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Sam Hui as the happy Ling Wu-Chung in Swordsman
Chinese: 笑傲江湖  
Year: 1990
Director: King Hu, Tsui Hark, Ching Siu-Tung, Raymond Lee Wai-Man, Andrew Kam Yeung-Wah, Ann Hui On-Wah
Producer: Tsui Hark
Action: Ching Siu-Tung
Cast: Sam Hui Koon-Kit, Cecillia Yip Tung, Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau, Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying, Cheung Man, Yuen Wah, Lam Ching-Ying, Lau Siu-Ming, Lau Shun, Wu Ma
The Skinny: The first part of an epic trilogy of films that would help revitalize the lagging martial arts genre and later feature such HK superstars as Jet Li and Brigitte Lin in career-solidifying roles.
Review by

"And it is not in every hero's heart to want to become the one true hero amongst heroes." So begins the Tsui Hark-produced film Swordsman, based on the Jin Yong (Louis Cha) wuxia novel Xiao Ao Jiang Hu (Smiling and Proud in the Martial World). This movie, along with the popular Once Upon a Time in China series, helped revitalize the martial arts genre within Hong Kong's film industry. Most converts to HK Cinema are at least familiar with this film's sequels, Swordsman II and Swordsman III: The East is Red, which feature such superstars as Jet Li (II only) and Brigitte Lin (II & III). But it is in the 1990 film Swordsman that the epic story truly begins.

Set in the Ming Dynasty, Swordsman tells the story of the happy-go-lucky Ling Wu-Chung (Sam Hui), a man who's as adept at drinking and singing as he is at swordplay, and his tomboy sidekick Kiddo (Cecilia Yip). The duo are given the simple task of delivering their master's message to another swordsman, only to find themselves embroiled in a bloody struggle for dominance in the martial arts world. Unbeknownst to Ling and Kiddo, the Sacred Scroll has been stolen from the Imperial Library. The document promises "supernatural powers to see through things and to let out power over great distances", thereby assuring its possessor martial arts supremacy. Among the hopeful are a power-mad eunuch, the vicious killer Zhor (Yuen Wah), the duplicitous Ah Yeung (Jacky Cheung), and even Ngok, leader of the Wah Mountain School and Ling's very own master.

Along the way, Ling and Kiddo encounter the Sun Moon Sect and after a series of misunderstandings, befriend the whip-wielding Chief Ying (Cheung Man) and her snake charming, second-in-command Blue Phoenix (Fennie Yuen). In a fairytale twist, Ling shows kindness to a seemingly helpless old man, only to find out he's actually a great swordsman in disguise. In response to Ling's act of charity, the old man teaches our hero some new swordfighting techniques that prove helpful in the climactic battle. By story's end, allegiances are betrayed, secrets are revealed, and heroes emerge as all the film's surviving characters meet up for the inevitable bloody showdown for possession of the Sacred Scroll.

Swordsman is a film that can stand on its own, but it works even better as a prequel for viewers who have only seen Swordsman II and/or III. The film provides a lot of helpful backstory, such as how Ling learned his distinctive swordplay style, how he became friendly with the Sun Moon Sect, why he and his buddies are retiring from the martial world in II, where the song "Hero of Heroes" ("A Single Laughter in the Sea") comes from, and ultimately how much blood was shed in pursuit of the Sacred Scroll before it fell into the hands of Asia the Invincible. Though Fennie Yuen is the only actor who appears in both films as the same character, the difference in casts shouldn't be a turnoff for the uninitiated. Sam Hui and company acquit themselves quite nicely in their respective roles, turning in several noteworthy performances.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the fact that Swordsman has the peculiar distinction of having six different directors! Though rumors of "creative differences" abound, the official story is that original director King Hu became ill and had to be replaced midway through shooting. To complete the film, Tsui Hark split up directorial duties between himself, Ching Siu-Tung, and Raymond Lee. Though uncredited, Ann Hui and Andrew Kam also lent helping hands to finish the movie. In all this confusion, it's a miracle that Swordsman is even a coherent film, but even more amazing is the fact that it's a pretty good one, too.

As the opening statement of the film suggests, this film has an underlying message. One character laments, "Another lot of victims under the sword. We are all made of flesh and blood. Why do we make such a mess of our own world?" As evidenced by the unrelenting quest for the Sacred Scroll, the film suggests that all the problems of the world can be traced back to the guiding principle embraced by many of the film's characters, the obsession with "Name" recognition. The movie shows that the true "Hero of Heroes" is the one who does not seek recognition for his actions. It is remarkable that Swordsman, a film that could be written off as mindless HK entertainment, can still retain some moral resonance. (Calvin McMillin 2002)

Song Lyrics:

"Hero of Heroes" (aka "A Laugh at the World" or "A Single Laughter in the Sea")

The seas laugh, lashing on both shores.
Carried in the waves, we only know the here and now.

The heavens laugh at the troubled world.
Only they know who is to win and lose.

The mountains laugh, the rain is afar.
When the waves grow old, the world still goes on.

The clear winds laugh, such a feeling of solitude.
Bygone camaraderie, leaving behind a tinge of melancholy.

The earth laughs, solitude no more.
My sentiments laughing still.

10th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner - Best Action Choreography (Ching Siu-Tung)
• Winner - Best Song ("A Single Laughter in the Sea", performed by Sam Hui Koon-Kit)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actor (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actor (Lau Shun)
• Nomination - Best Editing (David Wu Dai-Wai, Marco Mak Chi-Sin)
• Nomination - Best Art Direction (Leung Wah-Sang)
• Nomination - Best Original Score (James Wong Jim, Tai Lok-Man)
27th Annual Golden Horse Awards
• Winner - Outstanding Feature
• Winner - Best Supporting Actor (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau)
• Winner - Best Song ("A Single Laughter in the Sea", performed by Sam Hui Koon-Kit)


DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Intercontinental Video Limited
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS, & Original Dolby 2.0 Track
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
James Wong Interview (with subs), Jacky Cheung Interview (with subs), Deleted Scenes, Movie Stills, Photo Slideshow, Trailers
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
Also see:

Swordsman II (1992)
Swordsman III: East is Red (1993)

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image courtesy of Mega Star Video Distribution, Ltd. Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen