherwise wasted time by filling us in with a bit of history regarding how the Hong Kong film industry tends to work, which is not unlike what they do in Hollywood.  Unfortunately, HKL have not given us a separate chapter stop to get ahead to the start of the movie itself.

Get your pencils ready, because Bey Logan is yet again at the helm of this extremely informative audio commentary.  As much as he knows exactly what he's talking about when it comes to every one of the known and unknown cast and crew members, unforunately our own puny minds will not end up absorbing much of the intricate details that he has so willingly provided for us.  It is enough to know that there is a rich tapestry of film and theatre talents as well as ancient folklore that exists within Hong Kong (if not all the other Asian film industries), so it's worth your time to pay attention to all the little gems of information that you can glean from this man.

There are two interviews with Cecilia Yip-tong (16 min) and Yuen Wah (21 min) which are great summaries of their experiences on this film and their own careers in general.  Cecilia mainly discusses her choice of roles in all her films, how she maximises every opportunity she has with them and about the enjoyment and difficulties she had working on this film.  Yuen Wah is more interesting as he talks about his Chinese Opera School upbringing (although he does not mention that this is the same one which Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung attended) and then goes onto his experiences on this film.

Swordsman, The
A number of trailers abound on this disc, two for this film (HK-original and HKL-promo) as well as three other HKL produced ones for three other of their own DVDs.

Only you will know if this disc is for you.  If you are a fan of the series then you are probably waiting until the more popular sequel with Jet Li becomes available and you might or might not be interested in the original movie that started it all in the first place.

I'd have to say that even though I was completely bamboozled by who was who and why everyone was fighting each other, I was still strangely entertained by this mixed production bag of a story and the general direction by all involved.