The Emperor’s Sword

Things are looking up.

(2020) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Xu Chang Chao, Yilin Hao, Qin Chu Ming, Feng-bin Mou, Ruoyao Pan, Zhao Qihang, Xiaofei Shi, Qiyu Yang, Xu Zhangchao. Directed by Zhang Yingli

The corruption that comes with the pursuit of power is universal. All cultures have stories, legends and myths concerning the relation between the two. Some stories are meant to be parables; others are meant to stir the blood in one way or another.

More than two thousand years ago, the Qin dynasty of China ruled with peace and prosperity. The emperor had in his possession a sword that gave him the power to rule all of China. He also led the Seven Gentlemen – the Brave, the Wisdom, the Polite, The Virtuous, the Valor, the Vigor and The Wise – don’t ask me hy two of the seven had essentially the same quality. After the Emperor’s ascension to the throne, they retired to the Wind Valley, confident that the land was in safe hands.

But all good things come to an end and when the Emperor died just ten years later, an ambitious nobleman named Zhao Gao takes advantage of the situation and massacres the family and retinue of the Emperor’s son, who happened to be the Emperor’s most loyal general. Only the Emperor’s daughter survived, having grabbed the sword – which had now been split into two with one half entrusted to the general’s care – and ran for her life. She was protected by one of the Gentlemen, who discovered what was happening too late to save the general’s family but soon enough to protect the sword.

The daughter and the Gentleman split up, with one going to assemble the other Gentlemen, and the girl to an inn run by an ally. The sword must be taken to a holy shrine, and a reformed thief known as the Ghost will escort her there, but there are many looking for the girl and the sword – including someone that she never expected to betray her.

Fans of classic Wuxia cinema will want to seek this one out. It kind of fell between the cracks a little bit; it doesn’t have any major action stars in it, and by the standards of better-known films it had a much smaller budget. That doesn’t mean it is any less worthy of attention. There is beautiful cinematography – one battle scene is shot in a foggy bamboo forest, for example and another in a temple perched high on a mountain – and fight choreography that is second to none. While some of the digital effects are less satisfactory by our standards, likely out of budget concerns, for the most part this is a beautiful film to watch with gorgeous costumes and sumptuous set design.

While this has the makings of a historical epic, it is all pretty much a fictional tale told amid real-life events. There was, for example, a real Zhao Gao although he was a palace eunuch, not a military man as depicted here, and he did attempt to seize power following the death of the self-proclaimed First Emperor, although he tried more through intrigue than military might. The First Emperor, by the way, was the one who was buried with the Terra Cotta warriors near the present-day city of Xi’an, and while his tomb has never been excevated, it remains one of the biggest tourist attractions in China.

While the movie debuted on the martial arts-centric streaming channel Hi-Yah! Back in July, it is only now making its way to premium streaming platforms and DVD/Blu-Ray release. While the story, with all the different Gentlemen and other players in the drama, may have a few too many characters to keep up with, this is a frenetically-paced and highly entertaining Wuxia that is well-plotted and at times, poignant enough to make it one of the very best movies you’ll see this year. I’m only disappointed that it was not made available for theatrical release; it would have looked amazing on a big screen.

And for those who have an abiding affection for Asian martial arts films, let me take a moment to show Hi-Yah! some love. It has an amazing library of titles, going back to Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers, and covering nearly every type of martial arts movie that you can think of. And at only $2.99/month for a subscription, it’s one of the best bargains in the streaming universe. Cinema365 gives it the highest recommendation possible. To sign up for a subscription, click on the Hi-Yah! link below.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful fight sequences. Beautiful cinematography. Some really powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of martial arts violence and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vandenberg spent several years as a member of the French Foreign Legion before turning to stunt work and acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hi-Yah!, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Business of Birth Control

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