It’s hard enough to follow a lot of hardcore Hong Kong films, the language barrier notwithstanding. Hong Kong films, primarily martials arts fiascos such as Swordsman 2, operate on a kinetic level that’s fairly unfathomable for those unaccustomed to it. But with a film as delirious and frantic as Swordsman 2, even Hong Kong cinephiles are going to be put through their paces.
Jet Li is Ling, a swordsman whose only desires in life are to spend the rest of his life in seclusion with his fellow swordsmen, and drink lots of wine. But that’s all foiled when he and his cohorts get drawn into a power struggle within the Sun Moon Sect. The old leader has been ousted, and in his place is Asia the Invincible (Brigitte Lin). But Asia is hungry for power, and so consults an ancient scroll for supernatural strength. Happy-go-lucky Ling is forced to fight Asia and his ninja forces, but Asia’s increasing strength soon becomes insurmountable. And to top it all off, Ling finds himself falling love with the tyrant.
Oh wait a minute… I think I forgot to mention that in order for Asia to become all-powerful, he needed to castrate himself and undergo a process where he slowly transforms into a woman. Did I forget to mention that? Well, silly me.
That’s just an example of what I’m talking about with this film. I don’t mind the “thrill a minute” approach that HK films take. But this film… this film throws so much at you it’s nearly impossible to take in. And then just when it starts getting good, the movie hits a brick wall and we’re subjected to painful dialog, silly hijinks, and incomprehensible plot twists. It could be due to the atrocious subtitles, but I spent way too much of this movie trying to put two and two together.
It also didn’t help the film too much that it didn’t have a strong focal character. You’d think it’d be Ling, since Li is easily the biggest star in the picture, but a considerable amount of time is spent on peripheral characters that really don’t matter to the film. Even the supposed “romance” between Ling and Asia feels woefully underdeveloped. The few scenes that occur between them never establish anything but the most basic of relationships.
Now, I suppose I should back up and say that this film did have some incredibly cool sequences. Any film with attacks like “Sword Energy,” “Recoiling Whip,” or “Bomb Sword” has some merit. Where else do you get to see a horse cut in half by a ninja? And you can never get enough of heroines who shoot snakes out of their sleeves, and control them with a whistle. My favorite sequences are those involving Asia’s supernatural powers, as s/he obliterates her rivals; bodies explode, blood spurts everywhere, and Hong Kong proves that you don’t need fancy special effects to create an eerie atmosphere for sorcery. But even such effective and interesting flourishes can’t keep the film from being a mess.