After the blockbusting Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992), the hit team of Ching Siu Tung and Tsui Hark, together with protégé Raymond Lee, rushed through this ambitious but messy sequel, minus star Jet Li who had fallen out with Hark at the time. Following a recap of the climactic battle ending with god-like martial arts super-being Invincible Asia (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) taking a seemingly fatal fall off Black Cliff, the film resumes many years later in Ming Dynasty China. Government agent Koo (Yu Rong-Guang) guides a galleon load of Spanish conquistadors and Catholic priests in search of a treasure stolen from them years before. At the now derelict site of the Sun Moon Sect, a crazy kung fu hermit reveals a rotting corpse residing in Asia’s tomb. When Koo discovers the Spanish are not seeking stolen treasure but Asia’s all-powerful Secret Scrolls, he rails against their treachery. Whereupon the old hermit unmasks as the agelessly beautiful Asia and contemptuously hurls the Spaniard’s bullets and cannonballs back at them.
Koo’s impassioned plea for the plight of the Chinese people persuades Asia to spare his life. From him she learns a multitude of fake Invincible Asias have sprung up across China, posing as gods and encouraging grotesque human sacrifices. One of the more benevolent impostors is Snow (Joey Wong), Asia’s onetime concubine (who actually died in the last film, but never mind), who uses her supernatural powers to fend of an invading Japanese armada led by Darth Vader-like shogun warlord Mo Yan Chu Lung. Invincible Asia soon springs into action, intent on undoing all his/her own wrongs, but an array of innocent casualties are caught in his/her wrath.
The East is Red starts out promisingly with an ambitious agenda. This time round Asia seems genuinely regretful that his/her ambition to unify China into a global superpower has led only to division, suspicion and suffering among her people. Neither is Asia especially happy about being worshipped as a god, since her self-image was as someone able to inspire the Chinese to aim higher for themselves. Throughout the film we see examples of fakery, of people pretending to be something they are not: a beautiful concubine is unmasked as a hideous zombie ninja, a gigantic samurai stands revealed as a midget in gadget-laden suit of armour, a crass general opens a brothel with whores dressed like Invincible Asia reciting her famous slogans. The film is a call to reject idolatry and embrace unity.
Sadly, the plot turns incoherent as characters’ actions grow more questionable. Asia may be more of a conflicted anti-heroine, but is still prone to bouts of megalomania and homicidal rage. Both Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia and Joey Wong deliver commanding, multifaceted performances, but while their characters are by turns capricious, compassionate and cruel, Yu Rong-Guang’s frustratingly vague Koo is too weak to serve as the moral centre. The women keep bashing him about like a human ping-pong ball. Towards the climax, Koo has an inexplicable personality switch that leaves you unsure where the plot is heading.
At least with Ching Siu Tung on board the action and surreal imagery are as incredible as always: Joey Wong battles kite-surfing ninjas using sewing-needle kung fu, an assassin regurgitates live pigeon, a Japanese galleon transforms into a steampunk submarine straight out of a tokkusatsu show. Where else can you see Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia ride the ocean waves on a giant swordfish and catch a cannonball in mid-air? In keeping with the previous film there is an emphasis on erotic imagery as Joey Wong shares an opium fuelled lesbian interlude with duplicitous concubine Dai (Jean Wang Ching-Ying) and torrid love scenes between two of Hong Kong cinema’s most striking stars that kept this a fan favourite, in spite of its flaws.
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.