It seems the notion of magic books that best Real Ultimate Power are something of a trend in martial arts cinema (the awful Forbidden Warrior is still fresh in my mind). Here too is a tale of a warrior, Ling Wu-Chung (Sam Hui) and his girl-posing-as-boy sidekick whom he calls Kiddo (Cecilia Yip). They become embroiled in a battle over a ... you guess it, sacred scroll. Mixed in with the machinations of the two royal families fighting over the scroll is an old pirate and his younger companion, who have written a melancholy song (also on a scroll) that they cherish ... together, if you get my meaning. Or maybe you don't, because I'm not sure the "close" relationship between the two pirates was intended for that interpretation.
Anyway, everyone's after the scroll: Zhor (Yuen Wah) with his high-pitched feminine voice that I only realized later was a eunuch, Ah Yeung (Jacky Cheung) a soldier who is willing to go undercover to find the scroll, and Ngok, Wah Mountain School leader and Ling's master.
At some point, the massacres that ensue over the scroll are blamed on the Sun Moon Sect. So even weirder people get involved, including the whip-wielding Chief Ying (Cheung Man) and her snake hurling lieutenant Blue Phoenix (Fennie Yuen). You read that right: Blue Phoenix uses snakes as a martial arts form, tossing them out from beneath her robes to poison and ensnare people.
There is an implied relationship between Ling and Kiddo, but it's never realized. Kiddo bristles at being called a boy when she's obviously an attractive young woman, but Ling doesn't seem to notice. Ling himself seems to be something of a smirking doofus, excelling in martial arts but mostly unaffected by the horrors that ensue over the scroll. It's like the actor can't bring himself to take Ling seriously.
There seems to be multiple threads running throughout the storyline, chock full of characters who can barely fit on screen much less in the plot. SPOILER ALERTS: Ah Yeung discovers his true lineage, Ling discovers a new martial art from an old man (the aforementioned Swordsman, I'm guessing) and uses it to defeat Ngok, who turns out to be Kiddo's father. There's the hint of a relationship between Chief Ying and Ling, and Ling and Kiddo, but this is all so subtle it's hard to be sure. And of course Zhor gets his comeuppance in an explosive and well-deserved finale.
There is a stab (ahem) at bringing the story full circle in at least two ways. The Sacred Scroll gets repeatedly confused with the Song Scroll the pirates wrote. The implication seems to be that the true sacred scroll is the melancholy song these two guys on a lonely ship wrote together. They lyrics translate into something rather melancholy, but the actors all seem to be smiling as they sing it, so my guess is the subtitles are missing context. The other plotline is that of the martial arts style of the drunken Swordsman, which involves twirling people around like tops and using other people as yo-yos by snapping them out from their belts. The yo-yo martial arts doesn't quite have the gravitas of the philosophical question of Which Scroll is Better, but you get the idea.
The Swordsman is a brutal, violent film that makes the most of its limited special effects budget with innovative camera tricks, featuring martial arts that can punch holes in wood and people with the flick of a finger, burst through ceilings, blow an army of soldiers off a dock, and yes send snakes flying. It has to be seen to be believed. Watch it for the wildly imaginative martial arts styles, but don't expect much in the way of a plot.