Poor Yen Shi-san.
It’s bad enough he has to walk around with a face tattoo that looks like a cross between the cover art for Ghost Rider and Black Swan. The real kick in the robes? No one will leave him alone long enough to let him die–usually because they’re always trying to kill him.
After a lifetime dealing out death, assassin Yen (Peter Ho) is ready to embrace it himself. He’s the best swordsman in the world and there’s no one left to challenge him, since the legendary Third Master is no more. He’s gone from creating and perfecting the ultimate unstoppable fighting technique to smiting the disgruntled revenge-seeking relatives of his victims. And as bad as he wants to die, he can’t lower himself to let these inferiors deal the killing blow.
He gets a new lease on life when a group of poor villagers beg him to teach his secrets to a young drifter they’ve adopted as their future protector. Yen obliges, only to later learn the unknown champion is actually the decidedly alive Third Master (Lin Gengxin).
At least it may make that whole dying thing a lot easier.
Like many other modern Chinese homages to classic kung-fu cinema, Derek Yee’s Swordmaster is chock full of 3-D high-flying, somersault-dizzying action. There’s some blood and guts thrown in for good measure and the oft-employed humor that usually seems lost in translation. The heavily-CGI’d sets paint a chromatic, endless contrast of light and dark. Yen’s story is juxtaposed nicely with the Third Master’s own tale (after a lifetime of killing, he’s sworn off fighting). It resolves predictably, if not entirely pleasingly. But it’s the symbolism that truly shines, helping to flesh Yen out as more than just all fists and no fury.
He chooses the Hundred-Flower Forest as his final resting place. It is a veritable Eden of unsurpassed beauty and tranquility. Each night, he sleeps in the open grave that he dug with his own bloodstained hands. It will one day be sealed over, quiet and snug, a soil cell offering salvation from the prison he calls life. So desperate to finally rest, he chains his tombstone to his back and carries it to his grave. Though he still lives and breathes, he’s dead on the inside; his portable epitaph a cumbersome, burdening reminder.
It’s a strong reminder for the rest of us. So often, we too are weighed down by our perceived futility of the present. Even for Christians, who are promised an eternity even more glorious than the Hundred-Flower Forest, the gravity of the mortal pit stop on the way to Glory seems too much to bear. How do we keep out faith in the world of the faithless? When the demons close in on every side, like Yen, we often simply want to run away and hide in the final act where everything is beautiful and perfect.
But you can’t have an ending without a beginning and an end.
Unfortunately, that’s where the messy parts get thrown in. All the tough stuff–all the villains and violence, all the monsters and mayhem and heartbreak and hatred and lunacy and loss–that all happens in the middle. But so does the great stuff. The visions and the victories, the magic and the majesty, the harmony and the happiness and the light and the love–all of that wonderful, vital, nourishing, nurturing stuff–happens in the middle. And it’s given freely to all who believe.
Christ wants us to experience that joy, that earthly fulfillment, here and now. In Luke 12: 27-28, Christ reminds us that our day-to-day struggles shouldn’t define our life here on earth, or leave us throwing up our hands waiting on things to get better. “Consider the lilies, how they grow:” he tells his disciples. “They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”
There will be time for Eternity later. Granted, none of us know exactly when we’ll get to see it, but we can’t neglect the present in the hopes of getting there any quicker. Struggles will assuredly come, but Christ’s victory equips us to not only endure the present–it equips us to live.
Enjoy this beautiful world, this beautiful life you have been given, carrying your cross, but not your tombstone. Live as Christ would in the here and now. Love your neighbor, seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. Temper your steps with His light burden and the journey will be much more vibrant than any 3D, CGI big screen epic.
And the ending? Wait for it…wait for it…
Wait for it.