Sunday, January 8, 2012


No, vengeance is not a golden blade -- or so you might be forgiven for concluding after sitting through most of Ho Meng-hua's scenic swordplay picture. The golden blade -- to be precise, the Golden Dragon Blade -- can hardly be an instrument of vengeance when it spends most of the film in the possession of the villain. It belongs to Li Ching Shan (Ching Tang), who runs one of old China's ubiquitous security services for caravans. His main business rivals are the Vicious Long Brothers, who seem perplexed at their lack of trade and blame Li for it. The head of the Longs, Zhentian (Li Pengfei) wants everything of Li's -- his business, his wife and his invincible Golden Dragon Blade. By the time Li comes back from his latest business trip, his rival has the wife and expects the rest to follow. Discovering her infidelity, Li orders his wife to kill herself, but she contrives to poison his washbasin. It's just enough to hinder his vision and reflexes, but that's just enough for the Longs to beat him down, drive him out and take his sword. His daughter and a faithful retainer escape with him, but Li suffers a laming leg injury in the process. They're rescued by an herbalist who shelters them as the girl Xiaoyen (Chin Ping) grows into your standard wuxia heroine and falls in love with the herbalist's kid, while Li toils away for years on the blade that actually seems to be vengeance, the Hanglong Blade, alone capable (somehow) of defeating the Golden Dragon. It's going to be up to Xiaoyen to get revenge due to dad's lameness, but the concerned parent doesn't want her to make a move until he feels she's ready. He's understandably a controlling father, but once all his remaining friends cajole him into letting Xiaoyen go to town for the first time, events evolve beyond Li's control.

Well, something is a golden blade, and Ching Tang has got it -- at first.

By the very end, we can concede that maybe vengeance was a golden blade after all, but the apparent untruth of that assertion over most of the picture seemed consistent with Ho's overall determination to defer if not deny gratification for martial-arts fans. Golden Blade is more character-driven than action-driven, though Ho makes up for the slow middle with a dynamic final half hour. Like many of the wuxia films I've seen, this one has more personality and visual sweep (letterboxing always helps) than the small-scale kung fu movies I was used to from youthful TV watching. Golden Blade has a lot of attractive location work, and I'll give the special effects department credit for at least trying to make their soundstage brush fire scene look attractive. The quality of the fighting may not be that great (I'm not especially qualified to judge) but the action scenes are usually framed quite nicely and generate good momentum for the final reels.

The great outdoors (above) and the less-great indoors playing the outdoors (below).

The film seems compromised, however, by some discomfort with the idea of a female heroine that could be rooted in realism or sexism. Without spoiling too much, after constant reminders from Li that Xiaoyen that she isn't ready to take revenge on the Vicious Long Brothers  (not to mention her own mother), you expect the heroine to refute him convincingly. But Ho and his writers ultimately take Li's side, proving that she wasn't quite ready after all. Usually when that's the case, the film will wait patiently while the hero or heroine gets ready and gets his or her revenge. But Golden Blade closes on that slightly sour note -- the consequences aren't too grave -- of Xiaoyen's unreadiness.  Apart from that, Xiaoyen's right to take revenge is thrown into question by an abrupt plot twist. The bad guys remain bad and the good good, but her redefined relationship to the bad guys seems to make her revenge worse than the original offense. The twist also complicates the already more complex than normal character of Li, whose determination to shelter Xiaoyen from the world takes on a different complexion. There's also an unusual emphasis on the personal sacrifice involved in dedication to the martial arts in the suggestion that Li is less than what he seems and what he could have been.

Ready or not, Ching Ping leaps into action.

Ho seems to have aimed at a more mature or nuanced consideration of the standard revenge imperative, and the dominant message of his movie is that vengeance, no matter how sharp or what color, is more complicated than people assume. That doesn't necessarily sit well when you expect a rip-roaring swordplay picture, but it does make Golden Blade stand out as a story while it still delivers much of the goods.

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