Swordsman II is one of the classics of early 1990s Hong Kong cinema, a runaway box office success at home and one of the first films to feature Jet Li in a starring role. Perhaps its storied reputation led me expect more than I could ever get, but I found it to be not a great film but a just-okay one, one that exemplified many of the weaknesses as well as strengths of films of its time and place.
Blade-wielding wine enthusiast Ling (Jet Li) and his sister Kiddo (Michelle Reis) journey to a remote monastery where they will meet up with their eight brothers and retire from society. Unbeknownst to them, the place has been ransacked by imperial soldiers, its remaining inhabitants scattered. After they make this discovery, Ling and his siblings hit the countryside in search of the survivors, planning to regroup and strike back at the warlords who attacked them. In the meantime, Ling encounters a young woman bathing alone in the wilderness and is immediately smitten. Little does he know that she is Asia the Invincible, the would-be tyrant and mastermind behind the destruction of the monastery. His pursuit of her and of his vengeance puts the two on an unavoidable path to confrontation.
That's not the clearest plot summary I've ever written (and a lot of it is based on hypothesis on my part, as there are a lot of details that honestly just don't make sense), but then this isn't the clearest plot. A frequent (valid) criticism of HK cinema of this era - and to a lesser extent today - is that the films' convoluted, sometimes Byzantine plots had a tendency to spin out of control, cramming the running time full of characters, motifs, information and action with no corresponding effort to streamline it all into something a little easier to digest. Swordsman II isn't nearly so bad as some of its contemporaries - I've seen more than one HK film where the chain of cause and effect becomes so weak that I simply gave up and tried to appreciate the photography and sets - but too much of it is simply confusing, particularly the large-scale political intrigue which is one of the main engines of action.
Other aspects of the film stood out, and not always in a good way. The action sequences, by which a martial-arts film lives or dies, feature some impressive stunt work, but suffer from slightly nervous editing of the sort that mars current US action films. More troubling than the cutting rate per se is that overall editing strategy: director Siu-Tung Ching habitually makes abrupt changes in the scale of his images (cutting from, say, a wide shot of a fighter leaping into the air to an extreme close-up of his knuckles connecting with his adversary's nose). This is an admittedly interesting approach, but it doesn't quite come off here, too often devolving into illegibility. The cinematography, too, almost works, matching up garish color schemes with different moods and setting. Again, not a bad idea (one developed to better effect in another Jet Li wuxia film) but its applied too rigidly, and, curiously, doesn't provide the visual feast you might expect. Night scenes are too blue, daytime scenes are too white and the monochrome palette doesn't really direct the eye to anything in particular - its all one big blob.
The image quality here is fairly poor. Edge enhancement, pixelation and ghsoting abound. The colors seem way to bright, particularly in the daytime outdoor scenes - sunlight becomes a blind white flash, and everything looks much too 'hot.' Tai Seng appears to have made no effort to clean up the film, either, leaving in all the scratches and specks of this less-than-perfect print. The film is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio; the back of the box claims that that the image is anamorphic and enhanced for 16x9 TVs.
The box and menu claims to include a Cantonese DTS track, a Contonese 5.1 track, a Mandarin stereo track and acommentary track; manually switching the audio options on my remote, however, I found only two soundtracks and the commentary. I have no idea which of of the audio tracks is which (as I do not speak Chinese), but the second one (I think its the 5.1) has a much fuller, richer, more enveloping sound. Its pretty much six of one, half a dozen of the other, though, as the film's sound mix feels very flat and artificial, with the ADR and canned sound effects feeling very artificial. That's not necessarily the worst thing in the world - I actually think it fits the film very well, but those of you who are anal about that sort of thing may want to beware.
Extras include a fannish but informative commentary by "Hong Kong Film Expert" Ric Meyers, as well as trailers for Shaolin vs. Evil Dead Ultimate Power, Book and Sword, Book and Sword Final Battle, The Master Swordsman, and The Master Swordsman Returns.
Swordsman II is by no means a total failure: the jokes are agreeably funny, the mood is kept fairly light throughout and there are some striking old-school stage effects to be found here. There are a million little things that the film does right that don't stand out the way the mistakes do. Also, there's just something about pre-1997 HK films that puts me in a good mood, so that even its many inadequacies put Swordsman II in the category of "noble failure" rather than "complete disaster." Fans of the genre may want to pick this up, but others will probably not need to see this more than once. I say rent it.