Wednesday 28 February 2018

Movie REVIEW: Thunderbolt Fantasy: The Sword of Life and Death

Thunderbolt Fantasy: The Sword of Life and Death is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

If there was one thing that stood out among Crunchyroll's simulcast offerings in 2016, it was Thunderbolt Fantasy. A 13-episode collaboration between Gen Urobuchi, Nitroplus, Good Smile Company and Taiwan's Pili International Media, the series was an assault of unique styles and visuals that brought the art of Taiwanese glove puppetry to a wider audience. 2017 remained a fairly quiet time for the show as fans patiently wait for its second season, however it capped the year off with the arrival of Thunderbolt Fantasy: A Sword of Life and Death – a direct to video movie that explores the time both prior to and following on from the series with some of its key characters.

When we first met the Screaming Phoenix Killer Shā Wú Shēng, he had vowed to hunt down and kill the Enigmatic Gale Lǐn Xuě Yā. However once upon a time the two worked together, with Shā Wú Shēng hired to protect Lǐn Xuě Yā from those he had stolen from or manipulated in the past. Weary of the blood and fear his name was drenched in, Shā Wú Shēng takes up Lǐn Xuě Yā's suggestion of entering the Sword Hero tournament – where the winner will have the reputation of "Sword Saint" bestowed upon them. As well as having to face off against his former master, the events of the tournament will also reveal the Enigmatic Gale's true intentions towards the Screaming Phoenix Killer.

Meanwhile in the second segment of the film, Shāng Bù Huàn continues his wandering life of anonymity after the events of the series. However when he meets a man claiming to be him, he lets the man regale him with an embellished version of his adventures before the pair cross paths with remnants of the Xuán Guǐ Zōng – out for revenge after the loss of their leader Miè Tiān Hái.

There were a number of mysteries surround almost every character in Thunderbolt Fantasy, but the past dealings between Shā Wú Shēng and Lǐn Xuě Yā was definitely among the most tantalising. Given how the Enigmatic Gale's treacherous nature was revealed over the course of the series it doesn’t take much to imagine someone like the Screaming Phoenix Killer would want to kill him, but with both characters firmly established as fan favourites this was a story that definitely benefitted from being told. Despite the two characters contrasting wildly in so many different ways the chemistry between them is surprisingly endearing, which gives the eventual outcome of this story all the more impact.

The pairing also brings forth an opportunity to see a very different side of the Screaming Phoenix Killer. Behind the skilled assassin is a man whose life has been steeped in bloodshed since his very birth, and rather than revel in his feared reputation would rather start afresh and be respected among his peers. It's because of this desperation you can imagine that he'd follow the advice of someone like Lǐn Xuě Yā, blissfully unaware that the Enigmatic Gale was manipulating him just as he had so many people before him. The main thing to take away from this isn't actually that Shā Wú Shēng did nothing wrong, but rather that Lǐn Xuě Yā is an asshole and deserves everything that's eventually going to catch up to him.

But despite the tournament setting this side-story isn't the non-stop action sequence you might think it is, instead devoting more of its time to dialogue and character development. As a result the visuals do take a little bit of a hit. The backgrounds especially, as the intricate greenery is exchanged for a rather drab arena setting for almost the entirety of its running time. That isn't to say there isn't the show's trademark action sequences on offer here, it's just not the focus. Shā Wú Shēng 's tournament bouts are just build-up to his final confrontation with his former master, followed by an emotional twist that leads to an utter massacre. Between the gallons of blood and the dismembered puppet limbs flying everywhere, you'll fully understand how the Screaming Phoenix Killer earned his reputation – and why he's so damn mad the next time we meet him.

Rather than spend running time on something that proves mostly superfluous this first half is an excellent little insight into Thunderbolt Fantasy's wider history – successfully continuing to alter perceptions on both of its leading characters. The Screaming Phoenix Killer is a firm fan favourite and this should only further cement his status as such. It's just a shame that his demise must prove just as bitter as his origins, because we already know that despite being royally screwed over Shā Wú Shēng never gets the retribution he truly deserves.

After the emotional end to the first segment, the light-hearted relief the film's second half provides feels like a much-needed respite despite its obvious whiplash in tone. The plot is the very definition of a side-story, offering next to nothing in terms of story progression yet delivering a sense of satisfaction to the viewer as they check in with an old friend. Shāng Bù Huàn hasn't changed a bit – still completely disinterested in fame or recognition and hilariously casual in his reactions to the nonsense going on around him. This is Thunderbolt Fantasy truly embracing its silliness, as key scenes are recreated and played out in the most ridiculous of ways.

Outside of these embellished flashbacks it's another largely talky piece, but unlike the previous segment does a lot more with its scenery as it jumps between past and present – reusing many of the backdrops previously seen in the series. However it does once again round off with a suitably impressive fight sequence where we get to see Shāng Bù Huàn strut his stuff once more. Though the energy behind the action the distinctly different styles between this and Shā Wú Shēng's fight really shines through, not just highlighting their different fighting styles but also the emotions behind their actions.

It's only at the very end of the movie does the true gem reveal itself – an initial set up of what's to come in season two as well as the introduction of some of the new characters we'll be meeting. It seems some sort of evil organisation as its eye on both Shāng Bù Huàn and the 13 Swords, and their revival has in turn also alerted the Ministry of Justice to the wandering swordsman's whereabouts in Dōng Li. Even though fans have known a season two was coming for a while now this is the first nugget of information as to where it's headed, as the first season ended on a relatively conclusive note. Though it's little more than a tease, it's enough to reassure that Thunderbolt Fantasy still has plenty of stories left to tell.

Thunderbolt Fantasy: The Sword of Life and Death doesn't quite reach the same dazzling heights as the series itself did, but it does work as a nice little stop-gap between the first and second seasons. The Shā Wú Shēng segment adds some much needed back story and focus to one of the show's most memorable characters, while the Shāng Bù Huàn portion is a fun, if most superfluous side story that helps bring the viewer back up to speed with previous events. If you've been missing Thunderbolt Fantasy's ornate puppetry, amazing set design and ridiculously over the top action then this is exactly the fix you'll need until season two rolls around. Of course the most important thing to take away from this is that season two IS coming, and when it arrives it's going to be bloody brilliant.

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