Dream Sword (Li Chao-Yung, 1979)

One of the most recognizable tropes of wuxia fiction is “clan intrigue.” Based only on the variety of films available in English, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that the martial world, the underground coalition of criminals, martial artists, travelling swordsmen and professional mercenaries in pre-modern China, is filled with more drama than a chat-room for expecting drag queens. But the heroes are usually outsiders, interlopers caught up in the machinations of rival clans and beautiful women with ulterior motives, written by authors whose byzantine plots all but resemble Rube Goldberg projects in their structure.
But there are not many films that deal directly with the formation of a martial arts clan, nor the way that they attain prominence within the martial world. Li Chao-Yung’s Dream Sword is actually the only one I’ve seen covering this subject. The Dream Sword is a trio of fighters, Hsia Hsang Chou, Fan Chin, and Li, who take aim at the “Six Powers,” an alliance of clans whose influence over the martial world the Dream Sword’s members deem unjust. Hsia Hsang Chou, Dream Sword’s founder and the originator of its martial arts forms, actually has other reasons for wanting to destroy the Six Powers, and Li, who never gives his full name, has ulterior motives for wanting to join Dream Sword. The only one who really devotes himself fully to the group’s stated values is Fan Chin, but even he changes after gaining power, wealth and fame. He takes a defeated enemy’s silk clothes, because he “doesn’t want to look like a simple woodcutter anymore.”

Secret identities, vengeful former lovers, and treacherous best friends and students are all par the course for even bad wuxia movies, but Dream Sword not only reconfigures them into an unusual plot, it actually uses them to real effect rather than as excuses for fight scenes. Other films in the genre make notice of the way that power corrupts, but few ever extrapolate that to the obvious conclusion that you must be corrupt to some degree in order to actively seek power. Li Chao-Yung and screenwriter Chu Hsiang-Kam subtly allude to the cruelty in the protagonists’ methods even before the finale, in which their whole little empire crumbles. The direction and writing are unusually deft for a Hong Kong/Taiwan production of the era.

It’s also rather well acted, albeit in a melodramatic style that verges in multiple scenes on outright theatrics. Lung Fei (at least a few of you would recognize him as the Evil Betty from Kung Pow: Enter the Fist), in particular, plays his character with a lot of warmth and he never looked better in a fight scene than he does here swinging an axe around like a madman. And the fighting is almost constant and mostly well shot and consistently well choreographed by the consistently good Su Chen-Ping.

Li Chao-Yung also (co)directed Jade Dagger Ninja, the movie I previously reviewed. By comparison, Dream Sword shows much more ambition, both with its plot and its thematic content. As a fan of these movies, I often find that I’m an apologist as well, defending them from critics not too different than those of pre-war China, who sought to censor wuxia novels and movies for corruption of the youth. If Dream Sword never rises above the level of lowly genre entertainment (and in spite of being very good, it doesn’t) at least one can call it entertaining. There’s a lot of breathless creativity to the fight choreography and even in some of the filming. The film strikes a sort of melancholy tone that would not be out of place in a decent western or jidai-geki.

Granted, I also liked Jade Dagger Ninja.

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