For my fourth entry into Jetruary I decided to review what is essentially Jet's first entry into the fantasy martial arts genre. In the sequel to the classic Wu Xia epic directed by King Hu, Jet Li replaces original star Sam Hui as the swordsman Ling in what is seen as a film that not only manages to be a worthy follow up to the original but surpass it in many ways. Ling is a man who has a love for drinking, singing and women. Along with his faithful companion Kiddo (Michelle Reis) they both retreat to the mountains intent on retiring from the martial arts world and lead a quiet life. However they soon get involved in a plan to rescue Master Wu (Yen Shi-Kwan) who has been imprisoned by the mysterious Dawn (Brigitte Lin) who plans on ruling over Asia using his new abilities gained from a powerful scroll granting the user supernatural abilities.
At this point in Jet's career he had mostly done realistic and traditional martial arts action and this is the first time we see him donning wires and flying through the air with all the charm and grace he possesses. The style of action is very different to that of Shaolin Temple or Dragon Fight but it's easy to see why Jet would end up going this route in his later films. While he looked incredible doing more grounded kicking and punching, here we see him doing amazing flying kicks and lightening fast sword displays, it's the type of action that would go on to define his on-screen style well into his career and Swordsman II is where it all started. First of all, his on-screen persona is very different to what he has displayed previously. In Dragon Fight he was very much the stoic hero, down playing his emotions for the most part. Here we see him laughing, smiling, singing and generally just having a good time.
It reminded me very much of the personality he displayed in Shaolin Temple but here he really brings it forward and does an excellent job of differentiating his character to ones he had played previously. He does get more serious as the film progresses, especially in the final act of the film and it's easy to see why he was Tsui Hark's number one choice to play Wong Fei-Hung in the excellent Once Upon A Time In China series. This is definitely a must see for fans of Jet as it allows you as a viewer to see him really getting to grips with how he wanted to portray himself on the big screen.
Jet also gets to work with a great cast of Hong Kong talent. Michelle Reis plays his companion Kiddo. A tomboy sword fighter with a crush on our hero. She does well enough given the material she's working with and looks good in the many sword fights she partakes in, which is impressive as Michelle isn't someone with an extensive martial arts background. Rosamund Kwan plays one of Jet's love interests and gets to kick some serious ass with a bull whip. Sadly she doesn't get to really show off her excellent acting talent but does get to really use those big expressive eyes which I find almost hypnotic at times. Yen Shi-Kwan rocks out as Master Wu and Brigitte Lin plays the role that would define her career as Dawn, a martial artist who goes through a gender transformation in order to become the strongest martial artist in all of Asia.
This is interesting as this type of character is very unique to Chinese cinema. The idea that in order to really become the most powerful of fighters, one must go through such a transformation is an incredibly unique idea that it's odd it hasn't been explored outside of Asia. Imagine how mad The Matrix would be if in order for Neo to be victorious over Agent Smith he'd have to get rid of his wedding tackle and grow a pair of breasts. As I said this was the role that would define Brigitte's career and she would go on to reprise the role on Swordsman 3 and also play variations on the character in films such as Deadful Melody and Three Swordmen. She does an absolutely stellar job playing Dawn with such conviction that critics did take notice and nominated her for a Hong Kong film award, which she sadly did not win.
These kinds of odd and wild ideas are what help shape the Wu Xia genre as a whole. The fact that these worlds are not constrainted by things such as gravity and allow characters to fly through the air and display techniques which wouldn't work in other genre films. This style of film making is definitely an acquired taste when you compare it to more traditional martial arts films but you'll find that Wu Xia epics are some of the most beautifully put together and visually creative films you'll ever see. It's always nice to see modern Chinese films makers revisit the genre now and again and it seems Jet has strapped on the wires one more time in the upcoming Flying Swords of Dragon Gate which I'm very excited about seeing.
In charge of the fantastical sword play is Ching Siu-Tung, a director and fight choreographer who would go on to be the go to guy for this type of film. It seems he made the transition from doing normal ground based Kung Fu and began his long career in the Wu Xia genre. Here he displays his abilities as not only an incredibly fast story teller but also a brilliant choreographer. The many fights set through out the film are excellent and he uses the sword play style to make all the cast look magnificent. Swordsman 2 is one of the finest examples of the genre and is a great introduction to those who may never have seen this type of film making before.
One thing I would like to address is the relationship between Jet and Brigitte's characters. When they first meet Ling is unaware that Dawn is a man. His outward appearance has given him the feminine looks of Brigette but his voice still has a masculine tone. Ling is unaware of this as Dawn doesn't utter a single word and immediately you can see an attraction between the two. As the story moves along things such as sexuality and morally are called into question and these are very weighty subjects that are being addressed here. Especially given the fact that this a film that features a woman with a bullwhip capable of ripping men limb from limb but the fact that these issues are addressed is what really raises Swordsman 2 above it's predecessor.
While the original was content on just telling a good old fashioned story of good versus evil, Swordman 2 challenges social taboos by having two male characters fall in love. Sadly, the conclusion to this story didn't reach a particularly satisfying one but Ching Siu-Tung has to be commended for telling such a bold story. It also helps that you have two capable actors in Jet and Brigette. They have good chemistry, even in the early scenes when Dawn is completely silent, the way he looks at Jet you can see that he is slowly becoming enamored by him. Likewise with Ling who seems to be attracted by Dawn's air of mystery. It's without a doubt one of the highlights of the film and it would be great to these themes explored in more modern Chinese films.
Swordsman 2 is an instant classic that should be viewed by anyone who is a fan of Hong Kong films. We get some crazy action and a fantastic story that really makes it a must see for fans of anyone involved. For those who would be interested in wanting to learn more about Brigette's character and the idea of transsexualism in Asian cinema should read my friend Meredith's review Swordsman 2's Invincible Asia and the tradition of Cross Dressing in Kung Fu movies.
That's it for this week. This was intended to be the last entry into Jetruary but I've decided to review one more film to close out the month so be back next week.