Director Derek Yee Tung-sing entered the film business in the glory days of the wuxia – or martial arts – genre, which dominated the Asian box office scene.
Back in the 1970s, cinema had never before seen the likes of stars such as Bruce Lee and Cheng Pei-pei, and Yee was among their ranks as a celebrated actor with the massive Shaw Brothers studio, as it produced hit after hit.
How times have changed.
Today, cinemas across Asia are dominated by the Hollywood version of action and by the massive budget, effects-laden blockbusters that dominate box office charts.
But Yee yearns for a different era and – in his role as a director – he has recently reworked one of the first films he starred in as the Hong Kong-born filmmaker tries to win back an audience to wuxia.
Yee starred in the Chor Yuen-directed hit Death Duel, back in 1977; now he has returned behind the cameras with a reworking of the tale into Sword Master 3D, tapping into modern filmmaking technology and turning to a new generation of talent, including the emerging Mainland film star Lin Gengxin and Taiwanese pop-star Peter Ho.
“I was intrigued by the 3D technology when I witnessed Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate [the 3D blockbuster from 2011], so I decided to revive my plan on making Sword Master. I had been thinking about it for years,” says Yee.
The basic plot in the remake remains the same – a weary fighter is drawn into one last fight against a fierce rival – but Yee fully utilizes new effects technology, and adds some subtle (and not so subtle) plot tweaks.
The film made its premiere at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival on November 21, the same day as a screening of Death Duel, and it provided an illuminating viewing experience for a generation weaned on the likes of the Mission Impossible and Harry Potter franchises.
Across both screenings, a younger generation was able to witness how wuxia films are now interpreted and how they have changed over time, especially with advances in filmmaking techniques.
The heroic undertones from the original remain, but this time an even more profound and deeper characterization is presented. Both the protagonists, Yen Shih-san (Ho) and Third Master (Lin), have distinctive personalities, with one being irresolute and hesitant, the other indomitable yet sympathetic. Yee has pushed the creativity further with a humorous character (played by Nina Paw), a comical lunatic who adds a sense of pure entertainment and lightheartedness to the film, whereas the previous version was pure action-drama.
Sword Master 3D certainly harks back to the golden age of Hong Kong martial arts cinema and much has been made in the media and in pubic about how that industry’s stock has fallen in recent years.
Production numbers are down, and the rise of the mainland Chinese film industry has both drawn talent away and influenced the type of films being made, as Hong Kong filmmakers look to grab a share of the box office in what is now the second biggest market in the world.
Peter Chan Ho-sun has been one such filmmaker, with his recent works American Dreams in China (2013) and Dearest (2014), while Yee himself has followed the trend with The Great Magician (2012) and I Am Somebody (2015).
Yee told a Master Class he gave as part of the Golden Horse Festival that he was well aware of the changes the industry in his home town was going through.
“During all these years, the [Hong Kong] industry has been experiencing ups and downs … It’s just a cycle,” said Yee.
One positive to come from the movement of established filmmakers north into the mainland Chinese market was there is more space for younger Hong Kong talent to emerge, he said.
The future still remains bright, Yee said, and there was proof of that claim in the fact that first-time Hong Kong director Chun Wong won the Golden Horse Award Best New Director for his look at life inside the city’s notorious sub-divided flats, Mad World.
Gillian Yu attended the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival as a part of the Asian Film Awards Academy’s Journey to the Fest Student Tour (www.afaacademy.asia)