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NYAFF Review: The Swift Knight

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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

While speaking with filmmaker Chung Chang-Hwa (also Jeong Chang-Hwa), he mentioned that Five Fingers of Death and The Swift Knight were two favorites from his own filmography. Both were action pictures that the Korean director made for Shaw Brothers during the studio’s heyday, though Five Fingers of Death is much better known (it’s where the synth and drum music cue from Kill Bill comes from). We’ll have the full interview with Chung Chang-Hwa next week.

Both Five Fingers of Death and The Swift Knight starred Lieh Lo, but they’re an interesting contrast in style. While Five Fingers of Death would become a seminal, influential kung-fu classic defined by speed and raw power, The Swift Knight is Chung Chang-Hwa’s traditional flying swordsman film. It’s more grace than ferocity, more wires than trampolines, and there’s a stress on fluidity, with hints of the brutality to come.

The Swift Knight (Lei Ru Fung | 來如風)
Director: Chung Chang-Wha
Rating: NR
Country: China (Hong Kong)

There are two heroes in The Swift Knight. There’s the title character played by Lieh Lo, a lot like Robin Hood or Iron Monkey. He leaps from rooftop to rooftop, his face concealed, stealing taels of silver and gold for the poor. He also protects the virtue of young women about to be deflowered by the lecherous elite. (In movies about heroes for the working class, there is never a shortage of those.) There’s a distinct swashbuckling feel to the Swift Knight’s introduction, from the first appearance on screen to the dashing escape that closes that sequence — this is a guy who loves what he does.

Then there’s Han Chin, who plays a bumbling beggar that may be more than he lets on. Hint: he’s obviously more than just a bumbling beggar. When Chin’s character gets to show his true quality, there’s generally less flying around (at least from his character) and much more action on the ground. When he takes to the air, it’s like Bruce Lee delivering a jumpkick 12 feet up. This is where the brutality comes in more than the Swift Knight scenes, and actually makes me think of Chin’s character as a chambara hero transplanted into a wiry wuxia film.

Both the Swift Knight and Chin’s character become entangled in a plot of royal intrigue, facing down a villainous specialist henchman who wields a saber in a tiger-stripe scabbard, supplemented by a spring-loaded harpoon gun. Inevitably the Swift Knight and Chin’s character fight before they join forces (i.e., the law of multiple heroes), and there is a hint of romance that arises as well. (Not between Chin and Lo but Lo and female lead Margaret Hsing Hui.)

The Swift Knight competently and briskly tells its wuxia fairy tale, carrying on from fight to fight to the eventual finale. The fight choreography isn’t as brutal as Five Fingers of Death or as ornate as later wuxia films in the 1970s. Part of this may be due to certain limitations for Chung Chang-Hwa while working with Shaw Brothers. Supposedly he wasn’t given the best choreographers on his films since he was a Korean working in Hong Kong.

To compensate, the battles are staged with an emphasis on color, movement, and rhythm. The contrast in costumes helps keep characters distinct in the fray, and with the Swift Knight scenes, Chung Chang-Hwa makes use of the full frame and movement within the frame. There’s an especially memorable moment during the Swift Knight’s first appearance staged around a gazebo. Using movement, doubles, and wires, he lends more finesse to the character in action.

There’s also a surprisingly cool use of montage involving throwing weapons. Before the little missiles meet their mark, there are sudden flashes in the film and clanging sound effects. The next shot are the unwitting bad guys hit by the deflected darts. Chung Chang-Hwa has said that speed, montage, and rhythm were all essential to the action of Five Fingers of Death, so perhaps The Swift Knight is a transitional movie where technique is being refined and theory is being tested.

There’s a decent amount of humor to The Swift Knight as well involving some bumbling cops. The comedy is broad and very Cantonese in that respect — crossed-eyes, slouching, tubbiness. It just needs some nose picking and hairy moles, maybe a tooth blacked out with grease paint.

While The Swift Knight isn’t the best of Chung Chang-Hwa’s output with Shaw Brothers nor is it influential as a flying swordsman film, it’s still a fine adventure tale, albeit a bit of a familiar one. Yet there’s something about it that stands out — that extra touch of grace, the bit of stylistic invention (perhaps even innovation), that slight flourish that hints at more. The last shot of the film maybe typifies that. (Viewed in retrospect, it also suggest an escalation in technique for Chung Chang-Hwa.) Just when you think The Swift Knight is done, there’s one last thing, and you think while giggling, “How charming.”

Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.