Director: Sun Chung
Writer: Ni Kuang
Cast: Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Shih Szu, Ku Feng, Chan Wai Man, Lily Li Li Li, Ngaai Fei, Chan Shen, Kara Hui, Ha Ping, Alan Chan, Cheung Gwok, Chow Kin Ping, Gam Tin Chue, Hung Ling Ling, Keung Hon, Eddie Ko Hung
Running Time: 101 min.
By JJ Hatfield
An arrogant assassin and an unlucky gambler are brought together by pride, greed and a captivating courtesan in The Deadly Breaking Sword. This wuxia with comedy was the second film Sun Chung directed for the Shaw Brothers with Ti Lung and Alexander Fu Sheng, the first being Avenging Eagle.
Ti Lung (The Savage Five) is Tuan Changging, the titular “Deadly Breaking Sword.” His character is established at the beginning of the movie with the help of an opponent played by Michael Chan. Changging is a master swordsman who finishes his matches with a particular stroke of his blade. He is wealthy, refined, and a pompous ass. Changging is a self-appointed dispatcher of evil-doers, and he never kills indiscriminately. He has rituals for a fight and rules for using his unique sword style.
The comedy is in the form of Fu Sheng (The Chinatown Kid) as Xiao Dao or Little Dagger. He is known as Xiao Dao because he uses small knives when fighting. Xiao Dao’s introduction occurs during a skirmish in a gambling parlor. He is poor, unsophisticated, and a thief when he has no luck at gambling which is often. It is his larceny habit that results in meeting Changging.
Xiao Dao and Changging seemingly share nothing in common. Changging has no use for those who don’t recognize his self-proclaimed superiority in all things. Nor is he much interested in women. Xiao Dao is interested in women, but he has far more passion for pursuing wealth. However, they are both drawn to the courtesan Lin. Shih Szu (Black Tavern) is Lin Yinxu, the newly arrived prostitute at the brothel. She uses her beauty to achieve her objectives, and she knows how to approach a man to get what she wants. Yinxu attempts to manipulate Changging and Xiao Dao to do her bidding. Changging becomes involved because of his egotistical eccentricities, while Xiao Dao’s motivation is money. When Yinxu makes odd statements about the local doctor, Changging must decide whom he should believe before confronting his next opponent.
Xiao Dao brings out the personal side of Changging. When they are together, Changging will let down his emotional guard. Xiao Dao is the only one that dares to make fun of Changging, but he does so without any malice. In a bonding scene, they play the drinking game also seen in Shanghai Noon, but The Deadly Breaking Sword (TDBS) predates that film by over twenty years. The real life friendship comes through in more than one scene. Several times Ti looks as though he is going to break character and burst into laughter, especially when he is supposed to be offended by Xiao Dao.
Most of the screen time is held by Changging or Xiao Dao, or both in the same scene. Shih Szu aside the women don’t fare well in TDBS. Kara Hui is wasted in her role at the brothel, and Lily Li Li has the unfortunate part of Luo Jinhua, owner of a gambling parlor.
Changging is familiar if exaggerated fare for Ti Lung. He seems to enjoy his role of the smug, self – righteous swordsman. Ti has been a sword wielding character in a number of movies but never has he played a narcissist. As usual with Fu Sheng, viewers will either thoroughly enjoy his style of humor or want to see Changging use that sword of his.
Plenty of action is on hand, but half of the fights are disappointingly brief. Tong Gai and Wong Pau-Gei as action directors show standard moves and sword work that appears unusual because of the camera angle. The fighting includes the use of props as weapons at a gambling parlor and in Yinxu’s chambers.
Sun Chung only helmed a few films with the Shaws compared to some. I think directors like Chang Cheh made so many memorable movies that others like Sun became lost in the sheer numbers. However, he was a creative and talented director who has often been overlooked and under-rated. He was interested in finding new ways to use technology to elevate his films. Several new techniques made it into TDBS including the freeze frame.
The screenplay is by the extraordinarily prolific writer Ni Kuang who creates an extreme version of the distinguished swordsman. Unlike many films of the era, the plot does not come from an ancient Chinese epic, story or poem. Ni wrote a simple tale, just enough to give the characters motivation. The audience knows only what the characters know. The addition of a little mystery helps along the thin plot.
The Shaw sets are lavishly decorated. The brothels furnishings are elegant. Costumes are beautiful with rich, vibrant colors, and attention to detail. Yinxu’s wardrobe is dazzling. Changging’s garments are nearly as impressive.
At 101 minutes TDBS would have benefitted from tighter editing. The characters aren’t explored in-depth but then it isn’t necessary. TDBS is not a classic or an epic film. It isn’t cerebral nor does it have the greatest fight scenes ever filmed. It is an entertaining way to spend a little over an hour and a half, and that is good enough.
JJ Hatfield’s Rating: 7/10