What happens when a supporting character hijacks a film away from the protagonist? It almost necessarily feels slightly unbalanced, but there is sure to be a lot of cool stuff going on. In this case, the director might have had a been-there-done-that attitude towards the central hero, because he has. In 1977 Derek Yee broke out to superstardom playing the so-called Third Master in the Shaw Brothers’ classic, Death Duel. Now he re-interprets Gu Long’s source novel as the director and co-screenwriter of Sword Master, produced and co-written by Tsui Hark, which is now playing in New York.
Dreaded swordsman Yen Shih-san (you’ll notice we’re starting with him) has always wanted to claim the title from the Third Master, Xie Xiaofeng. To intimidate opponents, Yen had a skeletal tattoo inked on his face, but the macabre image soon altered his behavior. Having worked his way up the ladder to challenge the Third Master, Yen experiences an existential crisis when he learns his rival died shortly before his arrival. To make matter worse, Yen receives a fatal medical diagnosis soon thereafter.
Unbeknownst to Yen, Third Master faked his death and has been working as a lowly brothel cleaning boy under the assumed name of Ah Chi. Repenting all the death and suffering he caused, Xie/Ah Chi has sworn to never kill again. He would also just as soon avoid Murong Qiudi, the cruel leader of the Seven Stars Pond martial arts clan and the former fiancé he jilted at least twice. Yeah, awkward. Ironically, the mopey Ah Chi develops a friendship with Yen, who has become the town’s unlikely hero as part of his own campaign for redemption.
Of course, the truth will eventually come out, forcing former adversaries to choose up sides. Frankly, it takes some pretty horrible attacks on the innocent from the Seven Stars Pond clan to get Third Master back in the game, but when he gets with the program, the martial arts sequences are pretty spectacular.
Yet, Peter Ho steals every scene he saunters into. He has some terrific fight scenes of his own, but he is still an electric presence even when he just grouchily kvetches his way through the village. Kenny Lin is maybe too reserved as the brooding Ah Chi, but he still develops some rather sweet romantic chemistry with Jiang Mengjie’s Xiao Li, the junior most courtesan at the brothel. Her eyes just melt the camera, whereas Jiang Yiyan makes Murong a wickedly fierce ice queen.