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In 1992, mega-producer Tsui Hark and action choreographer-director Ching Siu-tung pulled an Empire Strikes Back on Hong Kong moviegoers with The Swordsman II, the dark, denser, superior sequel to the saga started in 1990. The difference was The Swordsman II’s entirely new cast: Out were Sam Hui, Cecilia Yip and Sharla Cheung, in were rising stars Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Michelle Reis and Tsui muse Brigitte Lin, capping a string of gender non-binary performances ahead of her too-early retirement. Rivaled only by Chungking Express’ The Woman in the Blonde Wig as Lin’s most iconic role, her turn as martial arts master Invincible Asia distills the essence of what made Lin Lin over the span of a 20-year career.
The Swordsman II picks up a year after the events of the first film, opening with an orgy of violence and signature Tsui lunacy as we watch a ferocious, yet oddly feminine, martial warrior utterly destroy an opponent. The winner, it turns out, is Invincible Asia, the leader of the Sum Moon Sect and student of a sacred scroll that has bestowed him supreme power. But there’s a catch: The supreme power comes at the cost of martial castration; the supreme power is turning him into a woman.
Elsewhere, Mountain Sect disciples Linghu (Li) and Lingshan (Reis) — or Kiddo for anyone with the privilege of watching the film with its original colorful subtitles — are settling into retirement mode when compatriot Ying (Kwan) waits for their arrival at one of their strongholds. Ying is attacked, however, by a gang of refugee Japanese ronin in league with Sun Moon to overthrow the Ming Empire. As Linghu searches for his missing friend, he encounters Invincible Asia bathing in a lake (as one does). Believing him to be a beautiful woman, he allows himself to get distracted (it’s Brigitte Lin, duh), knocked on the head and promptly thrown into a dungeon with Ying and her father Wu (Yen Shi-kwan), the usurped leader of the Sun Moon. Of course, Linghu and the gang break out of prison and head out to confront Invincible Asia at the Black Woods Cliff, where he dies a glorious death. Maybe. There is a Swordsman III.
There are several ways to consume The Swordsman II, in all its twisty, frantically paced glory (no one can fit this much story into less than 150 minutes now, but Ching did it in 100). History buffs can suss out the references to late-Ming friction between coastal communities trading (smuggling) with Europe (dodging taxes) and their inland rivals; the impact of Japan’s own civil strife of the period bleeding into China; and the Buddhist philosophies that inform the story. There’s also a classic “absolute power corrupting absolutely” subtext that flowers after Wu restores his leadership and then purges traitors in a vengeful rage.
But it’s the supernatural kung fu, exotic weaponry, magical essence absorption (!), evisceration by sewing kit (!!) and gonzo action (Ching would go on to choreograph Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer and Rakesh Roshan’s Krrish among others) that stand out — alongside Lin’s graceful, tough, ambiguous, towering Invincible Asia. Though The Swordsman II remains Li’s highest-grossing film in Hong Kong, Lin nevertheless swiped it right out from underneath him, rendering him Paul Walker to her Vin Diesel in his own vehicle. And just try getting that theme song out of your head.
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