An exceptionally well-written wuxia film, one in which the characters are motivated by psychology rather than fulfilling roles as mere mythological character types, where the tsunami of exposition that swamps so many other films in the genre is distilled into action with the expeditious use of a MacGuffin (a mysterious red package that changes hands repeatedly throughout the first 30 minutes of the film, introducing all the major characters and establishing the ruthless and unstable nature of the film’s world) and where the central character is acted rather than performed, with star Ti Lung’s melancholy hero, haunted by his past yet patient and honorable, grounding the film in a realistic figure.
The plot involves the search for the Plum Blossom Bandit, a ruthless killer that Ti Lung has returned after 10 years in exile to capture. After the Bandit as well is a pretty girl who has promised to marry whoever kills him (he killed her father), drawing the attention of every wannabe hero for miles around, gathering at the home of Ti’s best friend and his wife, Ti’s former lover. Ti gets framed and everyone believes him to be the bandit, and the majority of the film involves the mob attempting to lynch him on the flimsiest of evidence as other, more shadowy figures keep trying to assassinate him (in this respect the film bears a passing resemblance to The Ox-Bow Incident or 12 Angry Men, but with poisoned soup). Ti survives all the attempts to kill him, of course, but his accusers keep dying along the way. Will he solve the mystery before everyone around him is dead?
What differentiates the film from a wuxia mystery I’ve never been a fan of, Chang Cheh’s much more famous The Five Deadly Venoms, is the question of motivation. Rather than simply bad guys doing bad things and good guys trying to stop them (often taking way too long to figure out whodunnit), the schemes in The Sentimental Swordsman rely on specific character traits of the victims: the mob’s lust for the pretty girl makes them easy to manipulate, and Ti’s sentimentality, his emotional connection to the people and world around him, makes him an easy target for the cold, ruthless killer. A complex web of motivations is weaved (spider webs and spider imagery recur throughout the film) but the plot flows organically out of the nature of the characters, rather than a series of events being imposed upon a set of character types. This is an inversion of the usual wuxia formula, which is based on a more ancient, pre-psychological storytelling form (think The Iliad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Romance of the Three Kingdoms).
Wuxia worlds tend to be built around ideas rather than emotions, specifically the ideals of loyalty and revenge, “You killed my master, I’ll kill you!” and so on. They’re medieval romance figures rather than the psychologically real characters you find in a novel (to take an example from Western literature: compare the shallow, plot-only types in Arthurian romances to the complex, rounded people in the Three Musketeers books). The other wuxia films I’ve seen from director Chor Yuen, like Heroes Shed No Tears or Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, are more plot-and-spectacle oriented than The Sentimental Swordsman, but they still resonate more deeply than they probably should. Like those films, Chor creates a beautifully magical world, no one did more with the artificiality of Shaw Brothers sets than Chor, packing the frame with fog and flowers and painted moonlight. With those other two films, Chor often obscures the action, filming it in long shot with objects blocking the principals, out of focus tree branches or gauzy curtains. With this film, as well as Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, another film grounded in character rather than myth, the action is more direct: framed but not hidden. More graphic novel than comic book. The tension between the visually artificial and the psychologically real, between surface and depth.