The Lost Swordship was the first DVD I bought from the Rarescope label launched by Toby Russel and distributed in the United States by the now defunct BCI. I knew little about the film, aside from it being a Taiwanese production based on a Gu Long novel starring Tien Peng, an actor I find usually agreeable, if not good. There was little question that I would buy this disc, and the others released by Rarescope, even if I didn’t like them. It didn’t matter that I had no special interest in Choi Lee Fat Kung Fu, or in the heavily damaged print of Showdown at the Cotton Mill, or in the silly Italian-Shaw Bros. co-production, Amazons and Supermen. I would own these because they were rare, and because I wanted to do my part in helping finance more DVD releases of truly obscure movies.
For every movie that I thought was a dud (I don’t see what the fuss was over Showdown at the Cotton Mill aside from its scarcity and a really great end fight), Rarescope promised at least a couple of movies that I would kill to get a hold of in widescreen. I still want They Call Me Chivalry, Sword of Justice, and Monk’s Fight.
But I would also add that I was surprised by how much I liked a few of the movies, particularly The Lost Swordship. It is not unlike the other competent adaptations of Gu Long stories from around the time in terms of its narrative structure, but what sets The Lost Swordship apart from the films directed by, say, Chu Yuan is its mise en scene. Chu Yuan’s spectacular artificiality makes everything feel as though it were just one giant urban sprawl, that the forests through which the protagonists occasionally travel are just parks in the giant city that is the “martial world.” (Personally, I find it quite fitting that a Hong Kong film maker would choose to film it like that.)
Li Chia, director of The Lost Swordship, deserves credit for a number of things, but the one for which I thank him most is that he does more than just try to mimic Chu Yuan. The plot -- a byzantine affair revolving around protagonist Lu Nan-Jen’s family legacy, a martial arts style called “the fragrant sword,” which does not actually exist -- contains no surprises for people familiar with Gu Long, whether through his novels or the movies based on them. But Li absolutely nails the visuals. Rather than indoor sets that always look cheap or under-furnished in comparison to what the Shaw studio could muster, Li composes his film out of location shooting, natural looking sets, and even some smart, muted color schemes. In particular, it is hard not to notice that Tien Peng’s costuming towards the end of the film complements the mise-en-scene so well. Light brown against vibrant greens and other natural earth tones? My God, it’s actually... tasteful.
Not that everything is perfectly matched. The shredded skirts that the female villains wear are ghastly.
Li Chia was actually a director of some repute, having made melodramas and historical war pictures, including the very expensive 1966 Warring States period epic, Fire Bulls. His product is a cut above those of his peers in spite of it having a plot and characters which more than resemble those found in many other films, many of which feature the same actors. I would chalk this up to Li being a “real” film maker. He was clearly not content just to have some cool fight scenes, although the fight scenes in The Lost Swordship are quite decent, Li at least tried to make a movie with characterization and a coherent plot. The end result is really just a Taiwanese melodrama in which fight scenes break out. But isn’t that more than good enough?
Rarescope is gone, sadly, and missed. My buying almost all of their discs didn’t seem to help them that much. There was a brief period when Rarescope, BCI, Image, Crash, and Fusian all released Hong Kong/Kung Fu movies on a fairly regular basis, providing some great entertainment and even a chance at a few gems, like a decent copy of Pan Lei’s unusually deep action-drama, The Sword. But The Lost Swordship is special simply because, in spite of the expectations engendered by the nonsensical English title, it’s a competent genre flick that came out of nowhere. If you like wuxia movies, you should have bought a copy back when Rarescope was still in business.