Swordsman and Enchantress (1978)
86 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)
Review © 2003 Branislav L. SlantchevMy Chu Yuan marathon continues with this lovely film that is as baffling as it is sumptuous. Starring all the usual suspects cast right into their character, Swordsman and Enchantress is yet another story about how helpless men (and women) are when tempted by their passions. As usual, the destructive force is female, either overtly or covertly so. However, in a departure from the common resolution (everyone dies), Chu Yuan shows that good can triumph only by subverting evil through the same weapon it so skillfully has used against it in the first place --- love. Whether one believes in the redeeming power of love is besides the point, here, as in many other films, a woman sacrifices herself to free a man (or, in this case, two men) from the bounds that she has ensnared him with her charms.
|Lily Li is the multi-married Lady Feng||The Four Lethal Leng brothers|
The film opens characteristically with a scene that is beautiful and quite peripheral to the plot. Lily Li is bathing when she is set upon by villains with not quite chivalrous intentions. Luckily for her (but not for them), the King of Left-hand Sword (Norman Chu) shows up and dispatches them all to the place where low-paid extras go, inexplicably wielding his sword with his right hand. They plot to steal a very cool sword forged by Xu Ruzi, one sword to rule them all and in the darkness... oh wait, another story!
|Candy Wen supposedly a man||Agile Chinese zombies|
Anyway, this Sword of Whatever is intended for the bestest and noblest fighters of them all, Lian of Brocade Villa (Lau Wing) who happens to be the luckiest man alive because he's married to Chen (Ching Li). En route, however, the 4 lethal Leng brothers who are escorting the sword are attacked by the decidedly not-man villain played by Candy Wen. She steals the sword and then tells the lethal brothers (who until this point have yet to kill anyone) that the sword was stolen by Xiao.
|Ti Lung drunk and eating eggs||You have to ravish her here and now!|
The problem is that Xiao is not Candy Wen but Ti Lung, a bearded traveling swordsman of lowly birth with a weakness for wine and eggs. Candy does lots of bad things to Lian: gets his wife kidnapped by her own cousin (Ku Kuan-chung, perennially playing some scumbag), and then tries to get the cousin to rape and kill her. Fortunately, Xiao shows up just in time to rape and kill... no, I take that back, to save her, while simultaneously exposing Candy for what she is... a girl!
|You mean Candy Wen is NOT a man?||Health Care = Love & Sex|
Predictably, Ching Li and Ti Lung fall in love. It's not like this has not happened before. Therein lies the dilemma: she is married and he is honorable. How are they going to resolve this? Mind you, Candy's efforts thus far have been solely directed at ruining Lian and making him a sworn enemy of Xiao. We don't know why yet, but this much is clear. Now her plans are about to come to fruition despite her! How much easier it turns out to be to seduce a man by dangling a beautiful woman in front of him than plot elaborate setups to confuse her husband.
|Gratuitous shot of Ching Li||The two curtain-crossed lovers|
But the noble Ti Lung is not easily seduced, and in fact takes at least a week or so to surrender to Ching Li's charms, although he does drink a lot of wine under the moon which in other films has been sufficient for some carnal union. Not here, though, because the wife is not yet ready to betray her husband. Something in this story begins to remind me of the Arthurian legend, although I thought Lancelot and Guinevere made off faster than you can say "vassal."
|I only meant to take the grapes!||Damnit, he only meant to take the grapes!|
With her chastity intact, Chen returns to Lian only to find her husband torn by jealousy. Interestingly, in the ensuing confrontation, Lian does admit that he believes nothing has happened between his wife and Xiao but that the code of honor still requires him to kill the guy because others think something may have happened. Lian is thus not quite as virtuous as one would have hoped. He attacks a man he believes to be innocent only because of the pressure of public opinion. In the end, he's just another guy craving the respect afforded him by his position.
|Drunk under the moon like Li Po||Ti Lung battles Lau Wing over Ching Li|
This, for some odd reason, does not upset Xiao too much. When he has the chance to get rid of Lian, he refuses to do so, recognizing that the guy is weakened by his wife's betrayal (which has yet to occur, by the way). Xiao promises to ask Chen to return to Lian if he ever sees her, making seem the better man. Yet, he is unaware how quickly he will have to fulfill this rash promise. And neither is he aware of how impossible that would turn out to be.
|Ching Li despises her husband||The model of the Solitary Villa|
At this point, we have all but forgotten Candy's efforts to get Lian and Xiao to kill each other. But now she swings back in full force, compelling the two lovers to flee to the Solitary Villa, where they encounter some very strange characters and where the film makes a sharp turn into the surreal. There's a model of the villa with a bunch of puppets in it. Unwittingly, Xiao and Chen come under the hypnotic spell of a tea and wake up in the model. There is only one way back to the real world: a sacrifice by a man for the wife he loves. Will Xiao do it?
|Advanced SFX||I WAS going to marry him, but it's not what it looks like|
Without giving away the ending which reveals Candy's role and the reason why she wanted to kill both so badly, one can still discuss the main theme of the movie. Here we have two noble and chivalrous men, both in love with the same woman. They cannot help ruining their respective worlds despite some valiant attempts to resist the seduction. Ching Li is perfect in the role of enchantress, having just the right balance between alluring beauty and honorable responsibility to make her struggle with her conscience very believable. The two men turn out to be not without their failings, especially Lian. In the end, they are both trapped, literally unable to move, and it will take the sacrifice of another to free them from the spell.
|If you don't study, you get the plank||Ching Li being icy|
The last scenes of the film are very well done because of the symbolism in the two men pinned to the wall, forced to stare at their downfall as they realize how foolishly they had squandered their strengths. They are also slowly freezing, incapable of movement, their lives are draining away. It is too late now for regrets, and they are doomed to perish unless someone helps them. Quite moving, and very well acted out, this is one of Chu Yuan's better moments.
|Man, we're so screwed||Now show me your tongue and say "Aaaah..."|
The Celestial DVD is what appears to have become the standard fare. With anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 widescreen picture free of blemishes and with colors that do justice to the surreal surroundings used for sets. A single Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin soundtrack with optional English subtitles with a decent translation. The usual (light) extras include a photo gallery, talent files, and trailers. It's the way to own this film, and you know you want it.
December 14, 2003