King Hu’s martial-arts epic “Swordsman” (at the Garfield, Alhambra, and the Sing Lee on N. Spring Street), a whirlwind of a movie, has everything you could ask of an action/adventure: fly-through-the-air-with-the-greatest-of-ease combat and swordplay, bravura camerawork and music to match the breathtaking acrobatics, fabulous period sets and costumes, speed-of-lightning pacing and nonstop special effects wizardry. More important, it has a blithe spirit, a sense of humor, style to burn and a genuine aura of enchanting screen magic.
It also has an impenetrable plot (like many a Japanese samurai movie), but not to worry: good triumphs over evil, and it’s fun all the way. The time is the middle of the Ming Dynasty. To his enormous chagrin, the head eunuch at the imperial palace in the Forbidden City has discovered that the “Sunflower Scripture,” which contains martial-arts secrets unlocking supernatural powers, has been stolen.
His minions track the culprit to his dye factory in distant Foochow City in Fukien. The culprit is about to blow his factory to smithereens to cover his tracks when he has two visitors, the young swordsman Ling Hu-Ching, called the Fox (Sam Hui), and his feisty sidekick Yue Lin-Shan (Cecilia Yip), who is disguised as a boy.
In this deft adaptation of a novel by Louis Cha, King Hu, the longtime master of the Hong Kong martial-arts genre, crams just about as much incident as humanly possible in two-hours’ running time. (The production was drawn-out, and some parts were directed by others, including the dynamic Ann Hui and his celebrated producer, Tsui Hark, but it seems clearly a King Hu film.) Hu is an internationally renowned director of much sophistication whose forte is creating fantasies containing moral fables, much like the classic fairy tales. His unfailing light touch deflects the violence inherent in martial-arts movies to the extent that they actually are suitable for children.