. . . Swordsman II

. . .

100 Super Movies au maximum: Swordsman II

I never understood the Star Wars thing until I saw Swordsman II. I still don't understand how it applied to Star Wars, but at least now I understand the thing.

The Lady of the Lake as Lancelot:
You'll believe a transsexual can fly...
Like the need to testify: Oh, man, how many times did you see Swordsman II? Oh, dude, I've seen it like at least fifteen times! Pretty much every other weekend when it was playing in Chinatown, then at the film festivals, and then the videotape and the laserdisk (the DVD sounds like a rip-off)....

And the Peter Travers Big Blurb effect: I laughed! I cried! I jumped! I fell! I felt that extremely pleasant sense of complete exhaustion that one usually feels after swimming or dancing all night or doing you-know!

How's the magic worked, besides by swinging great movie stars around on wires?

Pacing, for one thing. We plunge in medias Cuisinart and never pause for exposition, which means the movie not only rewards re-viewing but insists on it. Not to say that we're always moving fast -- a 10-yard-dash isn't the same as pacing -- but there's always something going on. No, multiple things. Big ones, too. Like we're seeing life as we'd see it if we weren't blinkered, which is the sense of revelation that movies were born to deliver.

Like there's the traditional sequence of getting locked in a dungeon and rescuing the poor old tortured guy and escaping, but rather than waiting another couple of scenes before showing the ambiguous ethics of this particular poor old tortured guy we get a nightmarish demonstration during the escape itself: Yoda turns into Darth Vader before our very eyes. And we're still stuck with rescuing the poor old tortured SOB even though now we know those battleship-anchoring chains weren't overkill.

Swordsman II ratchets along a matrix of interlocking conflicting motives: love vs. loyalty vs. ambition vs. revenge; snakes vs. scorpions; Highlands vs. Holland....
  • A Fraternal motivation clump consists of Ling, Kiddo, Smartass, Scumbag, and the other Wah Mountain scholars
  • A Paternal centers on Master Wu, with his daughter, Chief Ying, plu-paternally centering a subgroup
  • The sole Connubial connection is found between Invincible Asia and the starts-as-Imelda-Marcos-ends-as-Cleopatra concubine Cici
Each principal has a gang of intimates that in turn find themselves split between sentiment and professional loyalty, although (professions being what they are) each sentimental attachment is also occasionally of professional use. And all lines eventually lead to the hero, geometrically demonstrating that he deserves to be the hero.

Whatever forces created Swordsman II realized that you build a movie's intensity not just by arranging scenes in order of their budget, but by raising the emotional stakes. As one of Swordsman Ling's idiotic poems might phrase it, "Life is entanglement. Entanglement creates suffering. Where then is peace to be found?" Invincible Asia's weapons of choice are needle and thread, and entanglements build up steadily scene by scene into a narrative woven so tightly that it seems unbreakable.

Throwing superpowers behind these at-odds good intentions only accelerates the dismal outcomes. That's a moral that Watchmen muddied due to the irreconcibility of moral conflict with the American superhero tradition, but pessimism is a firmly established mood in Chinese escapism -- imaginary gardens with real politik. It's not power that corrupts: it's purpose. There's no dependable dichotomy of "dark" and "light" force, just cross purposes.

So, following the same firmly established mood, the most purposeless of all the characters, the lazy alcoholic womanizer Ling, who lacks even spiritual ambition, inevitably becomes the object of all desire. We can only hope he finds a less masochistic form of Zen in Japan.... As for the rest of us, we're doomed to another cycle of strife and attachment and suffering. Which is to say, let's watch Swordsman II again!

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Postscript, 2011-02-05 - We just watched the most recently available DVD, idiotically credited as "Jet Li's Swordsman 2" but otherwise acceptable. Sadly for us old-timers, the original HK subtitles were replaced. Notable changes include:


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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.