The Swordsman series is a landmark in HK cinema and so is director Siu-Tung Ching. Still, the trilogy isn't the easiest to come by and so it took me quite a while to finally sit down and watch it. Together with Hark's Once Upon series they paved the way for '93, the most glorious year in HK cinema. And while the first Swordsman film had its fair share of adaptation issues, Swordsman II is everything you'd expect from a film like this.
The Swordsman series is often seen as the founder of the wuxia sub-genre, setting a standard for many films to come. Ching himself had prior experience with the supernatural as he also directed the whole Chinese Ghost Story trilogy. It wasn't too big a step mixing those influences with the martial arts world and creating a unique blend of Hark's Once Upon... and Zu Warriors. The first Swordsman was an interesting film though couldn't really detach itself from the Shaw Brothers legacy. A good year later, a new era had started in HK cinema and Ching's was free to lead the way.
Swordsman II has a typical storyline in the sense that it is quite convoluted and takes little time to work out something coherent. Stuff happens, often really quickly, without too much worrying about plot holes and the like, though the bottom line is always very simple. Basically the story tells about Jet Li saving girls from bad men. If you look deeper, some girls turn out to be cross-gender types and the bad man was a former good guy, but all of that is really just background noise.
Swordsman II is really about Jet Li kicking ass, often with both feet lifted from the ground. It's about moody forests, bold lighting, color filters and striking poses. And about a fair portion magical powers of course. These are the telling characteristics of the early 90s martial arts films and are featured abundantly in Swordsman II. Already quite perfected too, as every frame looks extremely staged, but lush nonetheless.
Visually Swordsman II is a very pleasant film, if you like this kind of thing that is. Lots of monochrome shots (blues and reds mainly), frog and bird's eye perspectives a plenty, very strong light sources and mist wherever possible. It's obvious Ching is still in spooky mode from his Chinese Ghost Story exploits, but it does creates a cool and epic atmosphere. The editing is strong and to the point, at the same time effectively hiding shortcomings in the special effects and giving the battles more speed and flair. The effect of some very cool sword tricks and moves are only heightened by the meticulous use of the scissor in combination with smart camera work.
Swordsman II is a very typical film and definitely won't win any fans to the genre. It's pretty chaotic, all style and no substance and not the least bit interested in telling a coherent story. It focuses on style and coolness, but does it so well it becomes extremely entertaining indeed. If you're a fan of films like Iron Monkey, Hark's Once Upon series or any other early 90s martial arts flicks (often featuring Jet Li), be sure to check out this series if you haven't already.