Magic Sword (Ding Shanxi, 1993)

I hope, as I ready myself to write the following admission, that honesty is something that you, the readers, value in a shit-movie blog, because even though I’ve watched Magic Sword twice since acquiring it, I honestly don’t know what’s going on in the movie, nor what late director Ding Shanxi was trying to accomplish with it. I cannot tell you most of the characters’ names, nor their relations to each other. And I really can’t remember why I wanted to see this movie so much, other than that it is rarely seen or talked about.
The plot, when boiled down of its many extraneous parts, is about the violent usurper Lord Kwan’s desire to conquer his neighboring kingdoms with superior weapons forged by Gan Jian, a swordsmith who has discovered and developed steel. There are lots and lots of incidentals. Family members decimated by Gan Jian’s singular focus, particularly his attractive wife, Mor Yi; peasants and artisans abused by Lord Kwan. A rival noble’s wife has an affair with Lord Kwan, but seems to do so only for the pleasure of tormenting him over his lack of potency. Interminable dancing and montages set to music with expository lyrics pad the film’s run time.

Magic Sword is the sort of movie where every conversation is a series of declamations stated at an ear-abusing decibel. Mor Yi decides that since Gan Jian is more concerned with swords than her, that she will imbue herself into the forging process, and then does just that, leaping into the forge. Lord Kwan threatens to sacrifice an unruly child to the forge, then picks him up and throws him in. This is, I suppose, an old-fashioned, theatrical approach to events of historical consequence. The story is set in the turbulent warring states era, though whether upon a preexisting myth or legend I couldn’t tell you. One of the great things about adapting old legends into films is the potential to show the humanity of mythic figures. Ding Shanxi apparently likes figures better than characters.

But that’s probably not fair. Ding wrote the screenplay for the 1967 Shaw Bros. film, King Cat, which is filled with characterization and dialog, even if much of it is, honestly, kind of stupid. Magic Sword makes a pair with his other 1993 film, The Beheaded 1000, his (and Jimmy Wang Yu’s) final film. Both films are special effects driven fantasy movies with cheap-but-garish sets, wild overacting and budgets stretched beyond their capacity. Both are old-fashioned in terms of direction, as one might expect from a director active since the 1950’s. The cinematography in Magic Sword is typical of Hong Kong/Taiwanese films of the nineties (everything looks as though it were filmed through a fish eye lens and the night scenes through a blue filter) which might feel incongruous if not for the early CGI effects, which are just timelessly bad.

Magic Sword is at least harmless and colorful. The battle scenes at the beginning of the film have what used to be referred to as “a cast of thousands,” although it’s closer to hundreds in this case, and the set for the forge is pretty impressive. It seems like Ding Shanxi was trying to make a technical showcase but he came up with a movie that’s not any better than the cheap and cheerful films of Chan Jun-Leung and Chui Chung-Hing.

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