The sexuality of the characters in Swordsman 2
(My previous blog on Swordsman 2 discussed the choreography of this film).
“But as subversive as Lin’s transsexual anti-heroine already is, the film’s auto-critique must also queer the chastest, most sexually reticent, of all martial arts stars, Jet Li” p 134, Kung Fu Cult Masters by Leon Hunt.
Swordsman 2 has a tangled and confusing plot that concerns the power struggle over leadership of the Miao people and the Sun Moon Sect, as well as the romantic intrigues of the film’s hero, Ling. The plot confuses me but this does not overly concern me as I find this film fascinating on another level. My attention is always taken up with the film’s handling of the sexual and gender dynamics of its characters. In this area there is plenty of outlandish and, as stated above, subversive stuff for the gobsmacked viewer to disentangle. This blog briefly records some of my thoughts about the sexuality of the characters of Ling, Kiddo, Ying and Cici, strongly acted by a luminously good looking cast. Brigitte Lin’s beautifully performed “transsexual anti-heroine” character, Invincible Asia, is so bizarre but mesmerising that s/he gets a blog all to him / herself.
Ling (Jet Li).
Ling is a member of a brotherhood of travelling scholars. They are congregating in the Miao clan’s territory prior to retiring to live as a community in seclusion. Ling and his companions are drawn into the political intrigues of the Sun Moon Sect, which puts them on a collision course with Invincible Asia.
Ling is a playboy, a charming flirt who actively pursues both Ying and Invincible Asia, and who has, unwittingly, become a love interest to his young tomboy companion Kiddo. He is portrayed as a likeable man, loyal to and fond of his companions; as well as being a brave and skilled martial artist. Sexually, he is adventurous and irresponsible – he energetically pursues whatever woman seems to be most available, and doesn’t hesitate to bed Cici (whom he believes to be Invincible Asia). Li’s performance in this role does a good job of emphasising the cheerful, carefree and warm aspects of this character. This draws the audience in and continually reinforces Ling as a hero to be liked, rather than a cad to be wary of.
Interestingly, an essay on Swordsman 2 on Jet Li’s website indicates his ambivalence about Ling’s attitudes towards sex and romance:
“’I don’t think I can do this!’ I said. ‘How am I supposed to have so little respect for love? Flirt with one girl, then cozy up with another one behind her back, and as soon as the second one leaves, flirt with the first one again’ … So I did my job, but honestly, I’m not sure I was ever able to really inhabit the character during the entire shoot. Ling had a lot of behaviors that I didn’t approve of and couldn’t identify with.” (http://jetli.com/jet/index.php?l=en&s=work&ss=essays&p=11)
I think Li does a good job in portraying this character, and his performance looks easy and unforced with no hint of his difficulties in understanding Ling’s attitude to romance.* Despite the fact that the plot of this film does ‘queer’ the character of Ling, Li somehow contrives to portray him as an unassailable beacon of heterosexuality, but all without any overt displays of irritating machismo. This is an interesting, and effective, quality that Li has and it enhances many of his screen performances.
Kiddo (Michelle Reis)
Kiddo is a travelling companion to Ling.
Kiddo is a tomboy who has grown up in the exclusively male company of her ‘brothers’, an itinerant community of scholars and martial artists. When they greet her after a long absence, they comment on how tall she has become and say “She can’t wear our pants now.” During the film, Kiddo is shown clumsily experimenting with make up and hairdos in an effort to look more feminine. “Always calling me Kiddo. Don’t I look like a girl? Is it so hard to be a lady?” she grumbles to herself, at one stage. Her efforts are often greeted with derision by her male companions, including Ling, on whom she has a crush. “You are not woman nor man. Don’t know what sexes you should be” he baldly announces to the poor girl. They just cannot take her seriously as a woman. Even her name is against her in this respect – it designates her as a child, and not as a sexually mature adult. Ironically, despite Ling’s romantic pursuit of other (far more glamorous) characters during the film, it is Kiddo who ends up with the man that she desires. The final scene shows her canoodling up to Ling on the deck of a boat as they flee China. But, consistent with her position as a sexually underdeveloped character, the only recognition her nuzzling gets from Ling is a couple of smacks on the head.
Ying (Rosamund Kwan)
Ying is leader of the Miao clan, standing in for her father who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. She and Ling met a year prior to the events of the film and have feelings for one another.
There is something of the adolescent about both Kiddo and Ling. Neither of them approach romance in a way that is considered or mature. Ying comes across as a more grown up personality. Possibly this is because of her experience of responsibility as the leader of a clan while her father is absent. Ying is in love with Ling, who seems to reciprocate her feelings (when he is not in pursuit of Invincible Asia, that is). While her internal feelings for Ling are straightforward, her external circumstances are anything but. Ying is prevented from advancing her relationship with Ling through a combination of events and responsibilities that are beyond her control. She feels that she cannot abandon her duties as a daughter and a leader in her clan to go running off with Ling. So, despite her more ‘adult’ personality, the film closes with Ying also having her romantic desires unconsummated. The ending of the movie leaves her stranded on shore, and gazing longingly at the boat that is bearing the man she is in love with away. Worse still, we know that she only has a violent father who has been deranged by power, paranoia, imprisonment and torture to return to. The future cannot be safe for Ying in such circumstances, and the possibilities for her settling down to a happy-ever-after type ending with anybody seem to be remote.
Cici (played by Yu On On)
Cici is the concubine of Invincible Asia. At first, she does not realise that Asia has castrated himself and been transformed into a woman. Reacting with shock when she does realise, she is rebuffed by the hurt Asia. Desperate to reinstate herself in Asia’s affections, she allows herself to be used as a stand in for Asia and, as such, has sex with Ling, who thinks that it is Asia he is sleeping with.
The quote at the beginning of this blog mentions that Li is ‘queered’ in this film and one notable way of doing this is by showing us the consequences of his character’s one encounter with Cici. I can’t think of a better way of ‘queering’ the star of your movie than by having the only female character he sleeps with commit suicide afterward (unless it is by having him fall for the transsexual Invincible Asia). For most, if not all, of his career Jet Li’s personal image has been squeaky clean. He has become a matinee idol and sex symbol in Asia and beyond, and has managed to do this all the while never performing explicit sexual acts on screen. I don’t think he is ever even seen kissing a woman in any of his films. This is no barrier to many of his adoring fans finding him enormously attractive. I am guessing, but I think that some of them may find the reticence and chasteness alluded to in Hunt’s comment to be fascinating, probably admirable, and perhaps even titillating. But it is ironic that in one of his few films where it is obvious that his character has sex (even though we don’t see the actual act) then, rather than being a moment of ecstasy for his partner, it turns out to be a prelude to her suicide.
Of course, the primary reason for Cici killing herself has more to do with her confused and destructive relationship with Invincible Asia than anything else. I do not think it is supposed to be a reflection on Ling’s sexual technique! I actually find Cici’s suicide to be an interesting plot development. All of Ling’s attractiveness cannot compensate Cici for being compelled to have sex with a man she doesn’t love. Sex without love becomes the straw the breaks Cici’s fragile and dysfunctional back and causes her to drink a bottle of poison. Not everyone would commit suicide as a result of being compelled to have sex they don’t want, but many people would find the experience empty, if not downright emotionally toxic. Cici’s suicide is a nod to normal human psychology in a film that otherwise makes its characters a function of its fantastic setting.
I recently read a quote from Judith Mayne where she named Swordsman 2‘s director Ching Siu Tung as being among those Hong Kong directors
“… whose consideration of women and sexuality not only deconstructed the ways that cinema ‘naturalizes’ socially constructed masculine fantasies and ideologies but also problematized the essentialism of a ‘heterosexual division of the universe.’” Women at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema, p. 118
I think I can see something of this in Ching’s treatment of the characters of Cici and Ying in Swordsman 2. Invincible Asia hands Cici over to Ling, using her as a spare body that can facilitate Asia’s image as a sexually functioning and desirable woman. Cici literally is reduced to being a sex object. All through the film she has been compliant in Asia’s ‘macho’ shenanigans – we have seen her join him in shooting and torturing an official, she makes art to celebrate Asia’s military victories, she endangers her life by hiding his precious sacred martial arts scroll on her body as part of her clothing, she giggles, massages and fans Asia as he bullies his court, and finally she agrees to masquerade as Asia and sleep with Ling. She has done everything to be the perfect, feminine helpmeet for Asia. But Asia’s male fantasy is shown to be a dangerous one to inhabit. Cici’s mental health crumbles and death is her only fulfillment. Ironically, in the midst of all of the passionate longing engaged in by this film’s characters, the only instance of sexually consummated passion is a prelude to madness and death.
Unlike Cici, Ying is a good woman – loyal, affectionate, responsible, self sacrificing and brave. And not kinky – she is straightforwardly and undeviantingly heterosexual, and, no matter how acute her longings for Ling are, very nicely behaved about it. If she were a character participating in a romantic fantasy constructed along conventional, heterosexual lines then her character’s story arc would seem to be headed towards some kind of resolution (whether that be happy or tragic) in regards to her feelings for Ling, but this resolution is denied her. Ironically, it is those aforementioned ‘good’ qualities that deconstruct the potential plotline that might lead to the fulfillment of the fantasy of Ying realising her romantic desires. Her determination to remain and do her duty as daughter and clan leader mean that she cannot follow Ling to safety, and so she doesn’t get her man.
And Ying is not the only character left with unresolved feelings. Ling’s final exchange with Invincible Asia sees him pleading with her to tell him if it was she that he slept with or not. She doesn’t, and he is left with the memory of an enigma and not knowing if he has managed to sexually consummate his relationship with Asia or with a stranger. In the final analysis, despite all of the energy this film’s characters have poured into longing for and pursuing each other, nobody gets what they want. Despite its undoubted entertainment value, this is a dark film in many respects, and the incomplete and unfulfilled sexuality of its characters contributes to this sense of darkness.
In this blog I have not so far discussed the character of Invincible Asia. This character all by itself is a powerful mechanism for ‘queering’ the character of Ling and deconstructing any number of “masculine fantasies and ideologies”. In light of this I think that Asia deserves a blog all to him / herself. The next blog I will post will be about this character.
*Li made this film after he made Once Upon A Time In China and at the same time he was making Once Upon A Time In China 2. The character he played in those films – Wong Fei Hung – is a model of rectitude and is very different from the character of Ling, and Li mentions this fact in his essay. The fact that Li was able to simultaneously perform in these very different roles shows that Li had developed into a strong actor by the early 90s, and was fulfilling and refining the acting potential he had displayed as an eager, bouncy young performer in his first few films.