Zen of Sword (1992)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-12-05
"Zen of Sword" has a small cast made up old pros and talented youngsters, a straightforward script that ponders some of the basic questions posed by classic literature, themes that touch our hearts and effective production planning that put most of the limited special effects budget in the last ten minutes of the movie. It has three extremely attractive actresses, two of whom the cinematographer who shot the close-ups (three are credited for being behind the camera) lingered over quite lovingly, some extremely evil villains and some unbelievably good heroes. There is even an apotheosis tacked on for those who are unhappy with the idea of every one of the characters being dead before the final credits role.

It starts with a bang--literally. As the Princess and her bodyguard flee, the General fights a rear guard action against evil flying monks who have iron hoops and chains to catch him with and who pepper him with explosives. But while the monks outnumber the General, they aren't eager to close with him and actually fight it out, keeping a safe distance from the point of his spear. He is finally defeated when an explosion smashes him into the side of a mountain, knocking him unconscious. We can tell right then that the General is a hard man indeed—the force of the explosion that planted him in a crater that exactly outlined his body. Even though one might be reminded of a Roadrunner vs. Wiley E. Coyote cartoon sequence it does show how tough Waise Lee’s General is.

But no one can stand up to the persuasive powers of the Master of Yin, the evildoer who dispatched the flying monks. When the General awakes he is tied spread-eagled on two poles over a flaming pit. Given a choice between betraying his Princess and gaining untold wealth and power for himself or being roasted alive, his decision isn’t difficult to imagine.

This Hobson’s Choice contains the theme that runs throughout the movie—that moral people will be tempted to stray from the path that they know is the right and proper and only the most noble will be able to make the difficult choices no matter what the consequences. Some, such as Governor Tak Hung, are eager to sell out their principles; others, most particularly the Princess’s bodyguard, stunningly played by Cynthia Khan, aren’t even tempted from their duty. The most fundamental and difficult decision is posed to the Prince—which is most important, love or honor?

A conundrum indeed and one that is made all the more harrowing by the way it is posed. His only surviving relative, his aunt, a woman who has raised him and who was cruelly tortured by their enemies, wants the Prince to take vengeance on these enemies. The Prince’s people are among the losers in a vicious civil war and his aunt, memorably portrayed in an over the top round of insanity by Kara Hui, insists that he lead them to reclaim their homeland. She makes the most of an extended cameo as did the costuming department. She is dressed in some really outlandish garb including a huge feathered hat that looks like it could fly away by itself. Backlit and silhouetted against a glowing sky, shot from below, she is fiercely demented and delivers lines (according to the pretty good subtitles) such as “We worship the sword with the blood of virgins” with maniacal glee.

The Prince, who seems at least as conflicted as another Prince, this on of Denmark, happens upon a beautiful young woman who lost in the forest. Having been stuck in the same valley for most of his life with little knowledge of the outside world and only his crazy aunt for female company, he falls hard for the Princess. Since she is played by Michelle Reis, she of the huge eyes, perfect lips and cheekbones to die for, his infatuation isn’t surprising. The Princess is the most steadfast of the lot, perfectly willing to either die or kill others to protect a jade flute, the symbol of her royalty, and fully expects others to do the same.

Not knowing that the Princess is the sole surviving member of the clan that defeated her family, the Aunt treats her like a common whore, telling the Prince that it is fine if he wants to dally with her for a while but when he is finished it is time to get back to the real work of learning the Nine Stance Sword Position from which he can kill enemies by the carload.

The Prince and Princess, who not only don’t hate each other but who fall in love, are one set of paired opposites whose interaction push the story along. Another pair is the General (Waise Lee) and the Bodyguard (Cynthia Khan). She is completely committed to the safety of the Princess as his he until he is turned by the Master of Yin. To complicate matters further they are married although the Bodyguard, once she realizes that her husband is a traitor, doesn’t hesitate to draw her sword against him. A third set is the God of War, a former advisor to the emperor who has gone into seclusion but who returns to the field when the Princess is threatened and Governor Tak Hung, a venal and corrupt official who only wants to line his own pockets and who has already sold his soul in order to do so. Fittingly the God of War dies a hero’s death while Tak Hung’s demise is as tawdry as his life.

There are some inept or just badly thought out scenes. One is a love scene between Waise Lee and Cynthia Khan—they are lying on the ground, both dressed in full battle armor—breastplates, gauntlets, sword belts, the whole regalia. Even if Cynthia hadn’t realized that her dog of a husband was just turning on the charm in order to get her to abandon the Princess it still would have been one of the least arousing love scenes imaginable. Another is during the final battle in which the flying monks make their second appearance. They are defeated this time—and it is a thrilling final battle—but they continue to fight after a scene in which they are literally dismembered, almost as if it were put together out of sequence.

Overall “Zen of Sword” is a very well done low budget swordplay movie, well worth seeing if you like that kind of thing (I do) or if you are a fan of any of the three actresses.
Reviewer Score: 6