Shaw Brother’s The Magic Blade (天涯明月刀) markedly differs from the Gu Long novel it is based on. With that itself, a great creative decision.
The Magic Blade (天涯明月刀) Synopsis
To defeat the sinister Gongzi Yu, Fu Hongxue and Yan Nanfei journey to the Peacock Manor to retrieve the mythical Peacock Dart. They are able to protect themselves from the many underlings of Yu, but it also becomes increasingly clear that the shadowy mastermind has other plans in store. What exactly does Gongzi Yu want with Fu? Is Fu, with his deadly sabre, merely a thorn that Yu must remove at any cost?
Like my recent review for the disappointing Ode to Gallantry, I will begin with a rundown of the source material for this 1976 Wuxia flick. Incidentally, this was the first of several movies staring Ti Lung as the deadly Fu Hongxue.
Written by Taiwanese Wuxia author Gu Long in 1974, Tianya Mingyue Dao (the novel) wasn’t popular with readers, although Gu’s experiments with Western structures of writing earned the notice of critics. The story was also the fourth in Gu’s Xiaoli Feidao (小李飞刀) series, with the solemn protagonist, Fu Hongxue, having previously appeared in the earlier Biancheng Langzi (边城浪子) saga.
On Fu Hongxue, I can only use the term “walking tragedy” to describe this deadly sabreman. Brooding, lonely, partly lame, epileptic, the victim of child abuse AND feminine manipulation, no other character in Gu Long’s universe led a life half as wretched. In fact, I took forever to finish reading Tianya Mingyue Dao 20 years ago not because the prose was awful, or because the plot was unexciting, it was because every other event involving Fu was heartbreaking in some way. Beyond a point, it was simply sheer pain to continue reading.
Now, you must be tapping your fingers. Why am I reviewing the novel instead of the movie? Well, that’s because this Shaw Brothers adaptation begins by removing all those tragic bits from Fu Hongxue. He is still depicted as a lethal lone wolf of sorts, and in the middle part of the movie, given a lamentable backstory. But nowhere is he near the walking tragedy in other adaptations. For example, the ATV series in the mid-80s.
I think this is a great move. An awesome, intelligent move. For a start, it makes the story much more palatable and easier to sink into. You wouldn’t be tugging your hair in frustration every ten minutes. Not having to do so also makes it easy to appreciate how the movie is clearly inspired by cowboy westerns. Fu Hongxue here is the Wuxia version of the lone wolf gunslinger. The way he slashes with his black “magic blade” is the Wuxia equivalent of a quickdraw.
Coming to the actual plot, there are notable changes from the novel but as a whole, director Chor Yuen preserves the conspiratorial mystery feel of Gu Long stories. (There’s also a lot of what we Chinese call, Gu Long dialogue) Needless to say, there’s no shortage of stylish kung-fu choreography too. Most of which are, clearly, banking on lead man Ti Lung’s masculine charisma.
To wrap up, this was an entertaining watch. Fast-moving enough too for me to ignore some of the flimsier moments in the story. Such as how pointless Gongzi Yu’s machinations are.
If any, my only complaint is that the movie lacks a certain gripping energy. From start to finish, Fu is clearly undefeatable in every way; nothing is of any real threat to him. But to be fair, that is a flaw inherited from the novel. I doubt there’s any way to remove this without irreversibly damaging the tale.
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