Reviewed by YTSL

Floating around the Internet are many warnings -- not all that unwarranted, in the opinion of someone who actually did not heed them! -- against watching "Swordsman III:  The East is Red" before viewing "Swordsman II".  On the other hand, there are few recommendations to view the 1990 film that is the first of this (in)famous trilogy for its own sake, let alone as a prelude to the 1992 effort that introduced Asia the Invincible to the (Hong Kong movie viewing) world (and then really let him/her/it loose and go wild a year later).  One reason is that the Tsui Hark production that immortalized Brigitte Lin as a screen icon does seem well able to stand on its own.  Another is that the original screen adaptation -- some of the book's readers will prefer "interpretation" -- of "The Hero of Heroes" novel by Louis Cha (a.k.a. Jin Yong) is seen as a flawed and inferior piece of work.

Sam Hui, Cecilia Yip
That not everyone involved in making SWORDSMAN (I) was happy with it is readily apparent when it is realized that the credited director – the legendary King Hu -- permanently walked off the set before the movie's completion.  It is also interesting that in addition to having three official acting directors (Tsui Hark, Ching Siu-Tung and Raymond Lee), there is widely known to have been one more -- uncredited – director involved in making this fantasy martial drama (Ann Hui has publicly stated, however, that her participation in this production was "negligible").  Then there is the fact that although their characters do prominently feature in "Swordsman II", Sam Hui (who here has the main role of Ling of the Wah Mountain martial arts school), Cecilia Yip (who plays Kiddo, Ling's tomboyish admirer) and Cheung Man (who portrays the Highlander chief of the Sun and Moon Sect) get replaced in the much more popular sequel by Jet Li, Michelle Reis and Rosamund Kwan.
Lau Shun, Yuen Wah, Jackie Cheung
Still, I think it grossly unfair for it to be as automatically assumed as it seems to have been that SWORDSMAN (I) does not have all that much good to offer.  At the very least, it possesses quite a few innovative fight sequences (as one would expect of any work in which Ching Siu-Tung has any part), complex and well utilized sets (at least one of which bears some internal resemblance to that whose roost Maggie Cheung ruled in the Raymond Lee-directed "Dragon Inn") plus interestingly angled camera work courtesy of Peter Pau (undoubtedly one of the most outstanding of Hong Kong cinematographers).  In other words:  This 110 minute length film's impressive visuals alone should exhilarate and spellbind.
Sam. Kiddo and Cheung Man
The amount and quality of acting talent on view really should also not be underestimated.  Though Sam Hui lacks Jet Li's physical grace and winning grin, he has an "Everymannishness" and comic sense that is not without its own charm.  While Cecilia Yip is definitely not as cute as Michelle Reis, her actions can be as much fun to watch.  Then there's Cheung Man, whose cool and powerful interpretation of Ying makes for an interesting contrast with Rosamund Kwan's softer and more melancholic one.  And this Fennie Yuen fan is appreciative of her part in this movie -- as well as in "Swordsman II" -- as the impish but deadly snake (and bee too, here!) fu exponent named Blue Phoenix.  SWORDSMAN (I) additionally benefits from the presence of Jackie Cheung (who won a Taiwanese Golden Horse acting award for his portrayal of the right hand man of the major villain of this complex -- some might say convoluted -- piece) and Yuen Wah (does this talented actor EVER not play a villain?!) along with guest appearances by the versatile Wu Ma and a wizened looking Lam Ching Ying (as, among other things, the authors of the very evocative "Hero of Heroes" theme song).
Lau Siu Ming, Han Ying Chieh, Sam
What this (re)viewer particularly liked about having watched this first SWORDSMAN though was how so many previously missing pieces came to be revealed as the basis and connectors of portions and strands of a hugely enthralling story that was developed and extended in the two later efforts but really do get their start here.  If you enjoyed "Swordsman II" and ever wondered about any of the following, you ought to consider this a "must see" film:  Where in China is the story supposed to take place?  What period of history was it supposed to have unfolded?  Who had possession of the Sacred Scroll (or Sacred Volume, as it is called here) before Asia the Invincible?  How did Ling and Kiddo come to be acquainted with Ying, Blue Phoenix and the Highlander Sun and Moon Sect?  How did Kiddo become Ling's travel companion?  How did the Wah Mountain swordsmen (and woman) come to have their distinctive style of swordplay?  Why are they so intent on retiring from the martial world? What is the greater symbolic meaning behind Ying's act in of handing over the musical instrument to Ling (in "Swordsman II")?
Cheung Man and Fennie Yuen
For those who are entirely unacquainted with any of the SWORDSMAN films, the above should give you a taste of the character-filled, meaning-rich and dramatic layered world that is contained within them.  Be aware too that they, perhaps particularly this one, are full of metaphor-laced pronouncements like "when the waves grow old, the world still turns" (a line in the "Hero of Heroes" song) and "the river water is  interfering with the well water" (a worry repeatedly uttered aloud by Ling in this movie)!  Be advised that when such actually make (sad yet hopeful) sense, you (too) will have been thoroughly sucked into yet another amazing section of Tsui Hark and company's fantastic, often troubled but still hopeful universe...and assured that IMHO, this particular offering is a good (as any other) place to start to understand, appreciate, get immersed in and be touched by it all.

My rating for the film:  8.5

Reviewed by Brian

I have been putting off watching Swordsman (I) for years now – partly because I had heard that it was not all that great and secondly because the only version I had found for it was the Tai Seng tape that is dreadfully murky. Media Asia has just released this on DVD and so I thought it was finally time to watch the first in this trilogy – of which the second and third episodes are two of my all time favorite films. I think I can now add this one to that same list.

I simply can’t understand why this film is held in comparatively low esteem – it is a fabulous film. Though it certainly misses the incredible charisma of Brigitte Lin and the physical abilities of Jet Li, it is in some ways a superior film to both of its successors. The narrative is much clearer, the character development is richer and in some ways it is much more emotionally effecting. It is really much more traditional than either II or III – a straightforward adventure story of heroism, passion, loyalty, sacrifice, lust for power and betrayal. It forgoes much of the glorious bombast of the other films, but it still has plenty of incredibly imaginative action scenes that I totally enjoyed.
It is also full of unforgettable characters – the few minutes that Wu Ma and Lam Ching Ying are on the screen for are incredibly touching, the old tramp turned masterful swordsman, the mysteriously beautiful and stern Cheung Man, Fennie Yuen as Blue Phoenix with deadly snakes up her sleeves but a tender heart, the wondrous Lau Shun in another one of his evil Eunuch roles, Kiddo’s father, Lau Siu Ming, strangely tormented, Yuen Wah as the relentless killer Zhor and Sam Hui playing the innocent and playful Ling who learns many cruel lessons of life before the film is over.
I am not sure at what stage King Hu left the production – but his fingerprints are still very much in evidence. Hu loved telling stories of court intrigue, power struggles and of a few brave individuals standing against tyranny. His producers in the 60s and 70s had to insist that he put more action into his films – Hu much preferred creating tight scenes full of tension in which very little happens for long periods of time but an under current of suspense is just below the surface. This film has a number of scenes that play out like this. The final twenty minutes of this film is some of the best film making I have seen for quite a while and the film overall was a total joy. Hell, just listening to a few renditions of Hero of Heroes makes this film worth watching.

Lets all sing now for those Heroes:

The seas laugh, lashing on both shores
Carried in the waves, we have only 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
Lai La Lai Lai Lai
Lai La Lai Lai Lai

Sam, Cecilia, Lam Ching Ying and Wu Ma

My rating for this film: 9.0

DVD Information:

Distributed by Mega Star/Media AsiaUniverse

As I said, I have been waiting for this DVD - and I am so glad I did. The transfer is terrific for the most part - some little signs of wear - in a few scenes the colors were a bit blanched - but this was a treat - infinitely better than the Tai Seng tape.


Only a Cantonese language track

Subs - Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean or Nil.

9 Chapters

It has a great trailer plus ones for Legend of Wisely, Cannonball Run (!), I Love Maria and Triads: The Inside Story.