Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mondocurry NYAFF report vol. 11.2: The Cut of THE BLADE

For those looking for evidence that this was a special year for the New York Asian Film Festival, Monday night was it. Starting with THE BLADE, which was overflowing with raw energy, the evening would continue on a high note with its screening of DETECTIVE DEE AND THE PHANTOM FLAME, which I did not stay for but could see gathering momentum as the crowds gathered en masse on the theater. In between screenings, Tsui Hark would take the stage to receive an achievement award, bringing things full circle for the festival, which began ten years ago by putting together a retrospective of his films. There was a buzz about these screenings worthy of quite possibly every guest at the festival who was still in New York. I passed by MILOCRORZE director Yoshimasa Ishibashi as he left the screening of THE BLADE. Subway Cinema’s twitter feed indicated that the man behind CITY OF VIOLENCE and THE UNJUST, Ryoo Seung-Wan was on hand to watch the film as well. It also became apparent why there were no movie screenings at Japan Society that night, as Samuel Jamier who has been programming the excellent selection of films in the Japan Cuts lineup, made his way up the stairs for the award ceremony and screening of DETECTIVE DEE.

I was one of the “BLADE virgins” that night and was in store for a rare vision of inspired chaos. Adding to the air of intrigue was the explanation that a policy change on the part of the film’s holding company would prevent it from ever being screened again (along with any other film in its possession that lacks an official mpaa rating).

THE BLADE was a dark, sinister maelstrom of whirling bodies and clanging steel. It begins with the unsettling image of a stray dog unwittingly making its way into the crushing grip of a bear trap laying in the street. Our attention is then turned towards a vision startlingly reminiscent of Shinya Tsukamoto’s TETSUO 2: BODY HAMMER, as a sea of bronzed bodies inhabits the dim industrial space of sword production company Sharp Manufacturers, welding shards of steel into edged weaponry. In an interesting twist, the narrative is shaped by the company owner’s daughter who takes amusement in the subtle manipulation of her favorite workers into an imagined conflict with one another. If this is all sounding rather contemporary so far, bear in mind that the film was made in the not-too-distant 1995. It is, however, a take on the classic One Armed Swordsman tale, set in a stylized conception of ancient China.

After the workers are admonished for an unsanctioned confrontation against a roving gang of marauders, I felt like I was losing the thread of the story, as with the older Wu Xia movies shown at the festival (a check-in with connoisseur of all arts martial Mr. C suggested that I had pretty much gotten the gist ). Not to worry, though, as this movie truly is all about the action. It is shown that noble employee On’s father was savagely murdered by the gang, and a burning quest for vengeance accompanied increasingly frantic fight scenes gets under way.

One of these battles costs On his arm, but it doesn’t diminish the action at all. The spinning style of the swordplay is so fast and out of control it skirts the line of complete incomprehensibility. The final action scene adds chains and a return of those nasty bear traps to the mix, making it one of the fastest and most impressive combat sequences around.

While these intense clashes of steel against steel are the film’s highlights, scenes that come in between are also compelling. Fellow employee Iron Head and the conspiratorial daughter are on the move, looking for On, and encounter shadowy cities where all manner of mental and physical enslavement are taking place. There is talk down the line of the travelers’ need to be on the move, unable to settle down or embrace any long term peace. This is quite a beautiful nightmarish vision, one that may never be experienced on a big screen again.

The Q & A that followed the screening, which you can watch by clicking on the clips below, was moved along by Grady Hendrix at a rapid clip to make way for the award presentation. During it, Tsui Hark discussed how he incorporated the company owner's daughter into a more prominent role during shooting, the carrying out of the film's action sequences, and his thoughts on its bleak tone.

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