Sword Master tells the tale of Yen Shih-San (Peter Ho) who's striving to become the best swordsman in a time where ones proficiency with a sword has the power to rule above all else. Though Yen is less concerned with 'ruling all' and is more concerned with proving himself to be the greatest swordsman of all time. But to do that he must first defeat Hsieh Shao-Feng (Kenny Lin) aka The Third Master of the dominant house of Hsieh. When Yen finds out where Hsieh is, he's utterly despondent to find out that his greatest rival has died. Depressed, without a purpose, and dying a slow death, Yen wanders the lands until he finds a suitable grave for himself to die in. The worst death imaginable for a warrior. To die an unremarkable and ignominious death without any glory or recognition.
It's about then that we cut to Hsieh who's been living as a vagrant and finds himself indebted to a brothel that puts him to work when he can't pay. Hsieh strikes up a friendship with a prostitute after he looks out for her a couple of times and ends up working on her family's farm. When Yen takes out a local despot, the farmers beg him to teach Hsieh swordsmanship, not knowing that he's really the famed Third Master. Feeling generous in his last days, Yen teaches Hsieh his 13 sword technique so that he can protect the people he cares about when he's gone. It's a good rapport they share with each other too, but there's far too little of it as well. When Yen and Hsieh learn that Hsieh's ex-fiance and her long time admirer have joined forces to destroy the house of Hsieh, the two swordsman head out to settle their affairs once and for all.
The screenplay is needlessly messy and convoluted, relying on flashbacks to fill in Hsieh's backstory, and I don't even think a nonlinear structure was necessary to make it a compelling story. I think a linear narrative would have worked just as well, probably better. It's not a difficult story to grasp either, but it's told so awkwardly that it becomes nonsensical, even (unintentionally) comical at times. The narrative tries to jump from Yen to Hsieh halfway through, but it's a bumpy transition and it never really recovers from its decent start. It's mostly a pretty movie to look at, especially the location of the fated duel, but it's also plagued with a lot of obvious green screen and gimmicky 3D moments that habitually interrupt the sword fights, which aren't as plentiful as you might think either.
Any wuxia movie worth its salt needs to have, at the very least, some impressive fight scenes, and while I wouldn't say Sword Master necessarily has any "bad" fight scenes, it doesn't really have any memorable ones either. They're certainly flashy, showy, and designed to be experienced in 3D, but they have very little substance or emotion behind the fights. The reasoning and inconsistency of their powers made little sense, and how did Yen expect this "useless" farmer to learn the technique that he had developed over many years just by showing it to him once? Yen didn't know that Hsieh was The Third Master. More time between the two exploring the nature of their abilities and training would have been better spent. With Yen trying to achieve a little redemption by helping a poor farmer defend his town and Hsieh trying to overcome his guilt over all the blood he shed at the behest of his father, but they had to go into the predictable romance and melodrama that infests wuxia movies. Maybe "infests" is too strong a word, but I would have preferred a stronger focus on the sword aspect than the romance aspect. There's nothing here that hasn't been done better in other movies already.
Written by - The Sentry - 03/08/2017