The Swordsman of All Swordsmen/The Mystery of Chess Boxing: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (25th April 2024).
The Film

Swordsman of All Swordsmen: When martial arts master Chao Hu (A Touch of Zen's Miao Tian) challenges a traveling street performer (Island of Fire's Ming Kao) for possession of his pretty daughter Pearl (Yang Meng-Hua), he mercilessly beats the man and threatens her when she tries to fight back. Just in the nick of time, young wandering swordsman Tsai Ying-Jie (The Shaolin Kids' Tien Peng) steps in and effortlessly kills his rival. Ying-Jie regrettably explains to Pearl that he cannot honor her father's dying wish that he look after her because he is on a mission of revenge against the five men who were not content to merely take the legendary Spirit Chasing Sword from his father Chan Shan-gong (Attack Force Z's Wei Su) but to also slaughter him and his family despite his wish not to fight. Despite the Chao Hu's warning that "a beheaded weed will return if you don't rip out its roots," the gang's master Yun Chung-chun (Dragon Inn's Tsao Chien) orders them to spare six-year-old Tsai Ying-Jie who has since then lived and trained for revenge and nothing else.

After learning of the death of fellow gang member Fang Bao (Duel in the Tiger Den's Ko Yu-Min), Liu Xiang (Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger's Lu Shih) and Yin Xie (The One Armed Boxer's Hsueh Han) alert Yun Chung-chun and are surprised to discover that he has been expecting Ying-Jie's retribution and plans to do nothing about it. Liu Xiang and Yin Xie ambush Ying-Jie who receives an unexpected assist from swordsman Black Dragon (The 7 Grand Masters' Chiang Nan) who reveals in the aftermath that he only helped because he wants to challenge the other man for the title of best swordsman. When Ying-Jie collapses, Black Dragon reveals to partner Flying Swallow (The 18 Bronzemen's Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng) that the younger man has been poisoned by a Spirit Killing Dart. Black Dragon tells Flying Swallow where to find the cure but only leaves her to look after Ying-Jie with the message that Ying-Jie will die anyway because he still intends to fight him for the title. As Ying-Jie convalesces, Flying Swallow tries to convince him to abandon his quest for revenge; however, it is not necessarily (or at least, solely) her concern for him that motivates her actions…

The first martial arts film of Taiwanese filmmaker Joseph Kuo – already the subject of Eureka's eight-film set Cinematic Vengeance (and the two four-film standard edition reissues Fearless Shaolin! and Deadly Masters!) – The Swordsman of All Swordsmen does not tread any new ground in terms of a revenge plot already so familiar to the West in the form of archetypal spaghetti western scenarios and increasingly common in martial arts films in the years to come; however, it actually does pose moral questions for reasons other than to pad the film between the fight scenes. While Flying Swallow – who is refreshingly not posited as a romantic interest for Ying-Jie – does have ulterior motives to discourage him from following through with his revenge plot to the end, her reasons are no less relevant and the hero is ultimately disturbed by his own newly-discovered capacity for mercy when confronting his worst enemy and a swordsman who wants to challenge him as a matter of ego. The resolutions to these encounters are effectively moving, surprisingly so for those familiar with director Kuo from his subsequent prolific, highly uneven output of which one is never quite sure when he actually directed the film or served as "acting director" (or supervising producer). The film never returns to potential love interest Pearl who disappears after the first twenty minutes; however, presumably the ending left open the possibility of Ying-Jie finding happiness since his walking into the sunset is not the rejection of friendship but the need to come to terms with who he is and if he has indeed "failed" his parents by not fully avenging them. In the context of his readily-available in the West films, The Swordsman of All Swordsmen is so much more thoughtful a work that one wonders how many other superior offerings may lurk in Kuo's filmography.

The Mystery of Chess Boxing features another martial artist on a revenge mission; however, this one is the iconic villain Ghost Face Killer (Shaolin Traitor's Mark Long Kuan-Wu) who is dealing death to eight men who attempted to overthrow him during his ruthless rule as a high official during the Qing dynasty. Fresh-faced country bumpkin Ah Pao (The World of Drunken Master's Li Yimin) has come to the city hoping to train in kung fu at the Chang Sing School; however, he quickly runs afoul of one of the arrogant senior students (King of Fists and Dollars' Hsiao Hou-Tou) when he accidentally humiliates him in a chess match against street performer Chi Siu Tien (The Butterfly Murders' Jack Long Shi-Chia) who further humiliates the student when he attempts to punish Ah Pao. Ah Pao manages to withstand a brutal hazing by the students and is accepted into the school; however, the master continues to turn a blind eye to the bullying of the senior students and Ah Pao ultimately learns more from the school's cook Yuan (Drunken Master's Simon Yuen Siu-Tin) including how to stand up for himself. When Ah Pao is discovered to be carrying Ghost Face Killer's killing plate, however, the master turns him out of the school without allowing him to explain himself. The old cook sends Ah Pao to his brother Chi Siu Tien to take over his training. The chess master frustrates Ah Pao with an emphasis on the calming and focusing qualities of the game of chess while his granddaughter (Jeanie Chang) supervises Ah Pao's physical training. When the Chang Sing School's master and the old cook are murdered, the students blame Ah Pao who reveals to Chi Siu Tien that he wanted to learn kung fu to avenge his father's death at the hands of Ghost Face Killer. Since the chess master is next on Ghost Face Killer's list, Chi Siu Tien must teach Ah Pao his secret art of chess fighting in order to save both of them when Ghost Face Killer finds them.

A later Kuo work (which may or may not have actually been directed by him) that proved incredibly popular in American grindhouse theaters – with the film's dialogue sampled in a song by Wu Tang Clan and the villain inspiring the name of rapper Ghostface Killah – The Mystery of Chess Boxing switches the targeted mission of vengeance to the villain while the young hero is patterned after the post-Drunken Master/Snake in the Eagle's Shadow Jackie Chan-type hapless young kung fu student who gets abused by his teachers and other students before he has to prove himself against a villian who has murdered his family or his sifu. In the case of this film, the killer has done both – and speculation in the commentaries suggest that the latter might have been an adjustment to the script after the sudden death of Yuen since he is only briefly featured, never shares a scene with his brother, and his character's death is mentioned in the dialogue but not depicted onscreen while the death of the school's barely-introduced master is shown. If the chess boxing element was added later, it turns out to be just the novelty the otherwise ordinary plot needed with a flashy opening sequence of the leads performing moves on a chessboard floor against a red backdrop and the ending sequence in which the nonspecific instructions by the chess master of position numbers to Ah Pao are intercut with pieces moving on a chessboard in stop motion as crude as the Peter Hunt-inspired attempts at punching up the fights by removing frames. The film is nowhere near as emotionally-involving as The Swordsman of All Swordsmen, but it is nevertheless entertaining.


Unreleased theatrically in the United States, The Swordsman of All Swordsmen turned up on VHS and only had an official DVD release in Taiwan featuring a non-anamorphic, semi-cropped transfer. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.39:1 widescreen Blu-ray comes from a 2021 2K restoration of the original camera negatives. The image is not free of damage but it has been minimized (text before the feature reveals that automatic restoration software was used first and then manual restoration was then used to address some of the issues that resulted from the automatic process). The new scan makes more apparent the falloff in sharpness at the edges of the frame in the old anamorphic lenses as well as a few wide angle shots that are surprisingly soft overall. Close-ups and medium shots fare best in terms of overall sharpness when the subjects are in the center of the frame. The color grade is vibrant but perhaps a shade severe in the skin tones in overcast shots that appear a bit more bronzed than they probably were intended.

Although The Mystery of Chess Boxing played for years on 42nd Street, Tai Seng had a difficult time finding material for the film in the early 2000s, and what they would end up releasing on DVD under the title Ninja Checkmate was a center-cropped 1.33:1 video master of the English dub that nevertheless proved to be one of the label's highest sellers of all time, such was the reputation of the film bolstered more so by Wu Tang Clan. For Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.32:1 widescreen Blu-ray – an exclusive to this limited edition first pressing of The Swordsman of All Swordsmen – comes from a sourced from a new 2K scan of the only known existing print owned by Dan Halsted, head programmer at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, and exhibited at a number of film festivals. The print was from Hong Kong so it was in Cantonese with dual Chinese and English subtitles burned into the print, and Eureka has elected not to try to digitally erase these subtitles or add new ones on top of them. In spite of its rarity, it looks quite acceptable given the aforementioned older lenses, cheap film stock and processing, and Eureka seems to have done some correction to fading and fixed some of the archival damage. It is not always easy to tell which jump cuts are intentional and which are due to missing frames, but this presentation certainly beats out any previous video incarnations and is actually pleasant in the most grindhouse-y way.


The Swordsman of All Swordsmen has Mandarin and English LPCM 2.0 mono options, and the main menu warns the viewer that the English track is derived from inferior tape sources (no surprise given the rarity of releases of the film). The Mandarin track has been cleaned up during the 2021 35mm restoration. The English track is overall poorer but listenable, reverting to Mandarin with English subtitles during moments which were either never dubbed into English or where the audio dropouts occurred. The optional English subtitles are free of errors.

Despite the burnt-in dual-language subtitles, The Mystery of Chess Boxing provides the options of Mandarin, Cantonese, or English LPCM 2.0 mono dub tracks. Quality varies on all three tracks due to the sources and damage but they are all listenable and as well-synchronized as one expects from dubs of Asian films of the period. There are no optional subtitles, but the print subtitles are perfectly serviceable and lack some of the laughable translation gaffes encountered in the original subtitles of other films of this period.


The Swordsman of All Swordsmen is accompanied by an audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng and film writer John Charles who reveal that the film was produced by the same company behind the Taiwan-lensed films of King Hu and share many of the same cast and locations, and that the film did well at the box office just behind Dragon Inn and The One Armed Swordsman. Charles notes the film's spaghetti western influcences while Djeng notes the influences of Peking Opera and Akira Kurosawa (as well as revealing that the producer had Kuo watch Hiroshi Inagaki's samurai trilogy before directing the film). Charles also notes the unauthorized use of Hollywood scores in the film including cues by André Previn and Lalo Schifrin while Djeng discusses the cast and the film's two sequels The Bravest Revenge and The Ghost Hill.

The disc also includes "The Return of the Master" (12:15), an interview with Kuo who reveals that he started out writing novels that did not sell and saw an opportunity with the rising Taiwanese film industry's need for scripts. He wrote and directed films in different genres for a decade before The Swordsman of All Swordsmen which was inspired by his admiration for King Hu's Come Drink With Me and getting to work alongside Hu when he came to Taiwan.

The Mystery of Chess Boxing is accompanied by two audio commentary tracks – which makes one wonder whether this limited edition exclusive might pop up as a solo release at a later point – starting with an audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng and martial artist/filmmaker Michael Worth who discuss the film's American popularity – playing for several years in Times Square including as part of a double bill with Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing – and the Wu Tang Clan connection, as well as the high demand for repressings of the Tai Seng DVD of up to forty-thousand units. Djeng focuses on the cast and story – including Yuen who played Beggar So and variations on the character as well as fathering eleven children including Asian action regulars Yuen Woo Ping, Brandy Yuen, and Yuen Cheung-Yan – while Worth discusses the cinematography including Kuo's choice of framing and long takes for the fight scenes. Djeng refers to the film's mixing of popular genre elements as a "martial arts fan's wet dream" as well as going into a bit of detail about the print source.

There is also an audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema who discuss the cliché plot and character – particularly in light of the genre's comic leans after Jackie Chan's two early hits – including referring to Hsiao Hou-Tou as a "poor man's Dean Shek" and how the film qualifies as "Jackiesploitation" while also carrying over some silly elements from Kuo's early films including the mop-like wigs worn by some of the fighters in order to better double them. They also go into more detail about the Wu Tang Clan's appropriation of the film, its sampling, and that in addition to Ghostface Killah, Ol' Dirty Bastard was also named after Yuen and his popular drunken beggar character.


The cover features reversible artwork by Darren Wheeling while the the limited edition pressing of 2,000 copies includes the aforementioned bonus disc of The Mystery of Chess Boxing along with an O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju), a collector's booklet featuring new writing on both films by James Oliver, a set of facsimile lobby cards, and a double-sided poster featuring original release posters (none of which was supplied for review).


The Swordsman of All Swordsmen and The Mystery of Chess Boxing are two very different Joseph Kuo films in terms of plotting, performance, and technical quality; yet they are equally entertaining.


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