Chang Wu Nien (Pauline Chan - Escape From Brothel, From Beijing With Love) sees her father killed and when begging on the streets subsequently, she's taken into the stable of prostitutes run by Yeh Hon (Joyce Ngai - Amazing Stories). Plans by Yeh Hon for Wu Nien are something different though and out in the dark woods, fighting and eliminating of opponents in the Wuxia world is taking place with silent swordsman Yun (Jackson Lau) and Eunuch Li (Max Mok) playing roles. Two seemingly unrelated strands turning out to be have much to do with each other as it turns out...
Chu Yen-Ping have more than one occasion let's say re-used aspects of other movies in his own such as the show stopping Asian-Spaghetti-Western-Chinese guys in Nazi uniforms-femme fatale extravaganza Golden Queen's Commando (1982) and the all star prison drama Island Of Fire (1990). Ok, he's flat out copied great scenes beat by beat from Cool Hand Luke and My Name Is Nobody but him in the middle of the new wave kung-fu and swordplay craze here features the re-use aspect in a proper way. Being the producer and part of the production company of Michael Mak's wild Wuxia Butterfly & Sword, Slave of The Sword released a few months later sees Chu re-using sets and even footage (most notably Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's, or his stuntman's, flying arrow attack) from said flick for his own 18+ oriented high flying personal drama. Yep, it's not a slice of the swordsman universe that is particularly epic or colorful and in the end Slave Of The Sword has turned out to be a fair amount more than just a comparison piece of moods for Chu Yen-Ping's Wuxia movies at the time. Butterfly & Sword told it dramatically but with a lot more over the top action, Flying Dagger was wacky and insane (with Wong Jing and Chu on one production, you'd imagine it would be) and Slave Of The Sword takes a short running time (1*) and dives into deeply planted seeds of revenge and disgust. The effect is surprisingly enough there but those of us who watched the long version of Island Of Fire are NOT surprised it would be.
Narration tells us we're going to witness a typical story of thieves and whores. Add murderers and in some ways it's a spot on observation. That doesn't mean it's tried and tired material but Chu Yen-Ping is asking us to sit rather tight, pay attention and hopefully rewards will be given after the short running time. Not the best pace is employed and Chu seems to extend the epic beauty of certain moments for the sake of it but he does have a grip on the darker atmosphere of this particular slice of the Wuxia world.
Any light in character's lives is quickly shot down, in particular of course for Pauline Chan's Wu Nien (and she suffered disturbingly regularly in these movies, Escape From Brothel being one example). It's clearly a dog eat dog world and although Joyce Ngai's Yeh Hon seemingly brings in Wu Nien into a better living standard and even may have the agenda of wanting to toughen her up to survive in this world, you know good intentions aren't written on the wall. All captured on pretty stunning sets and via accomplished cinematography, Chu sure loves what he's getting out of the material visually and by the end he's been entitled to love his surroundings. It's deceptive beauty and outside of the prostitute mansion, the rain is hailing down with fighting usually ending up in bloody fashion with bodies being torn apart. The action aspect isn't very extensive in the vein of Ching Siu-Tung's work on Butterfly & Sword but the quick-cut, gory ends to certain wire assisted fights are an entertaining sight. As Wu Nien connects to Jackson Lau's Yun who's a killer for hire and even is the one bringing her into the arms or claws of Yeh Hon, we get evidence of Wu Nien and Yun connecting as characters stuck in meaningless cycles of violence and in her case, giving her hopefully strengthened soul and body to men.
It's rather unsaid much of this, a testament to the dramatic skills of Chu Yen-Ping but also, he doesn't go overboard. It's enough drama for barely 80 minutes of film and when concerning a small group of characters, you don't need that much running time to work with. Sex scenes are blessed with the keen eye visually and are an attractive part of the drama (even when it's portrayed as darkly disturbing). Slave Of The Sword seemingly wanted to make a few points only and not contend with the higher division and this suitable thinking gets Chu Yen-Ping strong points. The Wuxia world small in scale and low on tricky twists that are instead more human, that's a reason for fair success here that's hopefully a selling point for those who are looking for gorgeous flesh on display. Flesh is a key, even when the movie turns as deep as intended.
The DVD (City Connection):
Video: 1.50:1 non-anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 and Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: English and Chinese (burned in)
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
(1) In its native Taiwan, like many of Chu Yen-Ping's movies, the movie runs a few minutes longer, making this Hong Kong edit an altered version rather than it being extended in Taiwan after the fact.