Chinese swordplay films often take place in a kind of fantasy world, a kind of Camelot of chivalry, with villains, heroes (and heroines) and magical quests. But not every one of them counts as a fairy tale. Hua Shan's film is an exceptional wuxia story of an antihero who never really becomes a hero. It's a film that tries to teach a lesson without the protagonist really benefiting from it.
The protagonist remains deliberately nameless throughout the film. We first see him as a child watching a public duel, with a local potentate presiding, between the recognized "King of Swords," whose face is covered by a veil, and a brash young challenger, attended by his wife or girlfriend. Before long the King proves his dominance and gives the challenger a chance to concede and withdraw. The duel was decided before it began, the King claims, because the challenger's emotional ties to his beloved are too obvious and too strong. Chagrined, the challenger resumes the fight and is dead within moments. Moments later, his beloved kills herself. The King is richly rewarded. The morbid spectacle inspires the child spectator to become a swordsman and challenge the King someday.
As a young man (Ti Lung), the nameless swordsman is building a reputation in the territory. He's highly regarded enough to be a target in his own right, as we see when a swordswoman intrudes on his bath to attack him. She's dispatched easily enough, but proves just a stalking horse for another woman warrior who prefers to bide her time. Nameless takes such menaces in stride. He's just as likely to storm into some school or other place himself to pick a fight and build his rep. Nothing really matters to him but defeating the King of Swords. He remains nameless because he'll accept no name other than "King of Swords." But something else seems to drive him. Repeatedly, he has visions of the young woman who killed herself at that long-ago duel.
Arriving at the potentate's city, Nameless learns that the King of Swords is away on business. Since his reputation has preceded him, Nameless is invited to hang out as the potentate's guest until the King returns for the inevitable duel. While he waits, he befriends a local doctor who tries to teach him to enjoy life on its own terms, from the pleasures of good food or good jokes -- the film tarries to hear an old man tell a story supposedly so funny that it makes a horse piss -- to the pleasures of women. And as if on cue, his vision seems to come to life in the form of a local shopgirl. By falling in love with her he acquires a new rival whom the girl convinces him to spare after repeated fights. The rival ends up joining forces with the mysterious woman stalker, while the King's imminent return gets Nameless worrying over whether his new feelings will cost him his edge. Shocks and surprises are in store that leave him wondering whether victory would be worth the trouble he's taken -- and that will be when he's most vulnerable....
Soul of the Sword is a truly character-driven wuxia film, one that stands out from what I've seen of the genre in its tight focus on a single character arc. That being said, I'm still unsure what to make of Nameless. Is he driven by ego and ambition, as the film implies early, or did he have some subconscious drive to avenge that poor young woman? If so, how to account for how he treats his own girlfriend, the spitting image of that long-ago victim? The confusion actually makes Nameless a more complex, interesting character, since his motives are so clearly and sadly mixed.
At the same time, one wonders what the moral's supposed to be, given what we learn about the doctor dispensing all the folksy, life-embracing advice. In a classic case of "physician, heal thyself," you're left to ponder whether his were sincerely-offered life lessons or simply snares to trick a sucker. Again, however, his inconsistencies strike me as enriching contradictions that parallel those of Nameless and strengthen the film's sense of tragedy.
Given the more intimate scope of the story, Hua Shan doesn't need the atmospheric sweep of many earlier wuxia films to impress the viewer. The fights are well staged as far as I can judge, but the director excels at shock moments that create extra suspense, the climactic one being when Nameless approaches a presumed corpse only to have it spring into malevolent action against him. Overall, Soul of the Sword works best as a mood piece, if not a critique from within the swordplay genre of swordplay as an end unto itself.