Derek Yee’s film based on a 1970s Chinese novel, will hit mainland theaters on Friday— 17 years after the director planned it. Xu Fan reports.
Martial arts movies, a pivotal genre that brought Hong Kong cinema to global attention, has kept veteran filmmaker Derek Yee busy for decades.
Over the past 17 years, he has been working on Sword Master, a film based on a novel by the late author Gu Long. The film is finally ready and will be released in the mainland on Friday.
Yee, 59, has been connected to the book’s story for long — and not just through one film.
In 1977, when he was still a newcomer in the industry, he won quick fame by playing the lead role in Death Duel, a film adapted from the same novel, and made by Hong Kong’s then most influential studio, ShawBrothers.
After that, for a decade, Yee starred in 16 martial arts movies but felt exhausted reprising “handsome, powerful but unreal” characters.
Eventually he quit acting and even announced that he would never act in a martial arts movie again. But that didn’t stop Yee from making a martial arts movie.
Over the years, the director has impressed audiences with his behind-the-camera skills.
And, for this movie, Yee didn’t buy a cliche of old Chinese films that depicts swordsmen as heroes whose lives are far too interesting to be real. The director decided to show his heroes as often confused and desperate, closer to Gu’s book published in the 1970s.
In the novel, the titular character, San Shaoye, seeks a spiritual answer. Born in a family boasting generations ofmartial arts masters, he has to guard the family image via endless, lethal duels. Lost in such a life, he abandons his fame and wealth and leads the life of a slum-dweller. But his former rivals track him down.
“I met Gu in 1977. He told me about his novel … Now thanks to Hark Tsui (director), I can bring to life that world through 3-D effects,” Yee said at a recent Beijing event.
Tsui, who is a Hong Kongbased pioneering filmmaker, uses cutting-edge technology to shoot big-scale action sequences. He is an executive producer of SwordMaster.
“Yee has dreamed of adapting the book to the big screen for many years … He has woven his own life and emotions into the movie,” says Tsui.
But Gu’s depiction of stunts in the book is too conceptual to be visualized, making it a challenge for filmmakers, he says.
In recently seen footage of the shooting, Yee and Tsui are seen waving swords to guide cast members on the performance.
But the film seemed to have more problems than those just related to action choreography. Originally it was meant to be shot in 1999. Yee had once hoped that Hong Kongbased singer-actor Leslie Cheung and Japanese actor Takenouchi Yutaka would play the lead roles, but that never happened due to money issues.
Yee and Tsui then recruited new mainland stars Lin Gengxin, Jiang Yiyan and Jiang Mengjie, and Taiwanbased actor Peter Ho for lead roles for the movie.
Despite the confidence Yee and Tsui seemed to have in the young actors, fans who got to know of the lineup, questioned how a lesserknown cast would do justice to one of Gu’s best-known works.
Yee countered his critics in an earlier interview with the local media, saying that he and Tsui were the highlights of the movie, and that the film would not disappoint viewers.
Lin, the actor, says Yee’s direction makes the martial arts story resonate with modern audiences.
While some people are working hard to pursue fame and money, some would rather quit the race, he says. “It’s an evergreen theme.”
From fellow actor Ho’s point of view, SwordMaster is a poetic product and a tribute to the golden era of martial arts films from Hong Kong.
The film has been mostly shot in Hengdian, a town in East China’s Zhejiang province, where many studios are located.
Members of the crew built around 15 sets, including a 10,000-square-meter replica of a slum, to re-create the ancient world in Gu’s novel.
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