Written by Ni Kuang
Directed by Chang Cheh
Hong Kong, 1970
A hero need not be impervious to error. The most noble of heroes can in fact lack gravitas because they are too clean cut, too perfect. A character that can be led astray and commit errors in judgement will often make for much more compelling storytelling. The protagonist need not be written as someone with a ‘bad side.’ He or she can genuinely strive for upstanding citizenship, but by the nature of whom they are or the uncooperative circumstances beyond their control they experience failure on any number of levels. 1970s The Wandering Swordsman, from workaholic director Chang Cheh, plays with the idea of the imperfect hero with impressive results.
The Wandering Swordsman is Chang film that once again stars David Chiang, ostensibly playing the same character he so often did. He is a young, highly talented swordsman who runs, hops and pirouettes his way around the country, encountering crooks and other sorts of gangsters who earn their living through illegal means. He intercepts them before they can ever flee with their bounty and, in true Robin Hood fashion, donates most of the money to people in need. Of course he does so with a infectious glee that oftentimes has him come across as a smart ass. Part Robin Hood, part Peter Pen the Wandering Swordsman is contempt with his lot in life. One day he makes the acquaintance of Jiang Ning (Lily Li), a pretty if temperamental sword fighter, whom he rescues from a thug in the woods. Jiang Ning is member of a group of highly trained soldiers tasked with transporting a valuables from one town to another, but word soon gets out, resulting in various criminals scheming plans to foil their mission. With so many players, both good and bad, wanting to either help the escort or defeat it, will the Wandering Swordsman differentiate who is on which side?
Things grow even more complex when the lead villain, Fool Proof Kung (Cheung Pooi-saan), tricks the Wandering Swordsman into working for his side. Up until that point the Swordsman has caught, teased and defeated a series of inferior villains, later revealed to be Fool Proof’s brothers. Impressed by the Swordsman’s skills, he pleads the latter to join his group, claiming that they seek to intercept the escort and share the riches amongst the poor. This of course immediately strikes a chord with the Swordsman, who willingly comes to their aid. Once again, the Swordsman commits an error, only this one ends up having far graver consequences, some that may prove unforgivable. The movie puts a satisfying twist on the protagonist who at first seems infallible only to be played for the fool for much of the running length. The David Chiang charm definitely earns some mileage in making the hero a compelling figure, but it is his flaws that make him whole. Even his meeting with Jiang Ning in the forest is the result of selfishness on the part of the Swordsman. Rather than make the protagonist intentionally unlikable, or difficult to cheer for, the film makes his flaws feel like a natural extension of who he is as a person.The supporting cast is fine too, with special mention going to Cheung Pooi-saan as the subtle yet hilarious Fool Proof Kung. Cheung is somewhat on the tubby side and has a sufficiently congenial attitude mask some unspeakable villainy. He is not an actor who never overtakes every scene he is in, yet certainly makes his presence known and works well as a counterweight to the rambunctious David Chiang.The Wandering Swordsman is a really good movie, filled with some awkwardly funny moments, some stellar action and most of all a tremendously rich central character.