Swordsman in Double Flag Town (1991)

Directed by
Bleak and beautiful
Reviewed by Simon on 2001-09-24

This film could be described as a "mainland martial arts movie", but that would probably mislead anybody for whom the term "martial arts movie" is heavily influenced by the Hong Kong approach to the subject (or the mainland's contribution in the SHAOLIN TEMPLE series). The movie is more akin to He Ping's Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker but bleaker in tone.

A young swordsman travels to Double Flag town to claim his bride, betrothed to him at birth by his father and revealed to him on said father's deathbed. Upon reaching Double Flag, the girl's father is rather dubious about handing over his daughter to one so young, but invites the chap to stay with them and work in his horse-head soup restaurant.

Double Flag is not a terribly happy town, being the regular pillaging place of "The Invincible Swordsman" and his gang. TIS is a bandit leader famous for always killing with a single deadly stroke. When the Invincible Swordsman's brother takes a fancy to the young swordsman's betrothed, he gets to prove whether or not he has what it takes to protect her as a husband. He calls on the "Desert Eagle", a braggart swordsman from nearby, for assistance.

S.I.D.F.T. is more Akira Kurosawa than Tsui Hark, with a large helping of Sergio Leone thrown in too. The desert locations and characters permanently covered in muck have drawn comparisons to The Blade and Ashes Of Time, but it's nothing like either of those HK movies. A.O.T. is probably the closer of those two, but SWORDSMAN IN DOUBLE FLAG TOWN has none of the epic grandeur or high philosophy of Wong Kar-Wai's work. Like Kurosawa's YOJIMBO or Seven Samurai, this is a story of a village living under terror of bandits in a location miles from the law. He Ping's characters are not given to much philosophy, just the challenge of getting by without dying.

The film is rather beautiful to watch, with the desert town of Double Flag being remarkable to behold, carved from sandstone in the Chinese desert who knows how many centuries ago. Everything in the film is "gritty" and functional. He Ping has certainly seen his share of HK swordsman films, and the character of Desert Eagle plays a similar role to Tsui Hark's monk in THE BLADE - to make fun of the idea that a swordsman's life is all glamour. HK action fans will be severely disappointed if they're expecting wirework and long complicated battle choreographry. The action here is swift and decisive, an age of waiting in fear then a swift strike in a flurry of close up cuts, then we see who's still standing at the end. It's quite effective in its own way though.

SWORDSMAN IN DOUBLE FLAG TOWN is a well crafted and engaging film, with a wonderful aesthetic. Well worth watching, as long as you remember that not every film with "SWORDSMAN" in the title is going to be like the Tsui Hark/Ching Siu-Tung series of that name :-)