I’ve only seen a few Chor Yuen films, so I don’t know how much this is a signature of his, but with this movie he seems to be exploring what would have happened had Josef von Sternberg made a wuxia film. Or at least Von Sternberg’s set designer. Hong Kong films are by no means strangers to ornate imagery, but I’ve never seen one that piled so much stuff in the foreground between the audience and the action. Flowers, trees, rocks, curtains, buildings: the frame is ringed with objects, which also sometimes intrude and obscure the actual action itself. It’s very striking, and Chor as well puts the full Shaw Brothers studio resources to work with vibrant violets and pinks and blues, flowing costumes, elaborate palaces, and remote mountain sets that ooze fog from all sides.
Chor begins the film with a wild expositional burst impressive in its swirl even for the wuxia genre, introducing all the major characters and describing them and their motives in about five minutes. Hong Kong directors have never been afraid to throw the audience in the deep end, expecting them to keep up. After that initial burst, the film settles into a fatalistic tragedy about an evil genius playing all sides against each other in the hopes of coming out on top, kind of like Edgar in King Lear or Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, with the loose ends explained at the beginning all neatly tied up by the end.
Alexander Fu Sheng stars, playing a young swordsman sent by his master to prevent the biggest crisis of the century. With his Wayne’s World mullet and teardrop-stained sword, he mostly finds himself shunted off to the sides of the narrative as the various other factions get eliminated. The best character is a warrior who carries a magical wooden box that contains 36 weapons—he can pull out whichever he needs whenever he needs it. He thinks he’s destined to be killed by Fu Sheng’s cursed sword, and has a complicated personal history where he suspects he might be Fu Sheng’s brother or something, but ends up being wrong about that. It’s fruitless trying to predict the twists of fate and prophecy, even if you have a magic box.
Like many martial arts movies, the film is structured as a series of confrontations, as the various characters face off against each other either in fights or dialogue or both. The best comes about halfway through the movie as the woman at the center of some of the plotting exposes the villain’s evil schemes and then cuts off her own leg. She then picks it up and hops over to one of the men who loved her unrequitedly and gives it to him (“this is the leg you loved”) before heading off alone. It’s almost as moving as it is absurd.
I don’t see nearly the depth here that I found in Chor’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, though it certainly shows that film’s aesthetic sense, its exploitation of the artificiality of Shaws resources for the kind of abstract prettiness that won’t really be topped in the martial arts genre until the 2000s and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s trilogy of arthouse wuxia spectaculars. Chor’s The Magic Blade shares a source novelist (Gu Long) and similar noir-like manipulations within an underworld subculture (seen also in Chor’s Killer Clans). But while The Magic Blade plays as a rough and pulpy version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with Lo Lieh and Ti Lung finding themselves competing to succeed the king of the wuxia world, whether they want the gig or not, Heroes Shed No Tears has grander, spacier ambitions. You can get so caught up in figuring out the plot that you don’t notice as wild little bits and images seep into your subconscious and linger, long after you’ve forgotten whether the sneaky advisor works for the guy from Braveheart Hall or if that’s the guy who danced with the girl for three days and nights, and whose master made the sword and why is it crying anyway and seriously, what’s up with Fu Sheng’s hair — did he steal Nigel Tufnel’s wig?