THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD (1979) is a lavish costume drama with swordplay and kung fu made at the Shaw Bros. studio in Hong Kong. It was directed by Sun Chung and stars Ti Lung and Alexander Fu Sheng, both of whom had teamed up the year before to star in the same director's AVENGING EAGLE (also reviewed on this site). Although there are plenty of fight scenes, which tend to be short and exciting but not terribly intricate, this film is less about martial arts than about the interplay between six major characters and the way they play out their different agendas with one set of characters manipulating the others.
The two heroes, Tuan Changqing (Ti Lung) and Xiao Dao--"Little Dagger"-- (Fu Sheng), handle most of the fighting chores and set out to protect the women in the film from various wrongdoers. However, as strong and fearless as they are, they're the ones most easily manipulated. Lovely Jinhua Luo (Lily Li) wants Xiao Dao to remain at her gambling den where he's employed as a bouncer in order to pay off gambling debts and contrives to keep him in debt so that he'll always be at her side. The beautiful courtesan, Liu Yinxu (Shih Szu), newly arrived at Lixiang Brothel, has a hidden motive that gradually becomes clear as she uses her wiles to work her charms on both heroes and get them to do her bidding. Also on hand is the upstanding Dr. Guo (Ku Feng) who, curiously, keeps a band of rowdy fighters on hand as "hangers-on" (two of whom are played by kung fu regulars Yuen Wah and Eddy Ko) and keeps under wraps a secret patient, Lian San (Chan Wai Man), a halberd fighter who'd been badly wounded in a duel at the beginning of the film with Master Tuan.
When all is said and done, the reason behind all the intrigue is less interesting than the build-up to it, resulting in a dramatically disappointing resolution. Still, the characters are all compelling and wonderfully acted by a Shaw Bros. cast that's as solid as you're likely to find in that era. Fu Sheng plays quite a comical character whose addiction to gambling and need to store up money temper his heroism somewhat. Early on he has a game of dominoes with the gambling den's manager to determine whether he walks away from the debt or stays on as a bouncer. In the middle of it, three extortionists come bounding in for their protection fees and he indignantly fights them off so he can concentrate on his game. When one jumps at him with monkey-style kung fu he responds in the same fashion, confusing his opponent. It's a clever and funny scene and is followed by several similar confrontations throughout the film.
The real surprise here is Shih Szu as the beautiful new arrival at Lixiang Brothel (next door to the gambling den). This actress started out at Shaw Bros. playing spunky fighting girls in the early 1970s (THE LADY HERMIT, THE RESCUE), but at this point was doing supporting roles. Liu Yinxu is a far cry from her earlier roles and is one that would normally have gone to Ching Li or any number of Shaw Bros. actresses who specialized in more showy, glamorous roles. She is nonetheless quite engaging as she flatters and manipulates the men with all the arts of the courtesan, but she also has a couple of powerful emotional scenes, particularly one with Ti Lung, that she pulls off at least as well as the other actresses at the studio would have. Kara Hui Ying Hung (MY YOUNG AUNTIE, LADY IS THE BOSS) plays Miss Liu's maid. Interestingly, along with Lily Li, that makes three fighting femmes in one film and yet neither lifts a finger to fight. Which is okay because, quite simply, the film isn't about the fighting, it's about the characters.
The production looks very sumptuous, having been filmed almost entirely on spacious and ornate Shaw Bros. sets, with only one outdoors scene (a furious horse ride) filmed on location. It's not the best swordplay film we've seen out of Shaw Bros., but it represents a nice change of pace for the cast and a welcome break from the more intense Chang Cheh martial arts extravaganzas and the more formal, overplotted all-star Chor Yuen swordplay dramas.