Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗, AKA The Legend of the Swordsman, Tony Ching Siu-tung, 1992)

Swordsman II still 1In a world filled with chaos, is the answer to all life’s problems retreat or attack? After the unexpected success of Swordsman which survived the withdrawal of legendary director King Hu to go on to be a box office hit, a sequel was quickly set in motion to be directed by action choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tung. Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗) would be the second in a trilogy inspired by Louis Cha’s novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer and largely dispenses with the cast of the original film for a virtual reboot led by action star Jet Li and actress Brigitte Lin as an extraordinarily sympathetic villain.

Picking up soon after the end of the first film, Ling (Jet Li) and his female comrade nicknamed “Kiddo” (Michelle Reis) are on the run with the intention of retiring from the world of martial arts to live simply among honest people. However, they are about to ride straight into the heart of conflict. At this particular point in history, the “Highlanders” feel themselves oppressed by the ruling “Mainlanders” and would be set on rebellion if they weren’t so busy fighting amongst themselves. Meanwhile, a number of Japanese troops are also holing up in China to wait out political strife in Japan. “Invincible” Dawn (Brigitte Lin), a Highlander, appears to have gotten a hand on the first film’s MacGuffin – the “Sacred Volume” which holds the key to untold martial arts power. Teaming up with the displaced Japanese, Dawn plans to use the powers of the Sacred Volume to dominate the Highlanders and then eventually take over the entire nation.

Dawn happens to be the uncle of a woman, Ying (Rosamund Kwan), with whom Ling began something like a romance back in the first film. Ying’s father, Wu (Lau Shun), the chief of Highlander tribe Sun Moon Sect, has gone missing – presumed taken prisoner by Dawn as a prelude to seizing power. Despite his desire to escape the duplicitous world of martial arts, Ling finds himself on a quest to save Ying’s father and with it the Sun Moon Sect if not the entire nation from the tyrant that Dawn seems primed to become.

Ling, as heroes go, is very much of the wine, women, and song, school. Indeed, he’s not much for anything without a good cup of booze – something that provokes an instant connection with the unusual figure of Dawn when he spots her bathing in a local pool and she offers him some of her upscale alcohol in a pretty bottle. The powers of the Sacred Volume come with a price – in order to embrace them, Dawn must transform herself into a woman (or in the less poetic rendering of the text, simply cut off her penis). Dawn’s transformation is a gradual process and she continues to play her male role as the head her clan, even parading her mistress in front of her captives in a noticeably salacious manner. However, Dawn is also caught off guard by an unexpected attraction to the cheerfully tipsy Ling and the transformation seems to accelerate – she begins wearing makeup, her voice changes into a more feminine register, and her sexual relationship with her mistress appears to be definitively over.

Meanwhile, Ling is fighting a romantic war on three fronts – he’s captivated by the mysterious woman who avoided speaking to him never knowing she is really his enemy, but is still half in love with Ying, and the subject of Kiddo’s unrequited crush. While Dawn wrestles with a deeper transformation, Kiddo is also trying to process her place as a woman among men in attempting to shed her tomboyish image by styling her hair in more classically female fashions and wearing makeup – something which can’t help but arouse mild hilarity among her comrades who collectively think of her as a tough little sister. Trying to explain her new persona to her mistress, Dawn insists that she will never forget her and that essentially nothing has changed, while the guys partially mock Kiddo’s new desire to embrace her femininity by avowing that male/female/non-binary gender is an irrelevance. Even so, on realising Dawn is the person he’d been looking for and was once Ying’s uncle, Ling’s parting questions are all about whether he might have accidentally slept with a man which he seems to find embarrassing. Nevertheless, it’s “femininity” which finally does for Dawn as she finds herself weakened by love and eventually pushed towards a “heroic” act of romantic sacrifice.

Having defeated one tyrant, Ling finds himself threatened by another as Wu’s maniacal need for revenge provokes a wide scale purge of those who had “betrayed” him. Ling’s desire to remove himself from this world of betrayals, violence, and complex moralities seems ever more understandable but cannot be his answer even as he finds himself unwillingly exiled. If you turn your back on trouble, it will eventually engulf you and everything you love – as will a failure to resist a trusted ally’s descent into darkness. Strangely affecting in its hero/villain symmetries and air of tragic romance, Swordsman II’s beautifully choreographed action sequences are only surpassed by its fierce commitment to fantasy.


Swordsman II was screened as part of An Evening with Tony Ching Siu-tung presented by the Chinese Visual Festival.

Cold War (寒戰, Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2012)

cold war

Reworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in June 2013.


Listen up!  You’re going to have to pay attention to this review because there’s an awful lot going on this film. If there were a prize for most subplots squeezed into 102 minutes there wouldn’t even be room for any other candidates on the nominations list. If you like your HK action thrillers super complicated (if a little on the ridiculous side) and filled with some truly explosive (!) action sequences Cold War (寒戰) is definitely up your street.

Whilst a major explosion rocks a busy public area in Hong Kong, a crazed drunk hurtles through the streets before crashing his car into the central reservation in a quite spectacular manner. Apparently unharmed, he then rants at the traffic police that his uncle is a judge so they can’t touch him – a quick phone call seems to indicate he might be mistaken in his uncle’s feelings towards him but in any case the situation changes dramatically as the police are suddenly ambushed and kidnapped. The kidnappers then attempt to ransom the officers and equipment to the HK police authorities who are already a source of some press interest regarding possible corruption and general incompetence. It is imperative that they regain their men and capture the culprits as quickly as possible to avoid their reputation being even further damaged.

However, there is also considerable friction between the leading players at HQ and some uncertainty over who is favoured to become the new police chief – the young bureaucrat or the grizzled street veteran. This situation is further complicated by the fact that one of the missing patrolmen is the son of current section chief MB Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fei). His subordinate, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok), feels this makes him unsuitable to lead the current investigation and so seeks to have Lee removed from his post and take over the position himself. The pair also attract the attention of an officer at ICAC who’s convinced one or both of them must have more to do with the case than it seems, meaning each is effectively fighting a war on three fronts – firstly trying to rescue the police officers, then unmasking the perpetrators and finding out what they want with the HK Police force, and finally sorting out who’s up for the top job at police HQ whilst also keeping Internal Affairs off their backs.

No matter which way you put it Cold War is still extremely convoluted and fails to make all of its various plot elements hang together in a coherent way. It’s also unfortunate that the culprit is a little predictable (largely thanks to the actor’s mustache twirling performance) but when the final reveal does come it’s baffling in its pettiness, not to mention the total implausibility of such a complicated plan. Perhaps its unfair to criticise a film like this for having a problematic plot structure, perhaps fans of the action genre don’t look for finely crafted plotting as much as they look thrills and technically impressive action sequences – after all, we can’t all be Infernal Affairs.

It has to be said that Cold War does deliver in the action stakes with some extremely high production values which surpass even the heights of previous HK action films. From the opening car crash to the motorway car chase and explosive finale there are several simply jaw dropping moments throughout. When it comes to the big and brassy set pieces, Cold War is pretty much unrivaled but perhaps lacks the personal, intimate touch of other genre favourites. Tonally it walks a fine line between a sort of quirky humour and slightly absurd feeling where you can’t be sure whether you’re actually watching a comedy or not – some viewers may find all this a little too silly but others may revel in its ironic tone.

Cold War is certainly a flawed film, a little ridiculous but nevertheless enjoyable. It seems as if it also wants to make serious points about the justice system, media and police force but ends up pulling all its punches. If you stop to think about any of the plot, it makes very little sense but if you can let that go and just enjoy the superb action sequences and great performances from the leads Cold War is definitely one of the more impressive action thrillers to come out of HK in recent years.


 Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

The Bullet Vanishes (消失的子弹, Law Chi-leung, 2012)

20128291720405212Review of Law Chi-leung’s The Bullet Vanishes (消失的子弹, Xiāo Shī Dè Zǐ Dàn) – first published on UK Anime Network in June 2013.


In 1930’s Shanghai there’s a bullet factory where a young girl has been accused of pilfering. The punishment, it seems, is a cruel and very public trial by Russian roulette where fate, the gods or whoever will judge her innocent or guilty with a simple click or a loud bang. Crying out her innocence to the end, the girl pulls the trigger and presumably never actually hears the outcome as her co-workers look on in horror – she must have been guilty though, right? Or she would have been spared by the immortal powers at be.

Following this horrific incident, other deaths start to occur in the factory – the strange thing is, on examining the bodies, no trace of a bullet can be found (nor any casings at the scene). Some of the munitions workers start to believe the ghost of the poor girl who died must have returned to take revenge – perhaps she was innocent after all. To solve this intriguing mystery, the police turn to two unorthodox detectives – recently transferred former prison warden Song (Lau Ching-Wan) and maverick cop “fastest gun in town” Guo (Nicholas Tse). Neither of these two are buying the “supernatural” explanation and both are determined to get to the truth even if they work in very different ways. The solution is going to be a lot more complicated than anyone could have thought, and will, ultimately, be painful to hear.

Let’s get this out of this way first – yes, the film owes a significant debt to the recent “westernisation”, if you want to put it that way, of Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and other Victorian set crime dramas (e.g. Ripper Street) which seek to present themselves as taking place in a totally lawless world denizened by a criminal population that is somehow both repellent and glamourous. Although The Bullet Vanishes is set in 1930s, it still has a noticeably “Victorian” sensibility presenting a world in which rapid industrialisation has brought about mass corruption and a decline in morality. Once again, setting a film in China’s past proves to be a surefire way of getting subtextual criticisms of modern China past the country’s strict censorship regulations.

The murder mystery itself is certainly very intriguing with a series of unpredictable twists and turns. The idea of disappearing bullets might not be a new one, but The Bullet Vanishes manages to find an original solution that is perfectly plausible within its own time setting. Also, the “supernatural” element exists only as an idea and is never seriously entertained as an explanation by any of the investigators – something of a break from the genre norm.

The two detectives seem much more like rivals than partners for much of the film though an awkward sort of camaraderie does eventually grow up between them. Lau and Tse both give excellent performances but Tse in particular who’s often criticised for being a pretty boy trading on family connections, really proves himself with his surprisingly complex Guo. There is, however, the familiar criticism that the female characters are severely underdeveloped and seem almost like a rushed afterthought. Yang Mi gives a lot to the barely two dimensional Little Lark but can’t disguise the fact that the character only exists as a love interest for Guo and that in turn a love interest for Guo only exists so that we can have the “obligatory” love scene. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the love scene itself didn’t feel quite so “obligatory” – it could easily have been excised and the film would have remained pretty much unchanged as the scene feels as if it exists purely to satisfy a perceived audience need for romance.

There really isn’t much to fault with The Bullet Vanishes. As a slightly cerebral mainstream period thriller it’s certainly very successful. It has an engaging mystery element, strong characters played excellently by the cast and extremely slick, modern direction. In Song they’ve created a very interesting character who’d be very welcome in a sequel or two. His relationship with female prison inmate, a sort of Irene Adler figure to Song’s cerebral detective, who he’d previously investigated before being transferred was quite an usual idea that would really benefit from further exploration. All in all The Bullet Vanishes is a very impressive and enjoyable period procedural that is truly a cut above its genre origins.