Appearance and Duplicity in ‘Roving Swordsman’

“The good thing about working for big studios was that you got classy, quality support. Even if you asked for the moon, they could get the moon for you, which was amazing” raved Chor Yuen about Shaws. Drawing on a huge shared pool of human talent, sets, props, costumes, and equipment, all Shaws’ movies share an aesthetic, but Chor Yuen was especially good at exploiting this aesthetic – and Shaws’ extraordinary resources – to make his wuxia pian into gorgeous looking films.

Shaw Brothers Studios were purpose built to supply its filmmakers with state of the art resources for the time and place in which their films were made. Roving Swordsman has Yuen’s trademark look: prettily coloured and exquisitely detailed art direction, moody atmosphere, and a complicated plot. What I find interesting about this film, dazzling in appearance for the viewer, is that appearances, and especially whether or not they are trustworthy, are a theme of the film.

“I was almost fooled!” ripostes Feng Rusung (played by Kwan Fung), one of the good guys in Chor Yuen’s Roving Swordsman, when confronted by one of many sleights of hand that take place during the course of this film’s plot. While it is a throwaway line in one of the early scenes, it is also apt, for Roving Swordsman is full of trickery and deceit as its protagonists and antagonists try to outwit each other.

Tricks are played; disguises are donned; things are hidden; people are deceived. A straw dummy is used as a decoy for an assassination, and later for a kidnapping. A girl is snatched and hidden in a red box with a false bottom. Those rubbery face masks that make their appearances in kung fu movies from time to time (I think we’re meant to think they’re actual human skin) are worn by a couple of characters. Ku Feng’s character (it’s a Shaw Brothers film, of course it’s got Ku Feng in it) is a master of disguise and is actually called Chameleon. It’s a rare scene in Roving Swordsman that does not contain some attempt to fool someone.

And it’s not just the characters who are up to shenanigans. Even the landscape and architecture has been designed to be devious. The film abounds in concealed caves, secret passageways, and hidden trapdoors. The villains’ lair – a sumptuously ornate place situated underneath the sea – is booby trapped. And the climactic scenes involve a treacherously confusing labyrinth made out of mirrors that has to be seen to be believed.

Shaw Brothers star, Ti Lung, portrays the film’s hero, Shen Shengyi, who is the total package: physically brave, a skilled fighter, and all-round good guy. He’s smart too, casually and willingly engaging in a battle of wits with the film’s villains. Interestingly, he and the other protagonists wear the same costumes all the way through; in a film where so much is not what it seems this makes it easy for them to be identified and gives them a visual constancy that underpins their moral constancy. Shen Shengyi is well able to match the villains’ in a battle of wits, but his, and his comrades’, integrity stops them from becoming immoral.

Roving Swordsman is a swordplay film, and there is lots of action. But this constant emphasis on tactics means that, like Chor’s other wuxia pian, it manages to be a little bit more. It’s a rollicking adventure, but one which gives a nod to the importance of brain power and values too. Obviously made to entertain, its subtly inserted theme of deception and appearance grounds it and makes it even more enjoyable. 



About Meredith Lewis

Meredith Lewis is a writer, channeling her knowledge as a former performing artist into analysis of what makes martial arts films so great. Meredith recently published a book about Shaw Brothers called Ask for the Moon.

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