After releasing the wonderfully enjoyable Cinematic Vengeance! set (along with two smaller standard edition sets of the same titles, split down the middle), Eureka have set their sights on an interesting pairing of a couple of writer-director-producer Joseph Kuo’s other films, releasing The Swordsman of all Swordsmen alongside The Mystery of Chess Boxing. These mark the start of Kuo’s action movie cycle and its peak.

I say released together, but actually this 2-disc Blu-ray set is purely titled The Swordsman of all Swordsmen. The second film is technically classed as a bonus feature, despite having a reputation as somewhat of a cult classic. This is due to the sad fact that the negatives for The Mystery of Chessboxing are lost, presumably destroyed, so the best copy that could be found was a print that must have done the rounds in cinemas back in the day. It’s a print with burnt in English (and Cantonese?) subtitles too, which aren’t the best. However, there was no alternative, so it’s still wonderful to have this kung-fu classic on disc.

Of course, I had to take a look and my thoughts follow.

The Swordsman Of All Swordsmen (a.k.a. Yi dai jian wang)

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay: Tien-Yung Hsu, Joseph Kuo
Based on a Story by: Shui-Han Chiang
Starring: Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng, Tien Peng, Yang Meng-Hua, Chiang Nan, Tsao Chien, Wei Su, Tien Miao
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 85 min
Year: 1968

Though The Swordsman of all Swordsmen is Kuo’s first action/martial arts/wuxia movie, it certainly wasn’t the first film he directed. He had somewhere around 24 films to his name already by the time it was released. However, these were all romances, dramas or musicals, largely in Taiwanese.

Kuo says that he was inspired by the great success of King Hu’s Come Drink With Me and Dragon Inn (which was made in his native Taiwan), as well as Japanese bushido/chanbara films, to make the move into period swordplay.

A wise move it was too, as The Swordsman of all Swordsmen was very successful in Hong Kong, making over 1 million HKD, which was rare at the time. It also spawned 2 sequels, The Bravest Revenge (a.k.a. Wu lin long hu dou, 1970) and The Ghost Hill (Shi wan jin shan, 1971). This helped spark the filmmaker’s move into action cinema, where he would frequently work for the remainder of his film career.

The Swordsman of all Swordsmen sees Tien Peng play Tsai Ying-jie, a young man hell-bent on revenge after witnessing the slaughter of his family at the hands of Yun Chun-chung (Tsao Tsien) and his accomplices, who murdered Tsai’s father for his legendary Spirit Chasing Sword.

However, Tsai’s quest for revenge becomes more complicated when his life is saved by Yun Chun-chung’s daughter, Flying Swallow (Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng, who was the star of Dragon Inn, so actually gets top billing here).

Straight off the bat, you can see that much more care is put into the design and cinematography here than in Kuo’s later, cheaper martial arts movies. There’s some bold framing, slick camera movement and gorgeous use of locations. It’s genuinely stunning to look at in places, which is not something that can often be said about films like these.

The Swordsman of all Swordsmen opens feeling rather simplistic but the plot develops some interesting twists and turns as it goes on too. It tackles its central revenge theme surprisingly maturely, showing it for the futile act that it is, only causing a further cycle of bloodshed and sorrow.

The film is still relatively straightforward though, in terms of narrative, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps the film from getting bogged down in plot, moving along nicely as the story is told through action and plenty of it.

The choreography is very good for the time too. The moves aren’t particularly complex or balletic, but they’re pretty fast and furious. There are some enjoyably inventive final killing blows too and plenty of suitably tense stand-offs.

The film is rather melodramatic and po-faced perhaps, leading to a bit of a glum tone, but this is often the case with swordplay films of the era. It is, nevertheless, a handsome, rousing and action-packed wuxia classic that deserves to be better known.

Film:

The Mystery Of Chess Boxing (a.k.a. Shuang ma lian huan or Ninja Checkmate)

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay: Joseph Kuo
Starring: Li Yi-Min, Jack Long Shi-Chia, Mark Lung, Yuen Siu-Tien, Wong Chi-Sang, Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi, Jeanie Chang, Hsiao Hou Tao
Country: Taiwan, Hong Kong
Running Time: 91 min
Year: 1979

The Mystery Of Chess Boxing came at the peak of Kuo’s most exhaustively productive period, when he was churning out martial arts movies. He made 5 of them in 1979 alone. This one, in particular, is somewhat of a cult classic. Whilst it, surprisingly, did little business in Hong Kong (I might have misheard, but I think one of the commentators said it wasn’t even released over there), it played for ten years in Times Square in New York. It’s a particular favourite of members of the Wu Tang Clan too. One of the group’s rappers calls himself Ghostface Killah, after the film’s villain, and they even named a song after it, ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’’.

In the film, young Ah Pao (Li Yi-Min) witnesses his father’s brutal murder at the hands of the enigmatic Ghost Faced Killer (Mark Lung), a master of the deadly Five Elements style. Consumed by a desire for revenge, Ah Pao seeks training at a local kung fu school but finds himself ostracized, particularly by its senior student (Hsiao Hou-Tao). Undeterred, Ah Pao gets secret training from the school’s chef (Yuen Siu-Tien) before getting kicked out after being mistaken for one of Ghost Faced Killer’s spies.

Ah Pao then embarks on a journey to continue his quest for revenge before encountering a wise old chess master, Chi Sue Tin (Jack Long Shi-Chia). Recognizing Ah Pao’s potential, Chi Sue Tin takes him in and introduces him to the unique art of Chess Boxing, a fighting style that blends strategic chess moves with powerful kung fu techniques. With newfound purpose and a strategic mind, Ah Pao trains relentlessly, honing his skills to confront the Ghost Faced Killer and finally avenge his father’s death.

There’s been much talk of Brucesploitation recently with David Gregory’s documentary Enter the Clones of Bruce doing the rounds, but The Mystery of Chess Boxing could be seen as an example of a Jackie-sploitation film.

With Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master making such a splash in Hong Kong and neighbouring territories in the late 70s, Kuo was keen to capitalise on their success by eschewing his usual melodramatic tendencies (though not completely) and adding a hefty dose of comedy into the mix. Not only that, the film’s star, Li Yi-Min, is made to look as much like Chan as possible, given a similar haircut and role.

The film’s plot is incredibly close to Chan’s breakthrough films too, with a young, hapless wannabe being trained in an unusual fighting style to stop an evil bully. On top of borrowing a lot of plot beats from Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, The Mystery of Chess Boxing even features Beggar So himself, Yuen Siu-tin, basically reprising his role without specifically stating so. I don’t think the budget could stretch to keeping him on set very long though, as his character appears all too briefly.

With all this ‘borrowing’ from the forementioned films, however, The Mystery of Chess Boxing still stands tall on its own two feet. First and foremost, it’s bursting at the seams with action. Rarely 5 minutes ever goes by without another punch-up.

The fights are superb too. It’s not particularly natural, with a dance-like, clearly choreographed style. However, the moves are so elaborate and acrobatic that it’s a shear joy to watch the cast and stunt performers do their thing.

Like Chan’s best films, martial arts are not only used in fight scenes either, but in some wonderfully choreographed scenes of physical comedy. The best examples of these come in the kitchen scenes. Most notably, there’s the sequence where Ah Pao first bumps into the school’s cook (Yuen Siu-tin) and he tries to steal rice from his bowl but the old man uses his secret martial arts skills to keep it away from the young student. There’s also a fun scene where we get Ah Pao using his own newfound skills to serve bowls of rice to his fellow pupils.

So, The Mystery of Chess Boxing may be a Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow/Drunken Master rip-off, but it’s a damned good one. Li Yi-Min may not quite have Jackie Chan’s charm but the film doesn’t disappoint when it comes to action, so martial arts fans will be in heaven.

Film:

The Swordsman Of All Swordsmen is out on 25th March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The transfer on The Swordsman Of All Swordsmen is good for its age and origin, though it does look quite soft and the colour is slightly aged in places. Overall, it looks decent though and I had no issues with the Mandarin audio. The Mystery of Chess Boxing, as explained earlier, is in a much rougher state as the only decent copy of the film that could be found was a print. There are some missing frames here and there (and possibly scenes) and there is a fair amount of damage and colour fading. However, it’s perfectly watchable. I’ve used screengrabs for both throughout to give you an idea of how the films look (the The Swordsman Of All Swordsmen stills were provided by Eureka but they look like screengrabs).

The old print’s subtitles are sadly burnt in to The Mystery of Chess Boxing though and these are pretty bad. They’re littered with errors and sometimes flash up too quickly to read. Again, it’s watchable enough though and adds to the grindhouse charm, though this might be a case for opting to watch with the dub. Be aware, the subtitles will still be on screen though. I went with the Mandarin soundtrack regardless (I don’t like English dubs) and whilst the audio again shows signs of wear and tear, it was never distracting.

I can see why the film was only added as an extra bonus though, as some might have felt shortchanged if they spent £20 on a presentation like this. I’m thrilled that Eureka decided to release it in some form though, as it’s a great film.

SPECIAL FEATURES

– Limited Edition Two Disc Set [2000 copies]
– Limited Edition Bonus Disc – The Mystery of Chess Boxing
– Limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju)
– A Limited Edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing on both films by James Oliver
– Limited Edition Set of facsimile lobby cards and Double-sided poster featuring original release posters

DISC ONE – The Swordsman of All Swordsmen

– 1080p HD presentation on Blu-ray from a 2K digital restoration completed by the Taiwan Film Institute
– Original Mandarin audio
– Optional English Subtitles
– Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng and film writer John Charles (The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977–1997)
– Archival interview with director Joseph Kuo

BONUS DISC TWO- The Mystery Of Chess Boxing

– 1080p HD presentation on Blu-ray, scanned from the only known surviving print of the film supplied by collector Dan Halsted (Head Programmer at the Hollywood Theatre, Oregon)
– Original Mandarin, Cantonese and “classic” English dubbed audio options
– Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng and martial artist / filmmaker Michael Worth
– Brand new feature length audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
– Limited edition reversible artwork by Darren Wheeling

Frank Djeng is joined by John Charles on his commentary for Swordsman of all Swordsmen. As usual, it’s exhaustively well-researched. On top of giving background on the cast and filmmakers, the pair analyse Kuo’s filmmaking style and influences in considerable detail. Djeng believes it’s Kuo’s most accomplished work and I wouldn’t argue with him. Dejng shows up on Mystery of Chess Boxing too, this time accompanied by Michael Worth and the track is similarly valuable.

Mike Leeder and Arne Venema also provide a commentary for Mystery of Chess Boxing. As usual, they offer a light-hearted but nevertheless extremely knowledgable track, with first-hand stories about working with members of the cast and crew mixed in with background information and thoughts on the film’s strengths.

There’s also a 12 minute archival interview with Kuo. This is excellent, with the writer-director-producer discussing his career as a whole, as well as talking about what inspired him to make The Swordsman of all Swordsmen.

In the booklet, James Oliver discusses The Swordsman of all Swordsmen and explains why he thinks it’s Kuo’s masterpiece. He also writes about The Mystery of Chess Boxing and how Kuo tended to punch above his weight, going all out to make audience-friendly films in the poorly-funded Taiwanese film industry.

Overall, it’s an excellent release, despite any unavoidable issues with print quality. Count The Mystery of Chess Boxing as an extra and this is an easy 5 stars, but I’m going to go with 4, viewing it as a two-film set.

Discs/Packages:

The Swordsman Of All Swordsmen (& The Mystery of Chess Boxing) - Eureka
Films
Disc/Package
4.0Overall:
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.