The problem with 3-D epics like “Sword Master” is that they’re silver screen time is limited. One day, they’ll fade to the small screen in standard 2-D. As the lavish production it was meant to be, I’m sure “Sword Master” was beautiful in the theater. It’s wuxia (the Chinese genre featuring martial heroes) to the core. The fight scenes are grand, the performances are larger than life, and the set design is lavish. Those easily distracted will find plenty to spy in every frame.
As it plays in 2-D, “Sword Master” is the kind of empty big budget mishmash that makes you wonder why it was made at all. Ostensibly, it’s a tribute to the wuxia genre. The lone hero Hsieh Shao-Feng (Kenny Lin), gives up his martial life and tries to live a quieter one in the countryside with a family of villagers. He leaves behind a bride-to-be from an opposing clan, Chiu-ti (Jiang Yiyan), but she plans on changing that.
It takes wading through stilted conversations and some cringy humor to get the real story, keep in mind. This is a martial epic, after all. Our hero, the fabled Third Master, is as boring as they come. Following his character only would make for a dull experience. So, director Derek Yee sees fit to pack in as much as possible. Most of this comes in the form of flashbacks. By showing viewers the past, he can focus less on the present.
In fact, there are so many flashbacks that it feels like a tactic. The actual story is thin as cheese cloth, and the only way to justify its existence is to pad it with unnecessary backstory. It’s a frustrating exercise in asking “How long until the next fight scene?” If you’re a kung-fu aficionado, you will be disappointed.
There’s far more melodrama here than wirework fight sequences. The result is disquieting: we’re shown too much of a bad story and too little of the (mostly) excellent confrontations. The slow-mo heavy sword fights are a joy to watch. Like every other aspect of the movie, they’re laughably unreal. The sets are the same way.
But that’s all in keeping with the spirit of wuxia, and that’s the one thing “Sword Master” gets right. The self-aggrandizing melodrama and the opulent costuming make for eye-catching viewing. Jiang Yiyan is the only actor here who’s worth watching. Her performance is as naturalistic as it is over-the-top, often making her co-stars unbearable to watch. Fittingly, “Sword Master” is double-edged: you get the resplendence of old wuxia, but you also get an overdone story. Save it for a rainy day. Any other time and you’d be missing something better.