06 Jul Bring out Devil Grandma: The Absurdity of Style in The Magic Blade
There is a large part of me that simply wanted to take this article, write a brief introduction, and then proceed to list everything in The Magic Blade that is absurd. However, that’s a lot of work. For those of you that haven’t had the chance to partake in this film, I’m not sure any list or explanation of the absurdity that is contained in its brief runtime can encapsulate the experience of just how weird and wickedly fast paced this film is. For those of you who have had the pleasure of seeing this film, you already know what I’m talking about and I’m sure this article will only serve to remind you to rewatch it and enjoy it for just how outrageous it truly is even as a Shaw Brothers wuxia. On my most recent viewing of the film for Summer of the Sword, perhaps my sixth or seventh overall in whole or in part, it dawned on me though: The Magic Blade is out there, but it’s a film that’s built on a foundation that isn’t so shocking. It’s a film where the style is the absurdity of the film, but the bones of its structure and core characters are remarkably consumable. Perhaps it’s one of the many reasons why this has seen the film become more and more of a fan favorite as time has gone on, yet it’s a balance that works well above and beyond just being an enjoyable piece of wuxia cinema.
In an earlier article focused on the film Killer Clans, I spoke a bit about director Chor Yuen and his penchant for throwing his audience under the bus in the first act. At times, this can be a cumbersome endeavor, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre comes to mind where the information and exposition of the opening can be enough to completely throw its audience out of the film, but at other times it comes off as particularly effective for the tone and approach. The Magic Blade is one of those times. Within the first 15 minutes or so, this film absolutely sprints in its pacing and set up for the rest the journey that the audience is about to go on. Our two heroes Fu and Yan, mortal enemies as it is stated in the first few minutes of the film and played with the usual intense charisma that Ti Lung and Lo Lieh can muster, are essentially thrown into a massive conspiracy by mysterious evil mastermind and his five minions to get their hands on a fabled weapon called The Peacock Dart. The audience, like our heroes, is left to sprint from sequence to sequence, battling against formidable and gimmicky villains, and trying to unravel the mysterious motives to get them entrapped in such a scenario. It’s not until the second act that the film decidedly takes a breather and more cohesive narrative to let the audience catch up without throwing in new plot progressions, twists, and characters. Even then, this film is greased lightning from beginning to finish and as it slows down towards its finale it never truly hits the breaks, but lifts up on the gas a bit instead.
Of course, this is where director Chor Yuen slathers his film in absurd situations, characters, and gimmicks which somehow work in conjunction with its rapid-fire pacing. Only in The Magic Blade is it understandable that a massive parade of ego through the middle of the night in an abandoned town as an opening sequence the one time where it truly makes sense. This is a film where I didn’t question the fact that a ‘magic blade’ is never actually mentioned during the entire run time and didn’t think about it until well after the film finished. Yet, this is inherently the charm of the film. The villains range from classic wuxia baddies, to cannibalistic “Devil Grandma,” to homicidal chess players, and well beyond that. Even our heroic characters are decently gimmicks as Ti Lung’s Fu uses a side handled sword to slaughter those in his way and sports a crisp five o’clock shadow and draped poncho like some kind of Spaghetti western hero in the vein of Clint Eastwood. The film, because of its chaotic tone, tends to benefit from the outrageousness of the situations that the audience is forced to consume. Chor Yuen ably uses lavish sets and creative camera work to visually make the leaping narrative and over-the-top attitude of the characters a cohesive whole, while never applying a kind of wink-wink approach that could have deterred from the stronger emotional and core grounding of its characters or subtle romantic undertones. It can initially be a lot to swallow for those not expecting the jarring scene changes and pacing, but once that expectation is set the film simply runs with it and it makes for one of the most entertaining wuxia films one is apt to experience, particularly from the 70s Shaw catalog.
As it was mentioned though, The Magic Blade is not as outrageous once you start to strip it of the extravagant detailing and high speed right turns that Chor Yuen piles onto the viewing experience. The film is based on the popular wuxia novel by Gu Long and if you know any of his works, a lot of them take many of the same thematic core elements and that is pulled into this film to give it some ground to stand on. This is most obvious in some of the somber moments that will sporadically pop up in the film, including a fantastically sad and heartfelt sequence where Ti Lung’s Fu pays for a young woman to eat and then gives her money for medicine while prophetically chiming, “It’s a debt the world owes you,” before things go awry and the film returns to its insanity. This adds to the basic wuxia elements of its narrative where heroes are unbreakable, loyalty and betrayal happen at a pin drop, and evil will eventually be vanquished by the greater good. This makes the film fun, but remarkably easy to follow once the initial shock of the style and approach passes and is most certainly the secret weapon in Chor Yuen’s arsenal.
It has been rumored for some time that The Magic Blade is getting a remake (reboot, whatever) from one of my favorite modern martial arts directors/writers Xu Haofeng as Moonlight Blade, but it’s revisiting The Magic Blade that makes it obvious to why this film can make it in the modern cinematic age even if this version is now over 40 years old. It’s a wuxia built on familiarity of structure and concept, decorated to the point of sheer absurdity in outrageous elements and massively entertaining spectacle. It’s punctuated with an insane amount of memorable moments that draws attention to the film and still maintains a heartfelt core that makes it universal in its experience.
The Magic Blade might be a wuxia at its grandest gimmicks powered in the style of absurdity by Chor Yuen, but it hits home and the kind effective filmmaking that deserves a second look. It is the Summer of the Sword after all here at Shaw Brothers and nothing is quite like the entertaining blend of heart, heroics, and popcorn absurdity that is The Magic Blade.