The Action Scene is a column exploring the construction of action set pieces, but it also considers “scene” in the sense of field or area: “action” as a genre and mode that spans different cultures and historical periods. By examining these two levels in tandem—one oriented toward aesthetic expression, the other toward broader contexts and concepts—this series aims to deepen appreciation for and spark discussion about action cinema.
In a pivotal scene from Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), hero Fang Kang, having lost his right arm and seemingly all hope of improving his swordsmanship, is thrown a lifeline in the form of a kung-fu training manual, given to him by the kindly country girl who nursed him back to health. Although more than half the booklet was destroyed in a fire, the remains turn out to be conveniently accommodating to his injury: it was solely the right-handed maneuvers that were burned away, leaving the left-handed ones intact. With the help of this tattered volume, Fang develops a deadly, single-arm fighting style. As he trains and eventually tests his newly honed skill on a bevy of unsuspecting opponents, Chang tends to capture our hero’s developing technique (as well as the technique of supporting characters to which Fang’s allegedly superior kung-fu can be compared) with great clarity, opting for relatively stable framing, match-on-action edits, a maintained 180-degree line, and other tried-and-true techniques for establishing onscreen geography and the visually trackable movement of human figures within it. There seems to be a connection between the esteemed narrative role of the training manual, which contains drawings of poses for the trainee’s imitation, and the film’s lucid visual style. Both reinforce the notion that “proper” martial arts technique can be verified by sight, and both are linked to a genre tradition that associates visible physical discipline with spiritual or moral fortitude. The best fighter tends to be the most upright, and, when the hero saves the day, he tends to do so through displaying (both for other characters and for us) the best kung-fu.
The corresponding scene in The Blade (1995), Tsui Hark’s nightmarish deconstruction of Chang’s iconic film, follows roughly the same narrative trajectory: The protagonist, here named Ding-on, discovers half a training manual and masters a combat form uniquely suited to his disability. But there are some striking differences. Initially enthusiastic at the idea of learning to fight one-handed, Ding-on grows frustrated at the guide’s incompleteness. In a blind rage, he swings his weapon wildly, and, without intending to, cuts clean through a wooden pole with unforeseen power. A scene later, he discards the manual entirely and adopts his own DIY martial art, which involves turning himself into a human Beyblade and proves to be as effective as anything classical training could have offered.
It is this rejection of tradition—and, specifically, a tradition that values the visibility of “good” kung-fu technique—that manifests in the visual style of the film’s climactic scene, in which Ding-on, at the peak of his powers, faces off against tattooed assassin Flying Falcon (alternatively translated as “Flying Dragon”), the man who killed his father. This final battle concludes a film that replaces The One-Armed Swordsman’s portrait of self-sacrifice, righteous anger, and moral clarity with a spectacle of carnal appetite and vindictive fury. In this world, tradition and, crucially, its ties to proper kung-fu hold little value, and the climax of The Blade seems to channel this new reality through a frenzied, intentionally disorienting aesthetic. Set in a bone-dry back alley strewn with bear traps and the bodies of fallen fighters and shot handheld to infuse every moment with a sense of agitation, the scene doubles down on the freneticism when blades connect, except, much of the time, we don’t even see the blades themselves. Whereas The One-Armed Swordsman often set its shots farther back to keep most of the characters’ figures in frame, cutting in only to visually accent a parry or blow, this scene leans heavily on close-ups and medium close-ups, and in such a way where much physical contact between combatants occurs either partially or completely off-frame. Repeatedly, fighters’ ferocious expressions and heaving shoulders will be visible, but their flashing weapons are reduced to vague blurs near the shot’s edge. Even when the camera does pull back, the blades often move so fast or are flung off-screen as to elude clear visual capture. Furthermore, the pace of cutting is extremely rapid, offering little time to examine even those rare instants in which specific techniques are legible.
Put another way, this scene from The Blade eschews clear sightlines in favor of that which lies beyond the frame, beyond the eyes: the rest of the sensing body that gets suppressed whenever all emphasis is placed on the visual. Although it would be foolish to claim that other martial arts films don’t engage the viewer’s body (the exhilaration of watching someone perform astonishing physical feats is a very bodily response indeed), few films de-center vision quite like this scene in The Blade. In effect, the film turns us into versions of Ding-on, who, pinwheeling across the battlefield, can only ever glimpse incoming assailants before his momentum whips them out of view. Rather than seeing the onscreen space, we seem almost to be feeling our way through it, using visual cues as merely the starting point for a profoundly proprioceptive viewing experience.
Of course, vision remains important to The Blade since it is, ultimately, a film. It is through images that we get an aesthetic of embodiment, through the visual that any (cinematic) aesthetic is possible at all. That said, the kind of vision presented here is thrillingly physiological: not the abstracted, flattened images in a dusty training manual, but rather a vision anchored in a living, moving body. We get a (literal) sense of this bodily aesthetic not only through the film’s oblique shooting style or the aforementioned use of handheld (which foregrounds the body of the camera operator) but through the sound design. In place of more orienting visual markers, Tsui crafts a vivid soundscape filled with the staccato thwack of splitting bamboo, the ringing of steel-on-steel, and fighters’ primal yells. Whereas a steadier view of bamboo, blades, and combatants would’ve offered a clearer sense of position and geography, the scene seems more interested in the direct, body-shaking effect of soundwaves, in pounding these phenomena straight into our eardrums. Distance gives way to proximity, spatial representation to pure vibration.
Since The Blade’s release, visual pandemonium has become something of a stylistic trope among contemporary action films. Alternatively called post-continuity or chaos cinema, such films have tapped and perpetuated the accelerated pace of a multimedia society by scrambling traditional notions of spatiotemporal unity; as film scholar David Bordwell pointed out in a book chapter on Tsui’s work, The Blade itself was conceived with the MTV-savvy, attention-deficient viewer in mind. Aside from the stylistic idiosyncrasy of the film’s particular brand of chaos (the consistency and intensity of its kinetic, off-center framing sets the film apart from its more haphazardly executed counterparts), what makes The Blade special is the way it puts this aesthetic in dialogue with traditional values tied to visual form (a revisionist tendency can be seen in much of Tsui’s work, which, into the present day, tends to overlay genre formula with a distinctly modern, sometimes borderline avant-garde aesthetic. See, for example, the dizzying visual kineticism of crime thriller Time and Tide (2000) or the ecstatic, CGI-infused acrobatics of the latter two Detective Dee films [2013, 2018]). In the process, the film conjures a nightmarish modern world in which old codes have been shattered.
But the nightmare isn’t necessarily the end of the story, for with broken shards comes the possibility of assembling a different wholeness. By sidelining a visual culture concerned with form and shape, boundaries and distances, the film makes room for an alternative aesthetics. It is an aesthetics of the felt over the seen, one that evokes how a character deemed lacking by ableist visual culture can gain extraordinary power through an adaptive proprioception. Based not in fixity and precision but movement and transformation, it suggests that, from the wreckage of the past, new futures can be forged.