David Chiang stars in a film by Raymnod Lui as a swordsman who tires of killing, even though those he kills are killers. His master is also his father, and considers his change of heart treasonous. Jason Pai Piao has a supporting role as a mercenary who is hired to hunt him down.
While the common domestic title (North America) is Flaming Swords, as one watches this David Chiang sword-fight actioner, the original title, Strife For Mastery becomes more clearly the more accurate of the two: it is a deeper film in places than one would gather from something hyperbolic like "Flaming Swords".
After many years of working with the great director Chang Cheh, Strife For Mastery sees Chiang working for actor turned director Raymond Lui (who also scripted). Lui achieves his best artistic success in this film, except for perhaps his later film, The Crane Fighters (1979), which he produced, directed and choreographed for. While there is a lot of levity in The Crane Fighters though, Strife For Mastery is a much darker, murkier, mystery laden film with more plot twists than some may keep track of on first viewing. But, this is okay, because I liked watching this film the first time, and the times since. You may feel the same.
Sau Wah, a poet at court is visited by his older brother Sau Yin (David Chiang), who has just returned after executing a criminal. Sau Yin envies his brother for his peaceful and liesurely existence at court even as Sau Wah envies him for his percieved life of adventure and excitement. "Killers are killed. The more you kill the more you fear being killed," he tells his poet brother.
Sau Yin is ordered by their father to track down, kill, and return with the head of a robber that has been attacking merchants and killing escorts. He makes public his hesitation, which earns him an equally public dressing down by his father in front of the court. Under threat of demotion in favour of his younger brother, if not execution for insubordination, he resolves to do as assigned.
He makes his way to the mountain where the robber is said to hide, but when he finds the robber's hideout only the robber's beautiful daughter is there. The girl, Soo Sin, tries to warn him away, to leave while there is still time. Repeating a common enough but still effective image of the warrior on film, he sits there stoically as rain begins to fall. She plays her music by the window, as night falls, and the rain builds to a storm.
When the robber returns home, the swordplay between the two is worth watching, and impressively put to film, even though it does look like some movements are obviously sped up. The choreography was kinetic enough for me. The fight ends differently for Sau Yin than it has in times past though because when he has the drop on the robber he doesn't kill him. Given the choice to die or give his daughter's hand in marriage, he regretfully gives his blessing for their marriage.
When news reaches court, his father is not impressed. He calls for the One-armed Brothers and the Four Golden Spheres, and he assigns them to kill his son for not killing the robber.
The Four Golden Spheres are easily enough defeated by Sau Yin, but he allows them to live, hoping that the show of mercy won't make things worse between he and his father. Afterwards however, the Four Golden Spheres are set upon by a black clad figure who slaughters them all. Meanwhile, Sau Yin and Soo Sin are on their way to hideout with a priest, Sau Yin's uncle.
Sau Yin is next confronted by the One-armed Brothers. In years past the brothers had cut off one of their arms each to focus their blade skills on the remaining arm, one of them right, the other left.
The confrontation on a rural bridge benefits from solid choreography and direction. There is an appreciable use of available light for atmosphere. Overall, it is a fight scene so close to classic. In the end, Sau Yin wins out and again he lets his defeated adversaries live. After Sau Yin and Soo Sin depart the brothers decide that living on in defeat is too painful and they stab each other. No sooner done though, and they are regretting the decision, and wish they hadn't. Unfortunately, at this point a decent scene takes a turn for overacting at best, silliness at worst, with the dialogue. As before, Sau Yin's defeated foes are slaughtered by a mysterious warrior clad in black (who didn't wait for them to die).
The Lord at court next orders the Four Chiefteins to appear before him, and when they arrive he secretly reveals to them that he is... Not who he appears to be. His identity revealed, he tells them that their Lord was poisoned and the deed could only have been done by someone close to him, Sau Yin.
The Four Chiefteins ride off but they are not so sure that Sau Yin could be the killer. They are soon attacked by a number of black clad warriors.
The black clad warrior meets with a mercenary named The Supreme Swordsman, to hire him to kill Sau Yin, the Lord's oldest son. Supreme Swordsman says that he will, but he must know who it is that hires him. The black clad warrior reveals his face to him (back to the audience) and Supreme Swordsman is shocked at the reveal, but he agrees. Who is the killer dressed in black?
This is the first of only two scenes with Jason Pai Piao in the film, as Supreme Swordsman. He had a similar amount of screen time in a similar role in Killer Constable, as Fan Ching Ping. In that case, his character was darker, and wasn't driven by any code. It makes one wonder if Pai Piao was heading for typecasting as a 'two scene mercenary character' actor.
From this point on, every other scene seems to involve a major plot twist to challenge the viewer's assumption as to what is going on. The motives that characters were thought to have had are revealed to be something else. Even the identities of some characters are revealed to be other than what they present. The action increases at a delerious pace as well, so that the film can be enjoyed purely on superficial terms if the story is unfolding in too dizzying a manner. Again, the first time I saw this I felt like I should have been taking notes, just to be watching the film for fun. Story-wise everything is resolved in the end, but the way it all unfolds makes it difficult to talk at all about the final quarter without tripping at every turn over potential spoilers.
I will say that some may find the final kill in the film puts the "over" in overkill. Given a lot of what led up to it though, perhaps it is not so extreme. Certainly, by Chang Cheh standards it isn't so extreme. By some modern standards it may actually seem somewhat tame.
While David Chiang's performance as Sau Ying in Strife For Mastery doesn't match or better his performance as Jian Nan in Chang Cheh's The Duel (of the Iron Fists), it still proves highly watchable. Really, all the main players do well. As one can imagine though, the twist and turn nature of the story creates a challenge for the actors to keep their characters convincing.
Strife For Mastery isn't what some may call a 'pure' sword film, as there are clearly moments where the film is sped up, and the use of wire work and trampolines out of panel seems to increase with the number of the plot twists. The strengths of the film then rests in the imagination of the fight choreography. In this, Raymond Lui is more than ably assisted by Chan Chuen as the action director. Chuen has worked on many films in this capacity, such as Chang Cheh's Boxer From Shantung, Chang Cheh's The Water Margin, Wong Fung's When Taekwondo Strikes, Wong Fung's Stoner, and Chang Cheh's All Men Are Brothers. He would also direct films as well, most signficantly, if controversially, Fearless Hyena II.
The film company behind Strife For Mastery was Success Film (H.K.) Company Ltd. It isn't the storied company that Shaw or Golden Harvest is (was). Compared to them, Success Film (H.K.) Company Ltd. only made a mere handful of films. There were many such independant film companies that developed in the mid-70s, and while they may have lacked the budget of the bigger companies, they occasionally would manage to churn out a good film anyway. Out of the films that Success Film (H.K.) Company Ltd. produced, Strife For Mastery stands as their best effort for my money.