(The previous blog I posted was about the sexuality of some of the other characters in Swordsman 2).
Martial arts movies have often struck me as being very melodramatic, and I have subsequently been curious about the dramaturgical relationship between the lurid emotions on display in many of these movies and the carefully wrought and elaborate displays of action. I have been wondering whether one leads to or facilitates the other. After all, if you give over large chunks of your screen time to choreographed physical performance with minimal dialogue then this has to affect the structure and tone of the film, as well as the way you impart information to an audience, and the kinds of information that can be imparted. Choreography explicates very different things to dialogue. Emotion is more easily manifested through movement than are facts.
I have started to do a little reading in order to test some of my ideas out. I struck gold with a book called Melodrama by John Mercer and Martin Shingler. In this book Mercer and Shingler survey critical writing on classic American movies that have been designated as melodramas. The interesting thing is that I feel that they could often be (unwittingly) writing about Hong Kong kung fu movies.
I was particularly struck by the following quote:
“… melodrama… implicitly recognises the limits (inadequacies) of conventional representation… (its inability to express or articulate certain contradictions). In this way, the ‘beneath’ or ‘behind’ (the unthinkable or repressed) is evoked as metaphor through gesture, music and mise-en-scene. p. 79
I often feel in kung fu movies that unwieldy or atavistic emotions are not just articulated in dialogue but are strongly represented through “gesture, music and mise-en-scene” including fight choreography. Swordsman 2 is just one case in point. In exploring various sexual and gender dynamics it is touching on issues most humans find difficulty in comfortably articulating. The use of a transsexual martial arts master as a character and a device for further exploring this terrain just makes things messier and more difficult to articulate in text. In this movie the transsexual Invincible Asia’s newly discovered feminine side emerges from beneath or behind his original alpha male ambition to take over the world. Director Ching Siu Tung’s depiction of this emerges from beneath or behind the conventional structure of a wuxia pian (martial arts movie).
What is going on with Invincible Asia? When the film starts this character’s back story is of a man who has ambitions to be a ruler and the foremost martial arts practitioner in his country. In order to achieve the latter (and facilitate the former) he decides to follow the instructions of The Sacred Scroll – an arcane text that instructs on how to access martial arts powers on a supernatural level. The primary instruction requires Asia to castrate himself, which he secretly and willingly does. Thus, when the movie begins we find a newly ‘altered’ Invincible Asia in the possession of a recently acquired ability to channel his chi through his martial arts technique to achieve explosive destructive results. However, the occult processes unleashed by his following of the instructions of the Sacred Scroll start to transform him into a female version of himself. He finds himself in possession of a changed body which rapidly becomes more feminine looking, with softer skin and a voice that becomes higher during the course of the film. He is assailed by unfamiliar feelings too, such as a fascination with the handsome hero Ling, an interest in makeup and tapestry, and a heightened need to be loved, desired and supported. Asia’s story arc can be seen as his attempts to reconcile these feelings and this new physicality with his original and ongoing ambitions and ruthlessness. In becoming a transsexual he gets more than he bargained for and this eventually leads to his undoing.
One element of Invincible Asia’s character that fascinates me is the emergence of a new side to his personality during the movie. Feelings that would traditionally be seen as being softer or more feminine become mish mashed with Asia’s already present (‘male’) drive for political power and her / his willingness to use cruelty and violence to achieve it. A witty way of representing this in the movie is by using the visual device of tapestry. In a couple of scenes (including the climactic showdown) Asia is shown demurely embroidering as befits a high class lady. However, Asia also uses the tapestry needles as a particularly sadistic form of weaponry in these scenes, and this befits a power mad martial arts savvy villain.
Invincible Asia inserts what could be seen as typically female behaviours into his campaign for power. As he plots, tortures, murders, bribes and downright bullies his way to supremacy, he, or should I say she at this point, also flirts with Ling, experiments with makeup, does a spot of tapestry, and whimpers that no one loves him / her. “I’ve sacrificed myself to the world. But how many people will remember Asia the Invincible? Everyone in the world is heartless!” Asia murmurs to Asia’s concubine Cici at one point. In a later scene, when Cici discovers and recoils from Asia’s feminine transformation, Asia is deeply hurt and tearfully says “You are just the same as the common people. You are heartless.” This right after s/he has briskly murdered 8 or so camp followers. Asia seems to be wanting to ask “why doesn’t anybody love me” but her history as a ruthless psychotic bastard means that she doesn’t understand how her violent behaviour means that nobody can.
The climactic fight scene follows this pattern. As the film’s prime villain Invincible Asia takes on the film’s good guys, but does so in a feminine style. Asia’s dress, manner and body language is arch and even coquettish as s/he refutes accusations of villainy and defies the heroes. The aforementioned tapestry thread and needles come into play as her weapons of choice. When she is stabbed at the end by Ling, her erstwhile beau, she responds in hurt and bewilderment and accuses him of being a ‘heartless’ guy. She seems unaware that her past regimen of torture and murder might justify such treatment. Her final threat – to kill Ling’s 2 female comrades in front of him – and her subsequent attempt to do so come across as an expression of pure cattiness rather than the behaviour of a rugged warlord.
As a mortally wounded Asia plummets to her death down a cliff side she finds herself in Ling’s arms. She uses her supernatural strength to push him out of her downward trajectory and back to the safety of a cliff ledge, thereby saving his life. This is the only selfless, and most loving, gesture we have seen from Asia in the whole film. The last shots of her falling away show her face in a softened, misty light and Brigitte Lin assumes a softened expression. This is the most feminine Asia has appeared during the whole film.
As quoted above, Invincible Asia has some revealing lines of dialogue but it is also interesting to consider the use of visuals in this film, and the way they define and inform us about Invincible Asia. Unfortunately, I find the choreography of this film to be disappointing. It is overly dominated by wire fu and lacking in detailed movement. The way it is edited renders it incoherent, and it submerges the narrative logic of the plot. The choreography, therefore, cannot help us much in understanding Asia or, indeed, any of the other characters (as it can do in so many other martial arts movies). But this film’s mise en scene does help the viewer. Where choreographer / director Ching Siu Tung does excel is the way he defines and consolidates character development and story arcs by the use of visuals. The shot mentioned in the paragraph above is a case in point. Ching draws on his choreographic sensibilities in his artful way of blocking and posing his actors. Props and costumes are also useful and important indicators – I have already mentioned the use of tapestry as an example of this. During Asia’s early scenes with Ling she doesn’t speak, as Asia wants to hide her peculiar ‘male’ voice from Ling. This means that Lin is mute during these scenes and must communicate with facial expressions and gesture. Asia’s trans-sexuality is so extreme and odd, and opens up so many taboo areas, that Asia’s dialogue alone cannot encapsulate all the audience needs to know about this character. Ching’s use of visual clues and his well defined characterisation of Asia (in collaboration with actor Brigitte Lin) allows Invincible Asia’s strange and complex psycho-sexual identity to emerge from beneath and behind the normal trappings of a kung fu movie villain. The melodramatic aesthetic of kung fu movies, with their emphasis on using non-textual, visual and kinetic elements, gives Ching a forum to do this.
My next blog on Swordsman 2 will concentrate on Brigitte Lin’s performance of this character. I will also soon be posting a review of The Magic Blade as a guest reviewer for the jpfmovies blog.