Imagine reading a classic Agatha Christie story about a group of people who gradually begin to kill each other, slowly winnowing down the party until just one or two remain. Who are the killers and what are their motivations? Why this group of people? It’s a tale told time and again and it’s always compelling with its mixture of unpredictability and surprise when everything is finally revealed. Now take that idea and apply it to the typically fantastical and mythic Chinese cinema of Wuxia and you’ve got the basis of the entertaining The Flying Swordsman (Xue shan fei hu, and also known as Hidden Fox).
Wuxia (pronounced “woo-sha”) is a style of martial arts films characterized by the actors being given superhuman abilities like perfect balance, the ability to leap dozens of feet, and other characteristics we in the West often associate with superheroes. But these tales are generally told in an unspecified pre-technological era of Chinese history where people lived by their wits and all had long hair and scruffy appearances. Rather like how I envision the setting of the O.G. Grimm fairy tales.
The film opens with the evil and self-proclaimed emperor Tian Guinong (Gang Wang) tricking two legendary warriors into fighting each other to the death. They were the guards of a fantastic treasure buried below the coldest region in an abyss and Tian, of course, coveted the treasure and would stop at nothing to acquire it. A terrible consequence of the opening battle is a subsequent massacre of the innocent people of a neighboring village by a group known as The Eight Villains. The subtitle of the movie is “Out for Revenge” so you can start to piece the plot together…
Ten years later everyone’s questing for the iron box that reputedly contains both a map to the treasure and a key (why the key is in the box rather than used to open the box is something that’s never explained) and the Eight Villains have split into two factions, one led by Lord Tao Baisui (Ray Lui) and the other by the similarly named Bao Shu (Shanshan Chunyu). The former has a young disciple named Gui Yu (Huawei Zhao), while the latter’s adopted daughter Qing Wen (Yusi Chen) has also proven a great addition to his squad.
All of these villains – and the two new members – have secret powers that are typically mythic Chinese cinema, but I won’t spoil it for you. They’re all eye-popping and the visual side of the film, of course, is excellent. Indeed, while wuxia might be known for the wire-based fighting sequences, I enjoy the surreal settings and visual effects at least as much in these movies.
All is not peace and harmony in the Eight Villain’s camps, however, and as they continue their 10-year quest to find the iron box, the map, and the key, some of them begin to die in strange and puzzling ways. Each of them is also coveting the great treasure and ready to do whatever it takes to be the one that finds it, but killing their colleagues?
There’s more to the storyline, including the mysterious Hidden Fox who can control clouds and fog, leading to some striking fight sequences (pun intended), but it’s also a bit hard to follow at times until you understand the overall story structure. Director Lei Qiao-K also takes a page from the Christopher Nolan playbook bouncing around in time with scenes shown, then the precursor to those scenes from a few hours earlier. Pay attention to those scene cuts!
I really enjoy this genre of movies and find it completely different to anything being produced in either Hollywood or by indie studios focused on action films. Rather than trying to make everything as realistic as possible (looking at you, John Wick) the goal is to tell a tale that’s larger than life, with fight scenes that are patently unrealistic but still breathtaking and wonderful to watch. It’s often somewhere between fighting and a slow-motion, ballet-inspired dance. And then there’s the wonderful scenery and use of colors and facial makeup, certainly borrowed from historical Chinese stage productions that were more than a bit melodramatic.
The Flying Swordsman is a great addition to the genre and a good introduction if you’ve never seen a wuxia film before. Don’t worry about tracking every single nuance of the story, just relax and marvel at the visual storytelling. Recommended.