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  Imperial Swordsman No-one is what they seem
Year: 1972
Director: Lam Fook-Dei
Stars: Shu Pei-Pei, Chuan Yuan, Yue Wai, Ching Miao, Tung Li, Lee Wan-Chung, Tang Ti, Huang Chung-Hsin, Liu Wai, Lee Pang-Fei, Chan Shen, Chin Kang
Genre: Martial Arts, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Upon rescuing an Imperial official from a bandit attack, brooding martial arts hero Yin Shu Tang (Chuan Yuan) is tasked with escorting the same man, Fu Bing Zhong (Ching Miao), safely to a remote mountain retreat. Along the way a pair of beautiful damsels, Shi Xue Lan (Shu Pei-Pei) and Shi Xue Mei (Yue Wai) urge Yin to let them join the group and reach their destination away from two rogues, Zhi Yu (Lee Wan-Chung) and Gu Wan (Liu Wai), seemingly intent on molesting them. Unbeknownst to Yin Shu Tang however nothing here is as it seems...

It is a shame Shaw Brothers, the venerable Hong Kong studio behind Imperial Swordsman, saw fit to include an explanatory prologue as the plot twists that ensue would play far better without it. One of the more obscure Shaw releases, Imperial Swordsman comes across the wu xia (or "swordplay film") equivalent of a men-on-a-mission-in-World-War-Two movie along the lines of the similarly twist-laden Where Eagles Dare (1969), mixed with the kind of classy adventure and intrigue laden historical romp King Hu was making at the time. Indeed the plot plays out almost like Hu's Come Drink with Me (1966) but in reverse. Whereas that film had a righteous kung fu hero masquerading as a drunken beggar, here ostensible-but-not-really lead Yin Shu Tang is unknowingly surrounded by heroic characters pretending to be something they are not. The central conceit, almost an elaborate joke at the "hero's" expense, is rather interesting although likely the sort of subversion of which Chang Cheh, then Shaw's leading proponent of macho, no-nonsense martial arts heroism, would not have approved.

Unlike King Hu, prolific and versatile director Lam Fook-Dei, here working under his Mandarin name: Lin Fu-Ti, does not expand the story into anything substantial, nuanced or poetic. Nevertheless it remains a rip-roaring actioner with impeccable production design, routinely striking cinematography and dynamic, well-directed action scenes. Lam Fook-Dei, who got his start making popular love stories and melodramas then rode the wu xia wave into the Seventies where he segued into chopsocky fare like his Lone Wolf and Cub rip-off The Master and the Kid (1978), stages the action with often ingenious visual flourishes quite different from much of the standard, stage-bound Shaw product of the era. The violence is also remarkably visceral. Our heroes not only rack up a near-genocidal body-count but endure wince-inducing levels of brutality.

Half-Dutch actor Chuan Yuan graduated from Taiwanese dramas to become Shaw Brothers staple, more often than not playing a street punk or scumbag. Which might be why his grim, scowling hero, forever snapping at everyone in sight, comes across far less engaging than intended. Of course this makes it all the easier when the film transitions into the p.o.v. of co-stars Shu Pei-Pei and Yue Wai. In one of her last roles before retiring, the beautiful Wai is especially watchable as the unexpectedly agile and flirty Xue Mei. Shu Pei-Pei, who like Yue Wai found stardom via a beauty pageant co-organized by Shaw Brothers, was a staple of the heroic swordswoman subgenre, gracing films like The Magnificent Swordsman (1968), The Secret of the Dirk (1970) and The Devil's Mirror (1972) as well as the all-star extravaganza The 14 Amazons (1972). After her contract with Shaw's expired in 1973 she went on to run a successful though likely incredibly intimidating travel agency.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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