The Three Swordsmen

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Directed by Taylor Wong, The Three Swordsmen (1994) is a modestly budgeted wuxia comedy. The Three Swordsmen follows the adventures of Siu Sam-siu (Andy Lau) who has tied with Ming Kim (Brigitte Lin), and Wang To (Elvis Tsui) for the title of “The Greatest Swordsman In The Land”. This unprecedented tie sets in motion a series of political manipulations, extortions, and set-ups designed to eliminate Siu Sam-siu and disgrace Wang To. As Siu Sam-siu searches for the culprit behind these duplicitous machinations he is joined by Butterfly (Lisa Tung), the young sister of Ku Choi-yee (Yu Li) the wife of Ming Kim’s older brother.

Like so most wuxia films of the nineties The Three Swordsmen trades in epic spectacles that are executed cheaply and quickly. The comedy of the broad, campy performances of the cast off sets the theatrical aesthetic necessitated by low budgets, transforming these mythic adventures into self-referential, tongue-in-cheek self-satires. What could easily have been three hours worth of plot and character development is instead condensed into a rapidly paced adventure that resolves itself in under ninety minutes. This is not a criticism, merely a contextualization meant to describe the priorities and agendas of the filmmakers.

For all of its operatic battles and rushing crowd scenes The Three Swordsmen is, in fact, a masterclass in narrative economy. The Three Swordsmen makes excellent use of its cast as signifiers that do all the work that is typically completed through characterization. For instance, the filmmakers know that the audience knows that Andy Lau has to be the hero because that is his “type”; he’s a good guy. Taylor Wong, by trading in the cultural visibility of his cast, creates an effective pantomime around a series of well choreographed fight scenes. All a film like this promises is high voltage action on wires and a few good chuckles.

Although The Three Swordsmen is primarily a work of craftsmanship, there are moments of true artistry. One of these transcendent moments is a scene early on between Siu Sam-siu and Butterfly where the smitten young woman fakes being poisoned to steal a kiss from her heroic crush. Lisa Tung’s performance is definitely comic, but beneath that is a current of vulnerability that juxtaposes the invulnerability and charm of Andy Lau’s hero perfectly, creating the most memorable exchange between any characters in the film. It’s this one scene that effectively sells their entire romance to the audience and it is masterfully blocked by Wong.

Taylor Wong began his career in the early eighties directing two martial arts movies: Shaolin Fighters vs. Ninja (1981) and Buddha’s Palm (1982). From there he transitioned to films with a more contemporary setting in the Heroic Bloodshed, erotic thriller, and romance genres that frequently starred the legendary Chow Yun-fat. His sole outing in the wuxia genre was The Three Swordsmen, his final film as director. The Three Swordsmen has more in common with Wong’s comedies (Spiritual Love and Girls Unbutton) than his more serious actioners (Rich & Famous and Tragic Hero). Wong’s style was one of extremes that was either extremely nihilistic or exceedingly silly and playful. Unfortunately, Wong did not achieved the auteur status of some of his contemporaries and is largely forgotten by those who are not avid connoisseurs of the golden age of Hong Kong cinema.