In 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.