Director: Bingjia Yang
Cast: Xie Miao, Gao Wei Wan, Hao Xiang, Zhang Di, Liu Ben, Zhang Haosen, Kang Xuan
Running Time: 78 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The character of the blind swordsman is one that can be found in almost every countries output that’s dabbled in the martial arts genre. It’s arguably Shintaro Katsu’s portrayal of Zatoichi in Japanese cinema whose shadow is cast over all of them, a character who, while not the first blind swordman to grace the screen, is undoubtably the one who popularised the character trope. Other memorable turns include the likes of Rutger Haur in the 1989 Hollywood outing Blind Fury, Hwang Jung-min in the 2010 Korean production Blades of Blood, and joining such esteemed company in 2022 is Xie Miao in the Chinese web movie Eye for an Eye: The Blind Swordman.
For fans of Hong Kong action cinema Miao will most likely always be remembered for his co-starring turns as a child martial arts prodigy in the Jet Li outings The New Legend of Shaolin and My Father is a Hero during the mid-1990’s. While he largely stayed off the radar in the succeeding years, he made a comeback in 2008 with the Tsui Siu-Ming directed Champions, a rousing tale set during the 1936 Olympics that was made off the back of Beijing hosting the event during the same year. Since then he’s appeared onscreen regularly, and in the mid-2010’s found his calling as one of the go-to leading men (probably only rivalled by Fan Siu-Wong) for kung-fu web movies. In the 2020’s alone he’s already headlined 15 of them, and is one of the few actors who can claim to have played the iconic characters of Ip Man, Sun Wukong, and Na Zha (and all within just a few months of each other!).
While Chinese web movies tend to be dominated by either kung-fu or monster flicks of vastly varying quality, like any medium there’s always some diamonds to be found in the rough, and Eye for an Eye: The Blind Swordsman thankfully turns out to be one of them. What’s more befuddling is that the vast majority of China’s web movie output appears to be made by directors with hardly any experience, and considering this type of movie has now been a popular medium for almost 10 years, no directors have really emerged as recognizable names that indicate a sign of quality. For EfaE:TBS (as I’ll refer to it from here on in) it’s Bingjia Yang in the director’s seat, and in a rarity for the genre he’s also credited as the writer, which I’d argue is one of the reasons why it seems more care has gone into the production than the average kung-fu web movie.
On paper though there’s not much to differentiate Yang from the majority of other web movie directors out there, with EfaE:TBS being his debut outing. The following year he’d release his sophomore feature with the sequel Fight Against Evil 2, which also stars Xie Miao, and is co-directed by EfaE:TBS’s fight choreographer Pengfei Qin. Himself a director, it was Qin who helmed the first Fight Against Evil in 2021, which also starred Xie Miao and was written by Yang, so the trio clearly seem to be acquainted within the industry. Outside of Miao it’s Qin who has the most experience in the film industry, having originally started out as a stuntman on the likes of John Woo’s Red Cliff, before working his way up to stunt coordinator on the Pang Brothers 2013 firefighter thriller Out of Inferno and Gordon Chan’s 2017 period battlefield flick God of War.
The plot sees Miao cast as a blind bounty hunter with a nose for good wine, who makes his living from catching wanted criminals and collecting the reward. It’s while travelling through a local village that he gets whiff of a batch worth making a stop for, which turns out be made by a young lady preparing for her wedding day, played by Weiman Gao (Special Police and Snake Revenge). Despite her initial reluctance, Miao’s praising of her wine making skills sees him invited to stick around and enjoy the wine as a wedding guest, but during the same evening while he’s sleeping nearby a group of bandits break in, killing her husband and brother.
Finding Gao barely conscious (in an unintentionally amusing line, he explains to Gao that “You survived strangulation because your neck is tough”), while the initial plan is to let the authorities handle the killings, when it turns out the bandits were members of a powerful clan their only advice is to drop the matter. Refusing to let the killers go unpunished, the authorities ultimately decide to pin the murders on her instead to avoid any complications, however with Miao also knowing the truth, he decides to take up her quest for revenge and ensure that justice is served regardless of the price.
Take it up he definitely does, and Miao clocks in a convincing performance as the gravelly voiced and world weary swordman. While top drawer acting is rarely what audiences clock into these types of movies for, the fact that Miao is able to pull off an effectively understated role like this one is worth mentioning, as it makes the story that much more engaging for the audience. More often than not, when an actor primarily known for their martial arts skill is called upon to clock in a similarly understated performance, the usual result is one where they look either bored or miserable (or a combination of both) for the duration of the runtime.
Pengfei Qin’s choreography is also a pleasure to watch, eschewing the use of gratuitous slow motion that so many of EfaE:TBS’s contemporaries unnecessarily rely on, and instead opting for an aesthetic that favours swift and economical movements that place an emphasis on impact. Miao’s blindness is utilised in the fight choreography in a way which sees him looking to disable attackers quickly and efficiently, with arm breakages and impaled feet making regular appearances. The editing is snappy but never in such a way that fragments the flow of the action, and the fact that Miao comes with a legitimate martial arts skillset (and of course the fact that this is the 2nd time for him and Qin to work together) clearly comes through onscreen.
While there are no real one on ones as such, with the exception of a short fight against an opponent who looks to have been inspired by Dan Chupong’s Crow Ghost from the Ong Bak sequels, each fight serves a purpose that propels the story forward. Clocking in at a lean 75 minutes, as a director Yang proves to be an economical storyteller and uses every minute of the punchy runtime to advance the narrative, with no time filling detours into comedy or meaningless subplots (which for anyone familiar with the medium, is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, making even some 60 minute movies a chore to get through). A scene in which Miao gets to brandish a flaming sword is indicative of the ambitions behind EfaE:TBS, the coolness of the way he ignites it outweighing the inevitable CGI flames used to present it onscreen, and hopefully a sign of continued collaboration between Yang, Qin, and Miao in the future.
If there’s any gripe about EfaE:TBS, and it’s one that applies to many of these Chinese web kung-fu movies, it’s that it limits Guo’s role to that of a helpless damsel in distress. Considering the Chinese wuxia genre in the 20th century was known for its strong female characters, who could usually brandish a sword just as effectively as their male counterparts, it’s a shame to see the helpless female character become such a recurring one in the 21st century.
However this is a minor gripe and certainly one that’s not exclusive to director Yang’s debut feature. Offering up a classic revenge plot, a memorable lead character, and a satisfying amount of sword thrusting, Eye for an Eye: The Blind Swordsman succeeds at being a lean little action movie that ticks all the boxes of what audiences look for when it comes to the wuxia genre.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10