Swordsman II is a film I’ve known for years, having first encountered it during the Jet Li repertory boom of the late 90s (my theatre used to run HK double features all the time, this is where I first saw it, paired I think with Dr. Wai and the Scripture with No Words), but I’d never before seen the first film. Not surprisingly, the sequel makes a lot more sense after seeing the first half of the story (well, first third, these are part of a trilogy with The East is Red).
It’s based on The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, a novel by Louis Cha, the popular wuxia novelist who also wrote the novel that the Stephen Chow Royal Tramp films are based on (The Deer and the Cauldron, I’ve read the first volume of it and it’s a lot of fun), as well as the Legends of the Condor Heroes series, source for dozens of classic Hong Kong movies and TV shows. The films also reference some of the geopolitical turmoil of the late Ming Dynasty. They more or less chronicle the conflict between two ethnic groups: the Han (“Mainlanders”) and the “Highlanders” over a stolen book, the “Sacred Volume” which promises super special powers to whomever masters its secrets. In order to consolidate their power over the coastal areas of China that were freely engaging in trade (smuggling) with European powers (and not paying their taxes), the Ming basically deported the residents of the Chinese coasts to the interior of the country. These people, who were ethnically, culturally, and linguistically different from the Ming (who were Han, the dominant ethnic group in China for thousands of years), had to build their new communities in the hills and mountains as the fertile river valleys were already populated by Han (hence they became “Highlanders”). Naturally enough, there was plenty of conflict between the newly transplanted and the already there. Getting mixed up in this conflict is a third group, an order of swordsmen/monks, the top student of which, Ling Wu-chung, is the protagonist of both films (played by Sam Hui in the first film and Jet Li in the second).
The first film follows the theft of the stolen book from the Ming library, and the efforts of evil Ming eunuch and his evil henchman (Jacky Cheung) to get it back while Sam Hui and his disciple “Kiddo” (the daughter of their leader, who is trying to be a swordsman herself, played by Cecilia Yip in the first film and Michelle Reis in the second) befriend members of the Sun Moon Sect, a group of highland revolutionaries resisting the Ming who are themselves after the book (they bond with two elder members of the sect as they sing the song “Hero of Heroes” that dominates the soundtrack of both films and summarizes their philosophical message, it’s one of the loveliest scenes in either film: two old warriors singing about the meaninglessness of their violent, power-struggling lives). Eventually, everyone in a position of power is corrupted by their desire for the book, and in a nice Buddhist message, only those that don’t want power (Ling, Kiddo, and a couple ladies from the Sun Moon Sect: Blue Phoenix and her boss Ying) are revealed to be worthy of wielding it.
Swordsman is credited to King Hu, a legendary martial arts director who had fallen on hard times in the 1980s, but he quit very early into the production. The film was taken over by producer Tsui Hark and action director Ching Siu-tung (who directed the sequel) and the finished work retains very little of Hu’s visual style, instead featuring Ching and Tsui’s brand of hyperkinetic moving camera and rapid-editing that looks more like Michael Bay than Hu’s more restrained yet still muscular style that helped define classical Hong Kong filmmaking. There are a few moments that seem exceptionally well-composed for a Ching film, and the fact that Kiddo is a pretty strong and complex female character in the first film and a fawning, just wants to be a pretty girl bit of throw away comic relief in the second points to some Hu influence, as he’s notable for always featuring strong heroines.
Swordsman II picks up a year later, the Sacred Volume now having fallen into the hands of Invincible Dawn, the younger brother of the leader of the Sun Moon Sect who has tapped into its powers and is fomenting a civil war between the Highlanders and the Ming (with the help of some refugees from Japan’s own recently-concluded civil war). Dawn has also imprisoned his brother and taken control of the sect, murdering any sect members who dare oppose him, which leads to an attack on Ling’s pals Ying and Blue Phoenix. The swordsmen, who after the events of the first film have decided to renounce worldly affairs and go live on a mountain are again ensnared in the ethnic conflict, this time literalized as a fratricidal war between Dawn and his brother, Zen (who is also Ying’s father). The film is most famous for the character of Invincible Dawn, played by Brigitte Lin: it seems that in order to utilize the full power of the Sacred Volume, Dawn had to castrate himself. The ultimate power turns him into a woman. It’s a fascinating conceit and I really wonder what King Hu would have done with it had he been able to make the whole trilogy (or what Louis Cha does with it in the novel, if this is even in the novel — English translations of his works are sadly hard to come by). As it is, though, despite the greatness of Lin, I’m left really dissatisfied. There’s two ways you can go with this conceit: 1) ultimate power = woman because women are awesome so Jet Li’s gonna have his hands full defeating her, bet we get some badass fight scenes; or 2) ultimate power = woman but women are weak because they get all mushy and emotional and such and Jet Li’s oh so handsome so how can a poor girl resist him? Knowing King Hu’s other films, I think he would have gone with option #1. Unfortunately, Tsui and Ching went with #2 and the movie really suffers because of it.
Still, a little comic misogyny isn’t the end of the world, and the movie does star Jet Li, indisputably one of the two greatest kung fu stars of the last 30 years or so. Given enough great action scenes I’m willing to forgive a lot. Unfortunately, there’s hardly anything in the way of martial arts on display here. This is the fantasy wuxia genre, where characters fly around and shoot energy out of their swords and hands and have all kinds of crazy magical powers and there’s nary a stunt that doesn’t involve wires or special effects. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, I like Tsui Hark’s brand of lunacy just fine, but it seems like a waste to have Li in your movie and not let him do what he does best. It’d be like casting Gene Kelly in your musical but only allowing him to sing and not dance. The best bit of kung fu in either film comes from the first one, when Sam Hui (a popstar and not a martial artist by any measure) demonstrates his skills by lifting and juggling the flames of three candles around a room on the edge of his sword, and given how much I love Jet Li, that’s just a travesty.
Still, the movie is a lot of fun, and the last hour or so (from the introduction of Zen, who proves to be even more terrifying than his brother/sister) has as much crazy momentum as anything I’ve ever seen, much more so than the first film, and there’s some very real pathos to be found in the fates of Dawn’s girlfriend (though this is undercut by her first scene, where she appears to be a doped out crazy chick) and the heroic Blue Phoenix, and in Ling’s realization that he hasn’t done anything but drink and get laid for the whole movie and that lots of people have died as a result (how wild is it that the ostensible hero of the film, Jet Li, essentially does nothing for almost the whole running time?). As much as he needs to withdraw from the world, the world needs heroes.