The Wandering Swordsman (1969, Chang Cheh)
A hero need not be impervious to error. The most noble of heroes can in fact become boring because the characters are too clean, too neat and tidy. A character that can be lead astray and can commit mistakes often makes for much more compelling storytelling. A nuance should be elaborated on however. The protagonist does not have to be written as someone with a ‘bad side.’ He or she can genuinely try to be an upstanding person, but by the nature of whom they are or the uncooperative circumstances around them, they sometimes fail when one thinks they could have succeeded. Director Chang Cheh, who is at it again with Wandering Swordsman (that’s 3 out of 4 films we have discussed that were helmed by the same person), taking this notion of the imperfect hero to heart and builds a tale of mistakes which were difficult to avoid and lead to dire results.
The Wandering Swordsman is Chang film that once again stars David Chiang, whom we watched as recently as last week in Have Sword Will Travel, playing ostensibly the same character. He is a young, highly talented swordsman who runs, hops and pirouettes (this time without the synthesized sound effects, he does it with stealth) his way around the country, encountering crooks and other sorts of gangsters who earn their living through illegal means. He intercepts them before they can ever escape and gives most of the money away to people in need. He also takes pleasure in teasing his soon to be victims by sneaking up on them, giving little hints that someone might be lurking behind. Part Robin Hood, part Peter Pen (what with his out of this world jumping abilities and jokester demeanour), the Wandering Swordsman is contempt with his lot in life. One day he makes the acquaintance of Jiang Ning (Lily Li), a pretty if temperamental sword fighter. He sees her and a guard in the woods attacked by a thief, and comes to her rescue just after the thief dispatches her guard. Jiang Ning is part of a group of soldiers who are to soon transport a plentiful bounty of valuables from one town to another, but word soon gets out, resulting in various criminals scheming plans to intercept them. With so many players, both good and bad, wanting to either help the escort or stop it, will the Wandering Swordsman differentiate who is on which side?
As can be assessed just by reading the above plot synopsis, the overarching story of The Wandering Swordsman is very similar to that of Have Sword Will Travel. David Chiang once again playing a loner who abides by his own special code of honour, another group transporting goods from point A to point B, more criminals forming a gang with a funny name: They were the Flying Tigers in Will Travel, here they are the Flying Robbers! Whereas in Will Travel it was felt that certain critical missteps were taken which downgraded the overall movie experience, Swordsman starts off strong and never lets up. The film also quintessentially represents what a good Shaw Brothers film consists of. There are playful characters, characters who like to properly introduce themselves and be polite before killing each other, funny moments many of which feel misplaced by Western standards, simple to follow plots, and gory violence. All of that is perfectly on display in Chang Cheh’s picture, and he utilizes each element to the very best of his abilities, perfectly choosing when to press which button. Swordsman will not be considered the very best Shaw Brothers had to offer because there are clearly more accomplished films in their catalogue, but it felt as though this film, thanks very much in part to Chang’s direction and leading man David Chiang’s performance, somehow exemplified some of the very best aspects to such movies.
The titular character is very much a flawed character. Early on he easily dispatches a couple of foes who performed a robbery. He amused himself by mocking them, twice no less, and took away their bounty with the greatest of ease. However, he gives every single silver tael to a group of refugees whose homes were flooded in, meaning that a later in the day, when the time comes to pay for the massive meal he ordered at a restaurant, he has nothing left on him and is forced to pay by selling off his swords. It is not the type of flaw one might expect what I mention the term ‘flawed hero.’ It is not as though he has done anything monumentally wrong in this scenario, but he dove into his little excursion of vigilantism without thinking too clearly and it came back to bite in some fashion in the end. After leaving the restaurant he even murmurs to himself that he got a ‘really bad deal out of this one.’ It is a simple error in judgement like that which can make a character much more human and relatable. David Chiang does a superb job selling the audience the character of the Wandering Swordsman too, making him brave, youthful and fun loving, but maybe a little short sighted. He balances those aspects and personality traits perfectly. It is an excellent performance considering the sort of movie we are talking about.
Things grow even more complex when the lead villain, Fool Proof Kung (Cheung Pooi-saan), tricks the Wandering Swordsman into working for his side, Up until that point the Swordsman has caught, teased and defeated a series of ill tempered men, who are suddenly introduced as Fool Proof’s brothers. Impressed by the Swordsman’s skills, he pleads the latter to join his group, as they seek to intercept the escort of give away all the riches to the poor. This of course immediately strikes a chord with the Swordsman, who willingly accepts to help out. So once again, the Swordsman commits an error, only this one ends up having even graver consequences, some that may prove to be unforgivable. Watching the film, it was really intriguing to see the filmmakers take this protagonist who at first seemed infallible, and then, in some ways at least, play him as a fool. It turns out that, while the Swordsman is ultimately the good guy and does his very best to save the day, he does a lot of silly or downright stupid things in the movie. Even his meeting with Jiang Ning in the forest is the result of selfishness on the part of the Swordsman. Rather than make the protagonist unlikable, or difficult to cheer for, I was fascinated by what this guy was going to do next, willingly or not!
The supporting cast is fine too, with special mention going to Cheung Pooi-saan as the subtle yet hilarious Fool Proof Kung. Cheung is somewhat on the tubby side and has a grin that could very well be genuine or mask some unspeakable villainy. He is not an actor who never overtakes every scene he is in, yet certainly makes his presence known and works well as a counterweight to the rambunctious David Chiang. He also has a great villain laugh.
The Wandering Swordsman was a step in the right direction after the misfire that was Will Travel. In fact, it is not even really fair to only compare it to its predecessor. On its own, Swordsman is a really good movie, filled with some awkwardly funny moments, some stellar action, and, most of all, an excellent, rich central character.