The 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest 2023: “The Swordsman of All Swordsmen”
Vengeance continues in the festival’s first full day with the beautifully restored and undervalued classic, “The Swordsman of All Swordsmen”.
With the monster success of King Hu’s “Come Drink with Me” and “Dragon Inn” and Chang Cheh’s “One Armed Swordsman” and “Golden Swallow”, Taiwan threw its hat into the ring of Kung Fu cinema with a string of wuxia films that were (most times) just as good as the work coming out of the Shaw Brothers studio.
Joseph Kuo’s “The Swordsman of All Swordsmen” (shown in a beautifully restored print) is an intense film full of powerful fight scenes; a high-quality production with a good story that contains emotional impact.
Tsai Ying-jie (Peng Tuen) travels the countryside in search of the men who murdered his parents. Our hero has trained for years with his father’s sword, which he will use to unleash the fury of his revenge.
A mysterious swordsman called “Black Dragon” (Nan Chiang, giving a cool and dangerous performance dressed in black, face hidden by his conical dǒulì hat) follows Tsai Ying-jie, intensely watching his every move, even helping him during an attack. The appearance of Black Dragon holds a deeper agenda that will reveal itself by the film’s end.
As Tsai Ying-jie has been successful in his vengeance thus far, the end of his journey becomes clouded by the morality that flows through his heart.
The kind “Flying Swallow” (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan) saves his life after one of Tsai Ying-jie’s opponents poisons him. As he recovers, it is time to face his final adversary, now a blind old man. The young girl begs for his mercy, as his last challenge is her father.
Ying-jie is torn by being the dutiful son who honors his parents by killing their murderers, or showing mercy to a man who has lived a life of regret.
Written by Shui-Han Chiang, Tien-Yung Hsu, and director Kuo, this is a captivating motion picture. The morality within the text mixes well with the hardcore action as the performers sell every dramatic beat while bringing alive the fantastic swordplay.
Many of the Asian Martial Arts filmmakers looked to American cinema and (especially) the Italian Spaghetti Westerns. Kuo’s film plays in the manner of the latter. You could see Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson in the title role of the lone hero on a violent quest. The director uses askew framing (excellent use of depth of field here) and extreme closeups of eyes that burn their intensity through the screen. This is Spaghetti Western Wuxia with a moral center.
The fight scenes are expertly designed. Kuo starts them slowly, building the tension before unleashing the attacks. Sound design enhances the duels in this one, as the clashing of the steel reverberates throughout the theater. The fights are brutal, and the performances make their audience feel the emotion in every strike.
This isn’t action for the sake of action. Each battle (and our lead character) has a purpose and is designed with invention and creativity.
A film that walks a balanced path of brutality and virtue, Joseph Kuo’s “The Swordsman of All Swordsmen” is one of the absolute best of the early wuxia pictures.
The Swordsman of All Swordsmen
Written by Shui-Han Chiang, Tien-Yung Hsu, & Joespeh Kuo
Directed by Joseph Kuo
NR, 95 Minutes, Union Film Company