AKA: The Hidden Fox
Director: Qiao Lei
Cast: Zhao Huawei, Fu Jia, Yusi Chen, Ray Lui Leung Wai, Shanshan Chunyu, Zihan Chen
Running Time: 104 min.
By Will McGuire
The Flying Swordsman (aka The Hidden Fox) is great entertainment. It is, like the best of contemporary wuxia films, a strong evolution of the style that began in the late-60’s revival of the genre at Shaw Brothers and though it has some dodgy production values in places it features assured direction, lyrical action, and a wonderful confidence about presenting its story that permeates the whole film. Donnie Yen’s recent Sakra felt like someone trying to encapsulate the entire wuxia genre, whereas this film just feels like someone tried to make a good one and I ended up enjoying it much more for the lowered ambitions.
Zhao Huawei plays Gui Yu, a young swordsman whose father and his chief rival were manipulated and murdered by a gang of evil martial artists in search of a hidden treasure. Ten years later and he’s partnered with Yin Ji (Fu Jia) looking for a key in a tavern, when he unexpectedly sets off a series of traps he’s engineering to draw in the eight killers who have murdered his father. Wuxia stories, having evolved from long form Chinese pulps, have complicated plots by their nature but this one was almost on the level of a Chor Yun film to follow, and it was made even more complex by the storytelling gimmick of flashing back after a big event to show the true motives of the hero or villains in setting it. Safe to say, this film rewards rewatching and if I try and explain the plot it would comprise the entire review.
What works is that, unlike so much contemporary Chinese cinema, it really feels visceral, has exceptional choreography that highlights the beauty of technique and lends each villain strong visual identity and a cool gimmick. This is a martial arts film that’s carried by the action for once, and it was a remedy to so many recent attempts that seem reticent to deliver the goods. In particular the showdown between the Gui Ya and a killer who uses a web of wires to strangle her prey, felt like it could have conceptually come out of an 80’s wuxia.
I’ve been deeply disappointed in wuxia films made in the last ten years because they lack art in hiding just how stage bound and lifeless they feel compared to films from the boom the genre got at the turn of the last century. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; and The Funeral are not perfect pictures but they had such a strong visual style and immense and overwhelming beauty that they used to be the kinds of films you bought to show off home theater systems and new forms of physical media. The Flying Swordsman is surely as low budget as many of its contemporaries but it hides it, in general, more effectively than most with a desolate winter aesthetic that effectively counterpoints that constant backstabbing and plot twisting the action is engaged in. Other than a sequence involving hyenas late in the film, I never once chuffed at what I was seeing or felt like the filmmakers had shown their hand.
I have seen valid criticism that director Qiao Lei is too enamored with the intricacies of plot and neglects characterization and I think this is somewhat fair, but needs context: wuxia, like the Western, has nearly always been the province of broad and simple characterization where heroes are strongly and minimally defined and then go out into the world and do. I also think that while the nonlinear structure complicates a film that is sufficiently complicated on its own, it should be applauded for trying to intellectually distinguish this film from the dozens and dozens of low budget wuxia available.
In final summation: you’re going to get great fights, clever use of limited production values, and a plot that requires a rewatch from even a seasoned veteran of the genre. How deeply that interests you is really a testament to how much the genre of wuxia interests you in particular, as opposed to martial arts in general. I was thoroughly entertained, even as I confess I was occasionally confused.
Will McGuire’s Rating: 6/10