The Hero of Swallow (1996)

Underrated and underseen within the ninja canon, The Hero Of Swallow is a film out of time. It was the final film from veteran filmmaker Sang Siu – a guy who’d been shooting wuxia and kung fu movies since the early 60s – and it’s kind of a swansong that waves fond farewell to an old-fashioned style of Chinese cinema that, by 1996, was long out of fashion (similar in that respect to Chang Cheh’s Ninja In Ancient China (1993))…

Hero Of Swallow

The legendary Yuen Biao plays Li San, a folkloric Robin Hood style character who was apparently at large in the 1920s/30s and who’s been portrayed onscreen a few times before and after this film. Li San’s particular USP is that, besides stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, he also has quasi-mystical martial arts abilities that allow him to climb walls and leap great heights, seeming to fly from the scene of the crime like a bird (hence his nickname The Hero Swallow – or The Thief Swallow, depending on the financial status of the person describing him!). Although allegedly Shaolin in real life, In this version of the story, Li San dresses and acts like a ninja.

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Anyway, the love of Li San’s life here is a girl named Chinny (Athena Chu), who has been raped, kidnapped and sold to a brothel somewhere in Peking (it’s a very rough province they’re from!). Li San therefore swears to track her down and rescue her, which is why he has been training in ninjoid arts. Once he gets to Peking, the local authorities are well aware there is a “Flying Thief” at large so he needs to lay low to avoid being captured and killed. It’s a task made harder by dark conspiracies afoot in the Imperial City involving a local aristocrat, a precious “Jade Chop” and the eternal lurking evil of the Japanese…

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Li San amasses a small band of helpers to aid him on his adventures – a wily Peking Opera singer (Yvonne Yung Hung), a loyal soldier whose mother’s life he saves (Elvis Tsui) and a plucky young lady thief-in-training who dresses like a man to avoid attention (Lily Chung Suk Wai). Between these useful allies and his ninja skills, all looks on track for rescuing Chinny, locating the Jade Chop and saving the day. However, things don’t go as expected and the film takes an incredibly dark turn for its final third.

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Arguably the bleakness is milked a little at the very end but the tragic climax is undeniably affecting. Sang Siu may love a bit of melodrama but he directs these last scenes with such a grandiose poetic style, he gets away with it. The use of swallows is particularly effective and evokes John Woo and his doves. Of course, it helps that the cast here is so spectacular too. Yuen Biao never gives a disappointing performance and this is one of his best. He may not get chance to do much of the complex acrobatic kung fu he displays in other films, but he’s able to show off his acting skills, from charismatic comedy to gut-wrenching emotion. Lily Chung Suk Wai (who fans of Cat III cinema may recognise from Red To Kill) also steals the screen with a nuanced turn as the cute cross-dressing thief; I could watch an entire side-movie about her character and not get bored.

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Admittedly, the fighting in Hero Of Swallow isn’t the best but it’s by no means the worst either. There are a few decent brawls but it never quite takes off in the action stakes (e.g. the climactic duff-up between Biao and Eddy Ko, while super-tense within the narrative, is way too brief). That said, if it’s ninjing you’re after, there are some cool sights to see – Biao in his ninja suit leaps through the sky on wires quite often and there’s also a small squad of lady ninjas who have a lively scrap with Eddy Ko. We also see a lot of actual stealth ninja work as well. For anyone accustomed to the Godfrey Ho style ninjing of “LET’S ALL WEAR CANDY PINK AND GOLD AND BE SUPER-VISIBLE IN ANY SETTING!”, it’s a nice change to see someone using the costume as bonafide camouflage.

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Where The Hero Of Swallow shines is on the drama. There’s nothing groundbreaking here but it hits the right emotional beats and tells a fast-paced, engaging story around its fight scenes. It’s shot beautifully and has a lilting, atmospheric score played on traditional Chinese instruments that really transports you into its world. It would be a good, accessible ninja film to show to someone who’s maybe not too deep into the genre and, for fans of old-skool wuxia, this is a lovely – albeit bittersweet – tribute to the glory days. One could even consider its downbeat finalé as an allegory for its genre; the bloody, messy demise of true cinematic chivalry…

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