Saturday Matinee: The Blade

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Director Tsui Hark is truly a visionary pioneer of Hong Kong cinema. He was one of the first in the Hong Kong film industry to use Hollywood-style special effects in “Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain” (1983) and pushed the envelope again with extensive CGI effects for the sequel “The Legend of Zu” (2001). He helped launch Jet Li’s career with his “Once Upon a Time in China” trilogy and was the producer of one of director John Woo’s earliest blockbusters “A Better Tomorrow” (1986). However, for most of the 90s Tsui Hark’s career was in a slump because of a series of failed attempts to break into the U.S. market and an economic downturn of the Hong Kong film industry. One of the films Hark released during this period was “The Blade” (1995). Though it bombed at the box-office, it’s now widely recognized as one of his greatest achievements (so far).

Like many idiosyncratic cult films, The Blade wasn’t palatable to general audiences and was dismissed as a failure upon release. Such films are usually ahead of their time, needing more time to be discovered by fans or for cultural sensibilities to change. The Blade’s unremittingly grim setting and pessimistic tone may have frightened off film-goers who in the mid 90s were drawn more towards lighthearted fare but it’s a quality that makes it stand out today and gives it an oddly contemporary feel. Feudal China has never seemed so brutal and forbidding (yet exotic and multicultural). It’s a fully realized world full of tribalism, hedonism, feral creatures, small pockets of civilization, crude weapons and an unforgiving social and natural environment, not unlike the post-apocalyptic scenario of The Road Warrior.

Other characteristics that contribute to The Blade’s cult status are its archetypal characters, highly stylized art direction, impressionistic photography reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai films, and unforgettable scenes (including one of cinema’s most frenzied and viscerally powerful showdowns). Though its storyline is pretty standard for a wuxia martial arts film, its subtext contains an abundance of philosophical questions about the nature of morality, violence, religion, sex, commerce, disability, pedagogy and memory among other things. The Blade has never had an official DVD release in the U.S. but fortunately this subtitled version was uploaded to YouTube last year:

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