Set in 1917 as guns were beginning to replace traditional weapons and martial arts in China, writer/director Haofeng Xu’s Judge Archer is in many ways the equivalent of the Westerns that dealt with the end of frontier life and the coming of modern civilization. Filmed in 2012 when it played a few festivals it’s only now getting released and finding it’s way to North America and Montreal’s Fantasia Festival.
Shuangxi (Song Yang) loses his mind after his older sister is raped by the local nobleman. He’s cared for at a temple and eventually allowed to return to the outside world with the advice to start his life over by taking the name of the first stranger he meets. This turns out to be Judge Archer, a skilled bowman who’s job is to settle disputes between martial arts schools. The elderly judge trains him as his replacement before dying. However along with this comes a curse, the name Judge Archer has been cursed for generations, and true to form he is soon dragged into very deadly intrigue and treachery.
Xu is a well respected scholar of martial arts and a novelist, the script is adapted from one of his books. The problem is, that while the book could explain a lot of what was going on, the movie is very hard to follow, as though entire chapters were left out. This also extends to the fights themselves, which are filmed with more realistic and traditional moves rather than the flashy movie style martial arts. But this leaves the more casual viewer lost when for example two characters engage in a seated duel. Exactly why they would choose this or what it signifies is never explained. This happens more than once and also makes it hard to figure out what is going on. There’s some unique things in this film that could have really set it apart, but their just left unexplained and unexploited.
To be fair some of the fights are quite good and do look different from what we’re used to, but given the dull story the fights could use some flash to generate more excitement. Judge Archer is an interesting idea poorly executed. It could have been a compelling story about the end of an era, instead it’s a confusing mess full of missed potential.