Forging the Swords (Zhang Huaxun, 1994)

Forging the Swords is one of the least appreciated films that Tsui Hark produced in the eighties, at least in part because it is the rarest and therefore the least viewed. The Hong Kong Film Archive screened it years ago as part of a Tsui Hark retrospective, and a single English review by YTSL appeared on the web.

The description provided in the review was enough to pique my interest, but the combination of its scarcity – the film was not screened in Hong Kong until 2001, nearly seven years after its premier in Mainland China – and my having read the short story by Lu Hsun from which it was adapted made my search for it all the more desperate, as did the fact that Ding Shanxi’s rather dull fantasy film, The Magic Sword, is apparently based on the same legend.

Lu Hsun’s story initially appeared in Old Tales Retold, a collection which featured old legends and folk stories processed through Lu’s sensibilities and modernistic literary style. I am less than prepared to discuss any of the social commentary that Lu undoubtedly hid in his tale, but I can attest that the film by Zhang Huaxun follows the same plot, albeit in something of a roundabout manner, although according to his own vision. This is Lu Hsun’s story, but it is most certainly Zhang’s film.

The film is set in the early days of the Zhou dynasty, in the kingdom of Chu, where the king has placed his faith in an idolatrous religion based around the “spirit bird.” He orders a master sword smith to create the best possible sword from an iron deposit. The sword smith’s wife suspects that nothing good can come of an order from a debauched ruler, and when the sword smith finishes his masterpiece – twin swords, male and female, forged with the essence of the sword smith and his wife (their hair is used in the smithing process) – hides the more powerful “male” sword.

And sure enough, the kind not only kills the sword smith, but orders the destruction of his town and family. But a soldier who had befriended the sword smith allows his wife and newborn son to escape. Years later, when his son has come of age, he receives his father’s masterwork, and leaves to seek revenge.

But the boy is meek, and cannot manage to kill the king himself. His benefactor, the soldier who spared his life when he was an infant, seeks him out, takes his sword and his head, and proceeds to use both to depose the king.

For those who know the story, it will come as a surprise that the film renders the soldier’s revenge against the king quite faithfully. It is easily one of the most bizarre sequences to be seen in Chinese film. In fact, the visuals in general reach for a sort of mythic resonance quite unlike the typical wuxia or historical films made in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. The arid desert landscapes immediately call to mind the disenchanted wuxia films made by Hong Kong film-makers at roughly the same time, like Billy Chung’s The Assassin or Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time. But Forging the Swords evokes something almost apocalyptic with its visuals, where dream and myth and brutal reality all seem so closely entwined that they cannot be easily separated.

And in a manner similar to Ashes of Time, or Tsuir Hark’s own disenchanted wuxia film, The Blade, Forging the Swords tells its story out-of-order. The temporal distortions, combined with strange dream sequences and even stranger fantastical events, makes for a sort of grotesque baroque. Forging the Swords is somewhat puzzling for a viewer so far removed (geographically, temporally, and socially) from its intended audience. I have no doubt that there is political commentary here that flew over my head like the King of Chu in one of his fever dreams, just as it likely did in Lu Hsun’s story.

It would be tempting to place Forging the Swords in context as a film in the Tsui Hark oeuvre, or as part of that short lived wave of disenchanted wuxia pictures in the early nineties, or as the continuation of the relatively less fantastical Mainland Chinese action films started by He Ping. It’s all of those, but none of them exclusively. It is firstly a visualization of myth, even if it is at least partially invented myth. And it is one of the most gloriously brutal films made in Mainland China. Worth watching, certainly – its rarity is unfortunate.


Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land

I know that I posted this little piece of “criticism” on my review of The Dark Spire to illustrate the view that game journalists on the console end of the industry held of dungeon crawlers. I’m posting it again, here, because it is both fitting and because it shows just how much has changed over the past decade or so.

From EGM 151: “Back in the old days, there was a certain sub-genre of RPGs that has all but died out – first-person dungeon crawls. Dispensing with years of progress, [Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land] ascribes to this timeworn tradition. Thankfully, there are a lot of touches that elevate the game above its ancient kin… [But] the truth is, though, there’s a reason this sub-genre has all but perished. All Wizardry really has to offer is a lengthy maze… Everything is built upon a rotted foundation. I find it difficult to imagine that anybody wants an endless dungeon crawl in this vein anymore…”
There are so many bad things about this review. Back in the old days, dungeon crawlers were hardly a sub-genre; they were all that was available as far as computer based RPGs were concerned, and Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, was the progenitor in both the West and in Japan. And as for the reviewer’s doubts as to whether anybody wants games of this type, the recent success of the Etrian Odyssey games on the DS begs to differ. The fact that Atlus even bothered to localize Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a testament to the staying power of the sub-genre wrongly assumed to have died out.

And that is all to ignore the relative presence of dungeon crawlers on the PC made by American and European companies when EGM published their review of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land in 2001.

Granted, it would be six years before Etrian Odyssey made its way into American stores, and even then, the gaming press was underwhelmed. Not whelmed at all, if Game Informer’s review (written by the evidently incompetent Joe Juba) is cited. And even then, games in this style appeal only to a niche, a tiny minority of gamers who either do not like the direction of mainstream RPGs from Japan and the West, or who willingly play anything so long as it is actually good.

Either way, the players who enjoy this sub-genre, such as it is these days, should look into getting a used copy of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, as it is one of the best of its kind, and, from my perspective, even one of the best games on the Playstation 2.

Game starts with character creation. The player’s character is quickly pared off with three other adventurers, a human warrior and ninja, and an elvish priestess. You can choose to create your own party members and leave these behind, but you’ll miss out on some melodramatic, if rather amusing, dialog if you do. I kept them in the party, and added a hobbit thief and human mage to round out the team.

After creating the party, a nameless swordsman leaning on a broken sword leads the player into the dungeon, a deep tunnel created after the flash, a cataclysmic event that killed a large portion of the local town, and reduced the castle to a heap of rubble on top of deep labyrinth. He instructs the party to make it to the bottom of the dungeon, to figure out the cause of the flash, and to utilize “allied actions,” tactical movements that utilize multiple members of the party, by building trust between the members of the party. After introducing the basics of the game, the player is then on their own in the labyrinth, free to accept quests at the local inn to bring in money, equipment, and experience, fighting in turn-based battles and leveling up the party as he or she proceeds down the labyrinth.

In other words, it’s a typical dungeon crawler, but its novelties add a great deal to an otherwise rote genre excursion, the “allied actions” in particular, as they make battles into strategic puzzles. Say that the player encounters a mob with multiple spell-casting enemies and a tank-like physical attacker. If carefully selected, the allied actions can end the battle early, with minimal damage to either the front or back rows of the party. By utilizing the “spell cancel” action, the “double slash” action with two characters capable of critical hits, and an individual spell from one of the party’s mages, all three of the enemies can be taken out in a single turn.

The mobs seem to have been carefully planned out in advance to allow the player to find the right combination of allied and individual actions. This makes almost every encounter a “puzzle battle” so to speak, usually a convention that the Japanese developers only employ for boss battles. It does not mean that the battles are always easy. Aside from some trial-and-error in finding the best strategy for dealing with a particular enemy group, the enemies in Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land actually pose a consistent threat. Ninjas, particularly high level groups of them, can decimate the party with instant kill critical hits, and, when throwing projectiles from the back row, can hit every member of the party, regardless of their placement. Ghosts can de-level a party member with a special attack, and large groups of spiders (as many as twenty, by my count) can throw enough poison to status-effect the entire party.

So along with battle-by-battle planning with the allied actions (not to mention taking into consideration the available spell points, hit points, item inventory, and player statistics), careful pre-dungeon planning also proves considerably important. It is important to gather materials and find special recipes so that spell-casters and priests have access to the abilities that will save a party from being completely poisoned or paralyzed. It is equally important to make sure that at least one of the warriors has an enchanted weapon to deal damage to undead enemies who are resistant to physical attacks.

And just as the battle system is a complex of moving parts, so too are the dungeons. Most of the dungeons are pre-planned mazes, usually with traps or secrets or events of importance, although there are randomly generated floors of the labyrinth. Usually large and containing (only slightly) hidden short-cuts, each segment of the dungeon can become dangerous if the player tarries, as the grim reaper will appear, hunt down the party, and kill one of its members, who can only be revived at the town’s sanctuary.

This is the sort of challenge and complexity that aficionados crave (and I have not even mentioned the party trust and moon-phase systems). More than an “endless dungeon crawl” it offers a great deal of customization, optimization, and challenge that was all but absent in the majority of JRPGs on the Playstation 2 at the time, and just as absent in the Bioware developed games that were developed for, or were eventually ported to the Microsoft Xbox.

One thing I find particularly irritating about that EGM review is that it implies that the game has no story or characterization. This is incorrect; expository sequences and dialog are sparse, and somewhat overwrought, I admit, but they are doled out appropriately and, when combined with the graphics and presentation, add quite a lot to the experience. While the graphics themselves are nothing special, the expert art direction helps to create a distressed atmosphere. The town covered in fog and snow (or ash), the warm and earthy colors of the inn and the pub. Even the art style strikes a healthy balance between googly-eyed anime and a more western fantasy aesthetic, for the information of the Nipponfobic out there.

Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land is an underrated gem from an underrated developer. Racjin (aka Racdym – they changed their name to “be more pronounceable.” Lol) also developed the charming Snowboard Kids (and its sequel) for the Nintendo 64, as well as the excellent Trap Gunner for the Playstation. Recently, they made the Nintendo DS remake of SaGa 2, better known here as Final Fantasy Legend 2, which was sadly not localized for the English market.

With the release of a new Wizardry game for the Playstation 3 and IOS, and with the whole of the dungeon crawling genre gaining renewed interest and respect, hopefully a little bit of retroactive appreciation will be given to this unfairly maligned game.


Return of the Bastard Swordsman (Lu Chin-Ku, 1984)

At the end of Lu Chin-Ku’s previous film, Bastard Swordsman, the titular bastard swordfighter, Yun Fei Yang, had rescued the Wudang clan from certain doom, won the heart of the lovely Lun Wan Er, and made a promise to the wicked Dugu Wu Di that they would fight using their signature styles – Yun’s Silkworm Skill against Dugu Wu Di’s Invincible Palms – in the inevitable sequel.

Return of the Bastard Swordman picks up where the first film left off in the manner of a television serial (fact: the two films are adapted from a television serial). Wudang is in trouble again, with both Dugu Wu Di planning to attack the Wudang temple and an interloping group of martial artists from Japan waiting in the background to take on whichever martial clan remains intact after the ensuing battle between the Invincible Clan and the Wudang.

The Wudang clan dispatches a student to find Yun Fei Yang, who has retreated to a life of contemplation and companionship with Wan Er, so that he can set everything right. Illiterate and lost, the pupil contacts the fortune-teller Li Bu Yi, who foresees a great deal of turmoil in the martial world. And sure enough, the Japanese fighters ambush Wudang while they host the leaders of the other martial sects, killing them all, and framing Dugu Wu Di in the process. Angry and bereaved, Yun Fei Yang decides to duel Dugu Wu Di before the appointed date.

Dugu Wu Di, seeing one of the Inivincible Clan’s strongholds in ruins, with a corpse signed in blood by Yun Fei Yang, agrees, although his advisors warn him that the perpetrators of the assault were likely foreigners and not Fei Yang, a suspicion later confirmed when one of the Japanese warriors attempts to ambush the Invincible Clan in disguise.

The duel takes place. Animated rays, wire-work, and blistering fast fight-choreography take flight. And the duel ends inconclusively with Yun Fei Yang injured and Dugu Wu Di coughing blood. Li Bu Yi sees his fortune, and warns Wu Di that he will die unmarried and childless, at which Wu Di scoffs. Given that the film has established the efficacy of Li Bu Yi’s divinations, this seems like a bad move. Sure enough, the Japanese fighters ambush Wu Di while he is ill and kill him.

Meanwhile, Li Bu Yi and Wan Er transport the incapacitated Yun Fei Yang to receive treatment from the legendary physician Lai Yao Er. But Lai Yao Er needs a ginseng root that has aged for a thousand years to treat Yun Fei Yang, and the only person who has one is Ghost Doctor Lan Xin Zu, who had previously thrown his lot in with the Invincible Clan. They fight, and Doctor Lai gets the ginseng. So Yang Yun Fei and Li Bu Yi set out to right the wrongs committed by the Japanese fighters, facing off against the “Vital Skill” of their leader, Mochitsuki Soryu Han.

The fight against Mochitsuki is the showpiece of Return of the Bastard Swordsman, and given the chaos of the preceding fight sequences, it has a lot of show to stop. And it does. This fight showcases some of the strangest visuals in Lu Chin-Ku’s considerably strange career at Shaw Brothers. Mochitsuki makes himself invincible by controlling his heart beat, utilizes ninja tricks that involve costume changes, explosives and tumbling; and when he really gets going with his special skill, his whole chest begins to expand and contract with his heart beat. Li Bu Yi attempts to distract him by beating drums asynchronously to his heart beat, while Yun Fei Yang shoots darts and flies about on wires, conjuring animated silkworms.

The fight choreography in this scene holds up under the prodigious use of visual effects, and, like the film’s less fantastical set pieces, is well performed. If Lu Chin-Ku and Yuen Tak had set out to make a standard wuxia film in the style of, say, Chu Yuan, their action design would more than adequately compliment the film. As seen in the first film, as well as the same year’s The Lady Assassin, Lu Chin-Ku could easily utilize the classical style of Shaw Brothers martial arts films while synthesizing newer techniques pioneered in films produced by rival studios.

My review of Bastard Swordsman asked the question of why, with films like these, which bridged much of the gap between the staid and conservative production style which built the Shaw cinema empire and the wild creativity of the young new wave headed by directors like Tsui Hark, the Shaw Brothers studio eventually imploded. I think now, even more so than earlier this year, when I reviewed Bastard Swordsman, that the reason must be more complicated than somebody so removed from the situation can grasp.

But it is true that even with Lu Chin-Ku and Yuen Tak’s astonishing creativity in both shooting and choreographing their films, and even with the appropriation of editing and cinematographic techniques from the new wave, Return of the Bastard Swordsman still looks very similar to the old style of Shaw Brothers movies. It reuses the familiar sets and costumes; the principle members of the cast, like Chen Kuan-Tai, Norman Chu, and Lau Wing, were hardly fresh faces in 1984.

Even though I would rate the film’s fight choreography at the same tier as, say, Ching Siu-Tung’s Duel to the Death, Ching’s film simply looks, for lack of a better description, more real. Its location shooting outmatches the sometimes garish look of the Shaw sets, which had already appeared in countless films since the late sixties. Even the costuming in Duel to the Death, though hardly exemplary in this sense, is more authentic – particularly when it comes to the depiction of the Japanese characters – than that of Return of the Bastard Swordsman.

But if there is any real problem in the film itself, not as a symbol of where its studio failed to go, but in and of itself, it is that Yun Fei Yang is so powerful that the script has to sideline him until the finale in order to generate any tension. The first Bastard Swordsman was tightly plotted; Return of the Bastard Swordsman is bloated, first with the Wudang pupil wandering about, then with the flight to Doctor Lao, then with the conflict between Lao and Ghost Doctor Lai.

That said, it’s still coherent, at least, which puts it ahead of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain on one account. And for its problems, Return of the Bastard Swordsman is still one of the looniest wuxia films that Shaw Brothers ever cranked out. Taken together with Bastard Swordsman, it is the perfect blend of fun characters, byzantine plotting, and old-school fight choreography mixed with then-new school special effects. Easily required viewing for fans of the Shaw Brothers and wuxia films.