The Swordsman of All Swordsmen Poster

10th Old School Kung Fu Festival: The Swordsman of All Swordsmen (1968) Review

The first film in Joseph Kuo’s (7 Grandmasters, The 18 Bronzemen) Tsai Ying-jie Trilogy, The Swordsman of All Swordsmen (Yi dai jian wang) begins with Tsai Ying-jie (Tien Peng, The Silver Spear, A Touch of Zen) riding into town looking for Chou Hu (Miao Tien, Ninja Dragon, Rebels of the Neon God), who is busy killing a street perform whose daughter Pearl (Meng-hua, Black Invitation, Flying Dragon Mountain) he fancies.

In a plot reminiscent of a Spaghetti Western, Tsai is out to kill Yun Chun-chung (Tsao Tsien, Dragon Inn, The Prisoner) and his four accomplices who slaughtered his family in order to steal the Spirit Chasing Sword owned by his father. From then until now he’s been trained as a swordsman, and killing Hu and his men is the first step on the road to revenge.

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While it starts out as a simple story of revenge, The Swordsman of All Swordsmen’s plot takes some unusual turns and becomes more complicated until it begins to question the wisdom of Tsai’s quest.

First, the swordsman known as Black Dragon (Chiang Nan, The Unbeaten Twenty Eight, Geisha) challenges him to a duel after he gets his vengeance of course. Then Black Draon’s sister Flying Swallow (Shang-guan Ling-feng, The Ghostly Face, Heroine of Tribulation) saves his life when he’s struck by a poison dart. But they have their own motives for their actions, Swallow hopes that by saving him she can persuade him not to kill her father, Yun Chun-chung who has both grown to regret his actions and become blind in the intervening years.

While the various dilemmas these developments create for the protagonists add depth to The Swordsman of All Swordsmen, the discussions about them don’t stop it from also being an excellent action film. Kuo may have made his name with more traditional martial arts films but he also had a gift for wuxia and it shows here, allowing the action and deeper thoughts to coexist.

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Kuo stages plenty of battles, both one on many fights, and in the film’s second half a pair of solo duels between two swordsmen as The Swordsman of All Swordsmen heads towards an unexpected ending and the equally unexpected directions the story takes in the film’s sequels The Bravest Revenge and The Ghost Hill.

The various fights are, for the most part well done and avoid much of the more extreme wire work that came to dominate the wuxia, The Swordsman of All Swordsmen still has a few moments that will either delight you or make you roll your eyes. At one point a villain tries to escape by jumping twenty feet up the trunk of a tree only to get pinned to it by a thrown sword. In another, a man’s sword is knocked into the air and hit on its way down causing it to impale its owner.

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Overall The Swordsman of All Swordsmen is a fun and exciting film with a bit more depth to it than many of these films tend to possess. And that examination of the themes of revenge and becoming the dominant figure with the martial arts world, the two that provide the plots for most wuxia films, make the final two duels that much more interesting.

If you’re a fan of wuxia or are simply curious about the genre this is s film worth checking out. Similarly, if you’re a fan of Joseph Kuo’s kung fu films and want to see him doing something different,The Swordsman of All Swordsmen and its sequels would be good choices.

The digitally restored print of The Swordsman of All Swordsmen is making its US debut as part of this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest put on by Metrograph and Subway Cinema In association with Taipei Cultural Center in New York, Ministry of Culture, Republic of China (Taiwan). You can get more information about the films here, and a full schedule here.

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