Swordsmen In Double Flag Town (1991)
Directed by: He Ping
It's always healthy to look for a break from the norm and He Ping's (Warriors Of Heaven And Earth, Sun Valley) Wuxia is neither colourful or extravagant for starters. This world of swordsmen is largely rooted in a muddy, grimy reality where in fact little happens when it does happen (and to boot only for brief periods of time). So essentially uneventful, emotionless cinema then? Art? Commercial? Well He Ping strikes a chord and hypnotizes an audience. Even those itching to dismiss Swordsmen In Double Flag Town as just a Chinese-Western.
The movie has a lot to live up to as the narrator speaks of this story being a legend but coupled with some stirring slow-motion imagery of our at this point unknown main character riding through the glowing desert and Tao Hong's chillingly effective score with the theme heroism smeared over it, He Ping has an almost hypnotic grip over us. A grip that won't ever fade despite this being a rather calm, at times, soothing wordless experience. With huge attention to detail in make-up and costumes, planting us firmly in a bright but cold, harsh landscape, this calm, soothing calm experience also reveals a pronounced stylized nature. With rather huge symbolism of the myth surrounding character being represented by their entrance within a cloud of sand the wind has conveniently picked up, you would think it's overkill by He Ping to favour these clichés. But Swordsmen In Double Flag Town has a difference maker in its filmmaker that knows his beats and doesn't miss them.
With a somewhat close Hong Kong equivalent in Tsui Hark's The Blade, He Ping's world is indeed not a world of swordsmen that has any magnificent surroundings, temples or big halls. No, this is rooted stuff that is perfectly suited for Mainland filmmakers as they are in my minds the masters of the village drama. But it's not automatic of course and He Ping's crew have worked extensively to bring to the screen a rather colourless and flat world. Sand, rocks and light yellow runs through the movie and this lack of distinction still continues to produce the opposite effect OF distinction. But it's not all style and atmosphere but evident within is a story others have called "a coming of age kung-fu tale".
The character of Haige (Gao Wei) is quite the enigma. Very young and possibly naive (especially when he strikes up the friendship with Lethal Swordsman played by Sun Haiying), he's been told what goals to achieve in the town of Double Flags (finding the other half of his arranged marriage whose only trait he knows of being a mole on her butt), he will be told how to at least learn a skill in order to carry off a trade but when the teacher has passed on, will there be anything left? So it's no wonder Lame Man (Chang Jiang) won't give away his daughter Haomei (Zhao Mana) easily. But despite a lack of common sense and skill, in Haige rests a violent beast in a way. One that comes out in the subtlest of ways first (he wakes up in one scene and does quite the acrobatic feat) but when he consciously tries out his dual swords, it's not usage equal to tuned in this world. Haige will have to learn to live in a world where there's little heroism but instead a grab bag. Harsh, callous violence is never far off. People just want to be left alone, get on with their lives but once you flash your blade or sword that colours the light ground red, you do have to pay for the consequences or take responsibility. The key here is that growth and a firm grip on the notion of responsibility often occurs after tragedy has struck.
This is a downbeat portrayal but ultimately a small, fascinating story told sparsely by He Ping. Continuing his hypnotic rhythm whenever a blade or sword is drawn, for his fight scenes he relies more on build-up (again the Western influence) and in the end brevity rather than long, choreographed brawls. It's a terrific choice that is just as eerie as these flashes of weapons and the sound of them breaking the calm of the atmosphere reminds us of the attempted realism attempted in a fantastical world. Growth and final solutions in He Ping's mind continues to echo real life as well as you don't get anywhere without a little pain. You're also never free of challenges in the future as surely the final shot of riding away in the sunset confirms.
The DVD (Mr. Banker Films, Region 2):
Released under the title Lost Town - Duell der Schwertkämpfer in Germany, you can pick up the dvd at German Amazon here.
Video: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: Mandarin Dolby Digital 1.0 and German Dolby Digital 1.0.
Subtitles: English and German.
Extras: Trailers for The Private Eyes (German audio), The Contract, Security Unlimited and Chicken And Duck Talk. These titles are contained in the Michael Hui box set released by the same company.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson