What is a hero?
That is one of the many questions posed in the Tsui Hark-produced
film Swordsman II, a free adaptation of the Jin Yong
(Louis Cha) novel Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. With Ching Siu-Tung
at the helm, Swordsman II avoids the dangers of sequel-itis.
In comparison to the first film, it's far more focused and
emerges as the superior movie in the series. And even more
intriguing, it shows a willingness go to places that a traditional
popcorn film wouldn't even dare.
Set in the Ming Dynasty, Swordsman II continues the tale of carefree Ling Wu-Chung (Jet
Li) and his tomboy sidekick Kiddo (Michelle Reis). Disheartened
by their master's betrayal in the first film, the two comrades
have decided to retire from the martial arts world along
with their Wah Mountain brothers. With the world of violence
and conflict a distant memory, Ling can focus on something
more important - women. Just as in the first film, young
Kiddo has a crush on Ling, and tries desperately to shed
her tomboy image, but to no avail.
Complicating matters is the fact
that Ling has feelings for Highlander Ying (Rosamund Kwan)
whom he and his brothers have agreed to meet one last time
before retirement. Ying's father Wu is the rightful leader
of the Sun Moon Sect, but has been double-crossed and imprisoned
by the mysterious and powerful Asia the Invincible (Brigitte
Lin) - the possessor of the much-desired Sacred Scroll.
And if Ling's girl troubles weren't enough, he meets the
elegant Asia and ends up falling for her!
However, Ling has an even
bigger problem, and it has nothing to do with respecting
the feelings of the other two gals. Asia the Invincible?
She's a he! Yep, it turns out that the Sacred Scroll that
everybody and their eunuch wanted to get their grubby little
paws on in the first flick has one major drawback: to achieve
ultimate supernatural power, one must castrate himself.
Naively, swordsman Ling embarks
on a relationship with the villain, not knowing Asia's true
identity (Asia looks like Brigitte Lin, so who can blame
him?). While our hero is occupied elswhere, Asia and his
AZN pride posse attack and brutally slaughter the Wah mountain
swordsmen. Vowing to avenge his fallen comrades, Ling leads
a rag-tag group in an assault on Asia's stronghold on Blackwood
Cliff. At the film's climax, the secret of Asia the Invincible
is revealed…but with surprising results.
Simply put, this is a great movie.
On a basic level, Swordsman II has a great plot with
all sorts of fantastic swordplay and swell special effects.
In addition, there are a number of fine performances from
leading HK actors. Jet Li is superb as Ling, a man who laughs,
drinks, and beds a woman, a role that is a far cry from
the stoic Wong Fei-Hung. As for the women, Michelle Reis
is the sexiest tomboy this side of Chungking Express's
Faye Wong and Brigitte Lin was so good in this film, that
besides starring in the sequel The East is Red, she
ended up playing variations on her Asia role in a few other
As I mentioned earlier, one of
the most fascinating aspects of the film is its willingness
to explore taboo subjects. Sexuality and morality are definitely
the big issues here. In the film, Ling clearly has romantic
feelings for Asia, even after finding out his/her dark secret.
Jet Li in love with a guy? That's pretty bold. And the resulting
questioning of morality is interesting. What is Good? What
is Evil? If evil Asia is capable of love is he/she still
Evil? Many compelling questions are tossed around in this
film, which could have been a simple Jet Li crowd pleaser
in a lesser director's hands.
Also, the sequel continues the
deconstruction of the hero archetype. As one character wonders,
"May I ask, who is the Hero of Heroes?" The "unjustly"
imprisoned Wu isn't, since he turns out to be a ruthless,
bloodthirsty man, a monster far worse than Asia the Invincible.
What about the villain? From Asia's point of view, his desire
to establish Sun Moon Sect as the dominant clan and overthrow
the empire are borne out of his love for his people and
his country. Despite all his savagery, Asia truly believes
he'll be remembered as a hero, not a perverted arch villain.
Even Ling Wu-Chung, a man caught in the middle, cannot completely
fulfill the role of the fabled Hero of Heroes. Though one
can sympathize with Ling's wish for a life of seclusion
on Ox Mountain, the film suggests that turning our backs
on the conflicts of the world is not the answer, for they
will eventually catch up with us. As Wu says in a rare moment
of lucidity, "Wherever there are people, there is conflict."
Truly great sequels are hard
to find, especially in Hong Kong, where cranking out cheapie
follow-ups has become a common practice. But Swordsman
II is a polished piece of work, easily surpassing the
achievements of its predecessor. Unlike most popcorn flicks, Swordsman II will resonate with the audience long
after its over. (Calvin McMillin 2002)