Film Review: Sword Master 3D

Warring clans force a pacifist swordsman back into action in an effects-heavy update of a 1977 martial-arts movie.
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Awash with CGI, Sword Master 3D reworks Death Duel, a 1977 Shaw Brothers film that coincidentally gave director Derek Yee his breakthrough role. Heavy going at first, the movie's plot and characters are hard to follow. Once the real story emerges, Sword Master 3D settles into an impressive display of action choreography.

Both movies were adapted from a novel by Gu Long, a preeminent writer of wuxia or martial-arts stories. Set in an alternate reality of demons and magic, the plot revolves around blood feuds, eternal quests, thwarted love and cruel fate. Warriors meet on mountaintops dressed with flowering fruit trees, or glide across storm-tossed green seas.

Storm Master 3D opens on a snowy stone bridge straight out of Middle Earth. Yen Shih-san (Peter Ho), his face covered in tattoos and makeup like The Joker, slices up an opponent before heading to the encampment of the Hsai clan. There, the virginal My-yung Chiu-ti (Jiyan Yiyan) asks him to kill the Third Master, a famed swordsman who jilted her twice. When Yen resists, she erupts in fury. Escaping, Yen reaches the Hsieh clan castle, where he learns that the Third Master has died. Ill himself, Yen buys a coffin and waits in a cemetery to die.

Lowly Ah Chi (Kenny Lin Gengxin), an errand boy in a brothel, defends Li (Jiang Mengjie), a thieving prostitute, from ruffians. She brings Chi to her family home in a destitute rural village. When the villagers are attacked, Yen comes to their defense.

Chi not only falls in love with Li, but forms a friendship with Yen, who teaches him his “13 Sword” style of fighting. Son of Lord Hsieh, Chi was trained to be a warrior, but left his family and fighting after he was forced to kill an innocent family. His absence led to a war between the Hsieh and Hsai clans, as well as other clans seeking martial-arts dominance. But the past catches up with Chi in a brutal manner.

Thanks in part to producer and co-writer Tsui Hark, Sword Master 3D is like every magic-sword movie rolled into one. Characters switch sides or fall in and out of love for no reason, villains appear out of nowhere, flashbacks pop up regularly, and it's apparent early on that effects and stunts are more important than plotting. It's often like trying to read a comic book without knowing who any of the characters are.

As Chi, Lin is a bit too stoic and wooden to gain much sympathy. But Ho has a blast as Yen, an anti-hero with a sense of humor. Jiyan Yiyan is equally good as Chiu-ti, a genuinely aggrieved and seriously unhinged bride with zero qualms about bloodshed.

The other leads are genre stereotypes who declaim aphorisms before jumping into battle to die as heroes or cowards. This being 3D, they stab the camera as much as their opponents. The filmmakers borrow from many outside sources, especially the most recent Mad Max, but ultimately remain true to the demands of the wuxia genre. And when Yee can finally concentrate on the showdown of the clans, Sword Master 3D becomes a nonstop dream of wuxia action.

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