Disillusioned with a life of martial chivalry following the events of the first Swordsman (1990), happy-go-lucky sword hero Ling (Jet Li) and his adoring (and adorable) sidekick Kiddo (Michelle Reis) want to lead a life of peaceful seclusion with their clan brothers on Ox Mountain. Instead, the heroic duo stumble into a heap of trouble when Invincible Asia (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), a martial arts super-being of near godlike stature, and his army of Japanese ninjas set out to overthrow the Ming Dynasty. Having studied the Secret Scrolls, Asia achieves ultimate mastery of martial arts by morphing into a beautiful woman, much to the horror of his/her favourite concubine Cici (Candice Yu). Whilst fighting by the riverside, Ling is smitten with a bathing beauty, unaware the maiden he’s romancing is actually his mortal enemy!
When Ling learns Asia usurped leadership of the Sun Moon Sect, to which his whip-wielding beloved Ying (Rosamund Kwan) and her plucky snake-slinging handmaiden Blue Phoenix (Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying) belong, he feels obliged to rescue her father Master Wu (Yen Shi-Kwan) from prison. He finds the old man inside the darkest dungeon, suspended from hooks in his flesh. Crazed with vengeance, old Wu wields the “Essence Absorbing Skill” that reduces screaming warriors to withered zombie husks. Ling and his friends are soon caught in the middle of an earth shattering battle between two seemingly unstoppable martial arts monsters, hell-bent on world domination.
Generally regarded as the finest film collaboration between writer-producer-director Tsui Hark, director-action choreographer Ching Siu Tung and star Jet Li, Swordsman II: Invincible Asia was arguably the greatest wu xia (swordplay) film of all time and a huge commercial and artistic triumph for the Hong Kong New Wave style of movie making. Just as a calligrapher aims to capture the essence of an idea in a single, artful pen stroke, so too do the makers of wu xia movies strive to merge myriad layers of subtext, poetry and allusion into wild bursts of hyperkinetic action. In the Taoist tradition of imparting moral lessons and social commentary through whimsy and laughter, beneath its exuberant surface rife with wacky humour and swashbuckling set-pieces, run some dark themes.
Amidst the (often literal) flights of fancy indulged by master choreographer Ching Siu Tung (the laws of physics bend to our heroes will as ninjas surf giant throwing stars, swordsmen bounce like human yo-yos or twist like leaves in the wind, supernatural forces split bodies apart, or all heaven and earth are reshaped according to Asia’s will), Hark interweaves moments of disarmingly humanistic poetry, cerebral social commentary and biting political satire. Invincible Asia is the living embodiment of the inflexible totalitarian state. She winds up destroying the very nation she intended to glorify. Hark’s ambiguous outlook on revolutionaries concludes they all become despots in the end, consumed by their own self-righteous rhetoric, but finds redemptive hope in possibly the most subversive romance ever committed to celluloid.
By far the most talked about aspect of Swordsman II, certainly among Chinese viewers, was Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia’s electrifying performance as the terrifying, androgynous demi-god Invincible Asia. Although the iconic star had worked with Hark several times before, notably in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Peking Opera Blues (1986), the role of Asia revitalised her career and led to a string of similar parts in occasionally inspired movies like New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), The Bride with White Hair (1993), Deadful Melody (1994), Demi Gods and Semi Devils (1994) and many, many more before she retired in 1995. In some ways Lin Ching-Hsia was Chinese cinema’s Elizabeth Taylor, a screen goddess widely feted for her classical beauty who grew up in front of movie cameras. There was something deeply perverse about casting her as a power-crazed transsexual super-villain, but Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tung knew exactly what they were doing. A strange homoerotic friendship blossoms between Asia and Ling, who only learns his/her true identity in the closing moments. As they flirt and fly together across the heavens, Asia grows to respect, maybe even love her adversary.
It is interesting to contrast this with the most famous wu xia drama known in the West: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a movie about repressed emotions and thwarted romance. In Swordsman II a vast range of emotions (rage, love, lust, sorrow) literally explode across the screen given elemental form through mystical martial arts. Jet Li (replacing the earlier film’s star Sam Hui) and Rosamund Kwan play characters very different from their roles in Once Upon a Time in China (1991). Kwan is a force of nature who with a crack of her whip can split a man in half, but still pines for a love that can never be. Jet Li’s tragicomic hero is irresponsible by choice. Having witnessed the naked greed and ambition of the martial warlords, he opts for fun-loving freedom: poetry, wine, women and song. Of course few fun-loving party animals have unstoppable kung fu skills.
Throughout the film our heroes constantly debate whether to involve themselves in earthly affairs or withdraw to lead the much-vaunted “secluded life” - a dream encapsulated by reoccurring musical performances (this almost qualifies as a musical) of the “Laughing Proud World of Martial Arts” song revived from the first movie. With so much injustice and suffering rampant, Ling decides the latter is not an option but the end result of all his heroism is the shattering of his warm and loving family of swordsmen (who have wacky names like Bucktooth, Smart Ass, Scumbag and, er, Luke) and the emergence of a new tyrant to plague the martial world. By the fadeout, Wu looks set to pick up where Asia left off while the surviving good guys flee the scene, hoping to build a brighter future. Their aspirations encapsulated in the world-weary poem that concludes the film: “Born into a troubled world, the suffering steals away our youth too quickly. The ambitious struggle to grasp a moment’s glimpse of power. Why not drink instead of fight?” Inevitably, the monumental success of this film wrought a second sequel, sadly minus Jet Li but retaining Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Swordsmen III: The East is Red (1993).
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.