Indie and wuxia might not be words that neatly fit together in the minds of many who perhaps associate the genre with lavish costumes and elaborate sets, but it is in essence one which values simplicity and innovation. Produced by Feng Xiaogang and financed through crowdfunding, Li Yunbo’s Wild Swords (无名狂, Wúmíng Kuáng) is a classic jianghu tale of warring sects, intrigue, and moral ambiguity that makes the most of its shoestring budget through striking cinematography and beautifully choreographed action sequences while spinning a complex tale of misdirected vengeance and fractured identity.
Told largely through a series of Rashomon-esque conflicting flashbacks, the bulk of the action follows bandit Wang Yidao (Zhang Jian) who is made an offer he can’t refuse to escort a valuable prisoner, Kuo Chang-sheng (Zhang Xiao-chen), to an unnamed destination. Yidao didn’t want to take the job because he thinks it’s more trouble than it’s worth, and events will prove him right. The reason Chang-sheng is a wanted man is that he’s connected to the legendary Chang Wei-ren (Shang Bai) whom just about everyone wants to find, not least for his involvement in the death of the heir to the Tang-Men, the rival clan he holds responsible for the destruction by poison of his own Nameless sect. Eventually Yidao becomes aware that his mysterious client is Bai Xiaotian (Sui Yongliang), another former member of the Nameless who is looking for Wei-ren for purposes of revenge.
The Tang-Men are well known as master poisoners, a plot device frequently employed and eventually wreaking psychological havoc on the central three as Xiaotian reveals that the greatest Tang-Men technique allows the user to change their appearance leading him to believe that any one of them, including perhaps himself, could actually be Wei-ren in “disguise”. Meanwhile, he outlines his time among the Nameless, resentful of Wei-ren who rivalled him in swordsmanship and it seems love. Chang-sheng, however, has quite a different version of events apparently relayed to him by Wei-ren whom he now believes to be dead. Yidao knows not who if anyone to believe, but has little time to think about it after becoming swept up in the Tang-Men’s quest to chase down Wei-ren.
Perhaps slightly subversive, Wei-ren’s version has him both becoming weary of the heartless philosophy of the Nameless while simultaneously painting them as the good guys who refused to lackey for an authoritarian government which ironically requested their assistance in getting rid of “evil factions”. Xiaotian sees his rival as a lazy goofball, his lack of application only fuelling Xiaotian’s resentment towards him, yet Wei-ren sees himself as a sensitive loner who looked to the sect for a family only to find merciless ruthlessness in which all are disposable aside from the chosen one. As he tells Xiaotian, when you climb to the summit of martial arts, all you see is the abyss waiting below and no matter how fast you think you are, there is always someone faster. The ones who die are the ones who hold back.
Wringing genuine intrigue out of its complex, conspiracy-laden narrative, Wild Swords is careful to make space for the genre essential fight in a teahouse which also introduces us to the pretty boy villain of the Tang-Men, Wuque (Eric Hsiao), as he relentlessly stalks his prey in order to gain revenge for the murder of the Tang heir. Caught up in their identity drama, the three men begin to realise the futility and meaninglessness inherent in the world of jianghu in which there is only the “bitterness of life”. They are each one and the same, sole survivors of a vanquished clan carrying the weight of those they failed to protect. Beautifully lensed and set against the majestic natural scenery, Li Yunbo’s slightly revisionist take on the classic wuxia finds its conflicted heroes at war with themselves pursuing misdirected vengeance against those they blame for their loss while wilfully misunderstanding the cause of all their suffering as they pursue their jianghu destiny to its natural conclusion.
Wild Swords streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Teaser trailer (dialogue free)