Swordman II

Swordman II (1991)
Tai Seng Video Marketing
Cast: Jet Li, Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia
Extras: Trailers

It appears as if Hong Kong Cinema is becoming increasingly popular here in the US, and I am sure the exposure and availability of these titles on DVD helps immensely to attract new viewers to the genre. Considering how much feedback we received following our review of "The Stormriders", I know that many of you appreciate the artistry and precise skillfulness that is put to work in these movies. "Swordman II" has long earned its fame as one of the best films of the Wire-Fu genre and now that it is available on DVD through import from Tai Seng Marketing, it is time to give it a close-up look.

Upon his return from long travels, the young swordman Ling (Jet Li) finds out that some serious changes have occurred to the Sun Moon Sect during his absence. On their way to some remote mountains for retirement, he and his martial arts students find nothing but empty housings and signs of destruction. They search the woods and eventually find the remaining members of the sect who had been insidiously attacked.

The chief of the Sun Moon Sect, Master Wu, has been overthrown and captured by Fong (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), Chief of the Highlander clan and a man who is hungry for the power over the entire region. With the help of the Sacred Scroll that he has stolen from the Sun Moon Sect, he is now studying the highest levels of Martial Arts. There is an interesting side to achieving the ultimate Martial Arts powers however. With the practicing of these powers found in the Scroll, he is slowly turning into a woman, as self-castration and a metastasis into a female is part of the exercise.

Ling wants to save Master Wu and plans to stop Fong’s reign. During his preparation for battle, one day he meets a beautiful girl in the river. The two fall in love and decide to meet again. Sadly Ling does not know that this beautiful girl he just fell in love with is also his archenemy, Fong. Over the next weeks he is preparing the remaining faithful members of the Sun Moon Sect to battle Fong the Invisible and his minions. At the same time he is growing his romantic feelings for the girl he met, while Ying-Ying, a member of the Sun Moon Sect also falls fro Ling.

Then, one night Fong strikes with powerful viciousness and kills most of Ling’s men, and it is only then that Ling finds out the truth about the woman he loves. Only his sword can now save him and the Sun Moon Sect from the blood-dripping grip of Fong, but her Martial Arts have become too powerful by now… "Swordman II" is a furious Wire-Fu film that leaves nothing to be desired and shows Hong Kong filmmaking at its very best. Starting with some action-loaded Martial Arts moments, the film then slows down and introduces the viewer to the main characters and the general set-up. Especially the strange transmogrification Fong is going through is nicely staged, as he acts as a manly ruler in one scene, only to reappear as luring beauty in the next. It is presented in a dazzling and sometimes confusing flow until the viewer finally finds out what exactly is going on with Fong.

The film constantly sways between furious action sequences and romantic plot points, slowly and steadily building towards the film’s inevitable finale. When it finally arrives, the viewers is simply blown away by the spectacularly choreographed fighting sequences, the elaborate stunts, the magical effects and of course the implicit drama that has been established by the story. The pace left me completely breathless and on the edge of my seat. The entire film is ripe with amazing ideas and it culminates in the movie’s final battle. The idea to have Fong use needle and threat as a deadly weapon is both congenial and clever – and believe me, I am serious about this.

There is a lot of talent accumulated on this film, and it shows. The cast and crew list reads like the who-is-who and consists pretty much of the elite of the Hong Kong film industry. Produced and co-written by the legendary Tsui Hark, directed by Stanley Tong and Siu-Tung Ching, these are the same people who brought us some of the best Fantasia films ever, including the "Chinese Ghost Story" trilogy or the "Heroic Trio" films, but also action films like Jackie Chan’s "First Strike", "Rumble in the Bronx" and many other "Police Story" films, as well as "A Better Tomorrow", and countless others.

Jet Li is slowly gathering momentum here in the US, as most of you have certainly noticed at one point or another. Touted as the next best thing to come out of Hong Kong since Jackie Chan, unfortunately many American viewers hardly have a feel for what this actor is actually capable of. His small part as the villain Wah Sing Koo in "Lethal Weapon 4" certainly did not do any justice to his extraordinary martial arts skills and acting talents. If you want to know what is behind the hype, "Swordman II" is the perfect film to catch – apart from his fabulous "The Tai Chi Master", of course. Li is flying, kicking, punching, wrestling and slashing his way through this film with an elegance and agility that makes your heart jump. At the same time he is sincere and not the kind of cartoon character than can often be found in Martial Arts films, although like all Hong Kong films, "Swordman II" has a number of truly funny moments.

Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia is the highlight of the film however with her transformation from man into woman. Her serious looks and features help immensely to sell her off as a man in the beginning of the film and support her gradual change to a woman. Seeing her in the part of a bad character was also a nice change of pace. Rosamund Chi-Lam Kwan adds a nice facet to the story as the competing love interest while Michelle Reis is coming off perfectly as the goofy sidekick Kiddo. This import DVD of "Swordman II" presents the film in a 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio, the disc contains a surprisingly clean transfer. Although some dust and scratch marks are noticeable on occasion, the film print from which this non-<$16x9,anamorphic> transfer has been struck is generally without notable defects. The image is crisp and contains a good level of detail, bringing out the best of the film’s beautiful and highly atmospheric cinematography. Told in rich and colorful images, this DVD nicely restores the opulent colors from the movie without over-saturation, <$chroma,chroma noise> or bleeding. Although some compression artifacts, mostly in the form of <$pixelation,pixelation>, can be spotted on a number of occasions, the presentation on this disc is good throughout and makes "Swordman II" an enjoyable disc to watch.

The disc contains a Cantonese and a Mandarin language track both presented in <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> surround sound. They are very well produced and boast a good number of directional surround effects. Especially during the high-flying fight sequences, the split surrounds are used to great effect, but also throughout the film, a wide soundfield is generated through the use of ambient sounds in the surrounds. The film also features a great music score with a rather romantic and pensive main theme that nicely fits the mood of the entire film. It is extremely well performed and brings back memories of previous events in the film as soon as the tune is picked up in the film. For the dramatic scenes it then switches to more effectively foreboding cues that set the right tone of mystery and threat. I was deeply impressed with both the execution, as well as the placement of the music cues in this film. "Swordman II" contains subtitles in Chinese, English, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian, Indonesian and Thai.

For all fans of Hong Kong Cinema, "Swordman II" is a revelation. It is a fantastic film that contains everything you would want in a Fantasia film. Especially the somewhat wicked love story adds a nice edge to the overall story and makes sure the final conflict leaves no viewer unaffected. The fight scenes are spectacular to say the least and the cinematography pulls you right into the action with mesmerizing pictures. There is no reason why any fan of cleverly made fantasy movies should pass on this one. It is without a doubt one of the best there is!