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Shurayuki-Hime (The Princess Blade)

(2003) ** R
92 min. distributer. Director: Shinsuke Sato. Cast: Yumiko Shaku, Kyusaku Shimada, Hideaki Ito, Shiro Sano, Yoichi Numata.

Based on a manga by Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura, The Princess Blade is one of the self-serious HK martial arts flicks (as opposed to the goofy, knowingly self-parodic ones). That would be fine, if Shinsuke Sato's film had enough visionary moments to lift it above the pack. But outside of nifty but sparse action choreography by Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey), The Princess Blade has little to offer but rationalizations about, well, rationalization.

A story of "people who walk the path of blood" set in a future world only tantalizingly glimpsed, The Princess Blade follows Yuki (Yumiko Shaku), one of the few blood heirs left in the Takemikazuchi, a hereditary society of assassins. As such, she is political dynamite, especially as her twentieth birthday rolls around. Like Hamlet, Yuki gets shocking news about her mother's death, sending her into avenging angel mode. This is all well and good, and Yen kicks things off with an athletic sword duel between Yuki and the man who killed her mother.

Soon thereafter, The Princess Blade becomes fatally sidetracked by the story of Takashi (Hideaki Ito), a young insurrectionist-without-a-cause. His middleman Kidokoro (Shirô Sano)--sent from the insurrectionist movement to entice Takashi into taking part in anarchist actions--chews gum with comically sinister zeal, betraying his oh-so-badness. Kidokoro laconically insists upon the group's never-defined ideals, the poor rationalization for violence meant to pale against Yuki's heartfelt ideal of vengeful justice. Okay, but do we need a snail-paced hour of middle-stretch screen time to work this out (and allow Yuki and Takashi to fall ever-so slowly in love) while Yuki could be ass-kickin'?

Shaku struck me as awfully pouty and waifish to sling a sword with conviction, though she sells the action scenes well...when she's in them. In fact, a dejected Yen, deprived of rehearsal time, replaced the key actors with his own stunt team in all of the action sequences, leaving the leads to execute only a few relatively simple moves to stitch the scenes together. Nevertheless, the brutal fights, typically staged deep in the woods, have a lasting impact.

Between fights, which is most of the time, The Princess Blade sinks into the worst of Hong Kong cliches (mostly borrowed from elsewhere in world cinema, to begin with). To our cultural taste, HK movies' music-box pathos and plinky piano sentiment can be unintentionally amusing, which is why us Americans mostly love the goofy ones.

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