Movie Review: 'Sword Master' (2016)

Few films encompass everything genres attempt to quantify. If a movie is categorized as a drama, you tend to expect few laughs and if a film is regarded as a comedy, you anticipate rare moments of deep drama.

So imagine how pleasant of a surprise it is when a single movie manages to flawlessly intertwine every genre's emotional nuances. This is exactly what “Sword Master” accomplishes.

Director Tung-Shing Yee’s visually stunning and phenomenally-acted film is one, movie fans long to see. It is epic in tone and thought-provoking in its totality, as it weaves a multi-layered story that deftly delves into philosophical conundrums.

“Sword Master” (originally titled: "San Shao ye de Jian") revolves around various characters, whose ties to one another are an integral mystery better left ambiguous in this review.

What can be said is this. “Sword Master” follows Yen Shih-San (Peter Ho), a talented assassin, who wants to prove he is the "master" swordsman. Mu-Yung Chiu-Ti (Yiyan Jiang) a jilted lover, who seeks revenge, and Ah Chi (Kenny Lin) a new employee at a brothel, who runs into trouble when he intervenes on a worker’s behalf.

How all of these stories connect is a thrilling and beautifully-crafted mystery. “Sword Master” truly touches on every aspect of life in a way that only a period piece can. There is romance, adventure, love, and loss, amid a backdrop where the stakes are nothing less than life and death.

Something this particular film elegantly illustrates is the duality of the sword, as both an instrument of salvation and ruin, and how these characteristics run parallel to the way in which love can inflict itself on people’s fates. The good and bad outcomes they are each capable of rendering is piercingly explored here.

[Image by Bona Film Group, Well Go USA Entertainment, Distribution Workshop]

The film’s vivid cinematography runs in contrast to its heavier themes, which is a choice that further enhances its impact. As one’s senses prepare for a bright and upbeat story, only to find a darker and more contemplative one in its place.

As wondrous as its storytelling is, the execution of the film’s action scenes is equally matched. The sequences are fantastically rhythmic, never outliving their natural beat, whilst packing continuous tension as to who will succeed.

The ensemble’s performances are superb, each actor exquisitely cast for each role. Kenny Lin brings great dimension to Ah Chi, a role filled with a myriad of moving parts.

Lin projects the storm brewing within, peaking curiosity as to Ah Chi’s true nature, whilst simultaneously conveying how good of a soul he likely possesses. As Ah Chi’s bond grows with “Princess” Hsiao Li (Mengjie Jiang), the brothel worker he tries to help, Lin lets Ah Chi’s layers start to unravel without needing any dialog to do so.

Jiang and Lin's magnetic chemistry similarly reaches beyond words, as Ah Chi and Princess’ relationship develops in surprising and lovely ways. For her part, Mengjie Jiang is absolutely charming as the complicated Princess, who like Ah Chi, can count several layers to her persona and Jiang plays each of them, brilliantly.

The memorable performances do not end there. Peter Ho nails the complex cutthroat assassin Yen Shih-San. While Yiyan Jiang gives a steely performance as the vengeance-seeking bride, whose hurt is as palatable as her rage.

“Sword Master” slices through each of its central characters’ complex identities with the same laser-point precision; it carries out its riveting action sequences. When it comes to demonstrating a mastery of what makes a movie magnificent, “Sword Master” has few equals.

Rating: 10/10

"Sword Master" is currently streaming on Netflix.

[Featured Image by Bona Film Group, Well Go USA Entertainment, Distribution Workshop]