“The Blade is the director’s paean to the muscular, exposed male body and a virtual catalog of ways to assault it – pummeling, whipping, biting, beating, and hacking . . .”
Tsui Hark’s most recent film is narrated by, and told largely from the viewpoint of, a woman. This is a rarity in Hong Kong historical action films, but also misleading here. The woman, Siu Ling (Sang Ni), the daughter of a factory owner, is mostly irrelevant, lost like many of the characters in Tsui’s dazzling blaze of sweating male flesh, clashing swords, dust, mud, fire, and swirling smoke.
The Blade is the director’s paean to the muscular, exposed male body and a virtual catalog of ways to assault it – pummeling, whipping, biting, beating, and hacking. A new weapon appears in the form of a lethal bear trap, and the film’s two enemies are both “body-marked” in ways we don’t often see in these films. The vicious Fei Lung (Xiong Xinxin) is heavily tattooed, and the heroic Ding On (the gorgeous Zhao When Zhou) is symbolically castrated when his arm is hacked off.
The story is an update of the Shaw Brothers’ 1967 epic The One-Armed Swordsman, which has been credited with starting the modern fad for Mandarin sword-fighting movies. Ding On, a factory worker, discovers his boss adopted him as a baby after his father was killed by the fierce bandit Fei Lung. His search for his father’s killer results in the loss of his arm, but he trains himself to use his remaining arm to fight with a “blade” (a kind of meat cleaver on a string!), becoming so expert that he can take on virtual armies. In a telling development, as if the collective unconscious of Hong Kong were finally awaking from a fantastic dream, the fight scenes no longer depend on Tsui’s trademark magical flying; his warriors now must rely on their own cunning, speed, and agility.
Hong Kong films’ obsession with the power and vulnerability of the male body reaches some kind of apotheosis here, particularly in the early factory scenes where the hunky workers walk around naked (or nearly so) much of the time, at one point pulling down their pants en masse for a graphic whipping by their disgruntled boss. Audiences familiar with the political developments in Hong Kong (the transfer of the colony back to China next year) will view such scenes as rehearsals of feared future violence, and Ding On’s triumph as a mere wish-fulfillment fantasy. Ding On succeeds by reviving old world values of honor, practice, and determination, but Tsui’s mise-en-scene of faceless enemies and mysterious, unstable environments suggests his hero’s achievement is temporary, as precarious as Hong Kong’s fate.