Forging the Swords is one of the least appreciated films that Tsui Hark produced in the eighties, at least in part because it is the rarest and therefore the least viewed. The Hong Kong Film Archive screened it years ago as part of a Tsui Hark retrospective, and a single English review by YTSL appeared on the web.
The description provided in the review was enough to pique my interest, but the combination of its scarcity – the film was not screened in Hong Kong until 2001, nearly seven years after its premier in Mainland China – and my having read the short story by Lu Hsun from which it was adapted made my search for it all the more desperate, as did the fact that Ding Shanxi’s rather dull fantasy film, The Magic Sword, is apparently based on the same legend.
Lu Hsun’s story initially appeared in Old Tales Retold, a collection which featured old legends and folk stories processed through Lu’s sensibilities and modernistic literary style. I am less than prepared to discuss any of the social commentary that Lu undoubtedly hid in his tale, but I can attest that the film by Zhang Huaxun follows the same plot, albeit in something of a roundabout manner, although according to his own vision. This is Lu Hsun’s story, but it is most certainly Zhang’s film.
The film is set in the early days of the Zhou dynasty, in the kingdom of Chu, where the king has placed his faith in an idolatrous religion based around the “spirit bird.” He orders a master sword smith to create the best possible sword from an iron deposit. The sword smith’s wife suspects that nothing good can come of an order from a debauched ruler, and when the sword smith finishes his masterpiece – twin swords, male and female, forged with the essence of the sword smith and his wife (their hair is used in the smithing process) – hides the more powerful “male” sword.
And sure enough, the kind not only kills the sword smith, but orders the destruction of his town and family. But a soldier who had befriended the sword smith allows his wife and newborn son to escape. Years later, when his son has come of age, he receives his father’s masterwork, and leaves to seek revenge.
But the boy is meek, and cannot manage to kill the king himself. His benefactor, the soldier who spared his life when he was an infant, seeks him out, takes his sword and his head, and proceeds to use both to depose the king.
For those who know the story, it will come as a surprise that the film renders the soldier’s revenge against the king quite faithfully. It is easily one of the most bizarre sequences to be seen in Chinese film. In fact, the visuals in general reach for a sort of mythic resonance quite unlike the typical wuxia or historical films made in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. The arid desert landscapes immediately call to mind the disenchanted wuxia films made by Hong Kong film-makers at roughly the same time, like Billy Chung’s The Assassin or Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time. But Forging the Swords evokes something almost apocalyptic with its visuals, where dream and myth and brutal reality all seem so closely entwined that they cannot be easily separated.
And in a manner similar to Ashes of Time, or Tsuir Hark’s own disenchanted wuxia film, The Blade, Forging the Swords tells its story out-of-order. The temporal distortions, combined with strange dream sequences and even stranger fantastical events, makes for a sort of grotesque baroque. Forging the Swords is somewhat puzzling for a viewer so far removed (geographically, temporally, and socially) from its intended audience. I have no doubt that there is political commentary here that flew over my head like the King of Chu in one of his fever dreams, just as it likely did in Lu Hsun’s story.
It would be tempting to place Forging the Swords in context as a film in the Tsui Hark oeuvre, or as part of that short lived wave of disenchanted wuxia pictures in the early nineties, or as the continuation of the relatively less fantastical Mainland Chinese action films started by He Ping. It’s all of those, but none of them exclusively. It is firstly a visualization of myth, even if it is at least partially invented myth. And it is one of the most gloriously brutal films made in Mainland China. Worth watching, certainly – its rarity is unfortunate.