Swordsman 2’s Invincible Asia and the tradition of cross dressing in kung fu movies

(My previous blog was about Brigitte Lin’s performance as Invincible Asia. This blog contains some thoughts about Swordsman 2’s transsexual villain Invincible Asia and the tradition of cross dressing in kung fu movies)

In his review of Swordsman 2, critic Paul Fonoroff states:

“The beautiful Brigitte Lin seems miscast – there is no way she can convincingly pass as a man.” p. 238, At the Hong Kong Movies

To be honest, I think Fonoroff has misunderstood the intention behind the way Invincible Asia is depicted. I don’t think this type of movie needs you to believe that Brigitte Lin is really a man and then really a woman – it is not The Crying Game but a very different type of movie.

An interesting thing about Asia is that s/he can be seen as either feminine or masculine depending on which characters s/he is talking to at the time. Ignorant of Asia’s castration and occult gender realignment, Asia’s own court have the idea fixed in their heads that Asia is the man he always was for much of the movie. When the film’s hero, Ling, meets Asia without knowing who s/he is, he assumes that Asia is a woman. It is a testament to the skill of the director Ching Siu Tung, Brigitte Lin, and the other actors who support her that the differentiation between when Asia is being seen as male or female is very clear.

One thing that strikes me when I think about the performance of Invincible Asia, and the challenge of signifying to the audience that Asia is seen as male by some of the characters some of the time (when Brigitte Lin is so indisputably female) is the body language of Brigitte Lin and Yu On On in their scenes together as Invincible Asia and Asia’s concubine Cici. Without ever tipping over into a display of girl-on-girl sleaze, the way these 2 actresses ‘handle’ each other effectively conveys the relationship between a powerful man and his woman. Whether it is the way Cici massages Asia’s shoulders, or the way Asia leans against Cici when she does, or the way Asia gently cups Cici’s face or sweeps her into Asia’s arms, this body language subtly reinforces the male that Asia was before his / her transformation and the way s/he continues to be seen as male by his / her court during most of the movie.

An interesting moment is Cici’s reaction to Asia when Cici first sees Asia wearing makeup and realises that Asia is transforming into a woman. In this scene Lin’s appearance is only subtly different – she has gained some eye shadow, a different hairstyle and a dress, but she just doesn’t look that different from how she looked when her character was ‘male’ at the beginning of the film. At the beginning of the film Asia’s male status is superficially indicated by Lin wearing male robes and hat, and miming dialogue delivered by a light tenor voice. But she has not been subjected to a transformative make up or costume processes a The Crying Game. We know that it’s Brigitte Lin in pants we are seeing. We rely on the reactions and body language of the actors to tell us whether this character is functioning as a male or female in a particular scene. Cici’s shocked reaction tells us that Asia now looks different – shockingly female as opposed to male. Rather than trying to convince us that Asia was a man and is now a woman, this film wants to convince us that the other characters in the film saw Asia as a man and will now see Asia as a woman. This is all the information that we as an audience need to know to enjoy this film and character. Having an actress who is obviously female playing a character that straddles both male and female gender underlines Invincible Asia’s ambivalent sexual identity. The audience’s experience of Asia’s frequent switching from male to female is clearly defined by the acting, directing and mise en scene of this film.

Martial arts movies, especially wuxia pian (swordplay films in a fantasy historic setting), have unrealistic and fantastic characters and happenings and therefore realism is not a goal. As an art form, these films have more in common with pantomime, ballet, opera or commedia dell’arte than a classic Hollywood movie. The legacy of Chinese Opera and wuxia literature to this genre of cinema is well documented. I have always felt that the goal of these movies was to represent or symbolise certain characters, settings or actions rather than slavishly imitate or replicate them. In his book on Chinese Opera, Chinese Conception of the Theatre, Tao-Ching Hsu states “… action is indicated rather than imitated and there is little effort to disguise the pretence.” (page 95). Just as the martial arts shown in these films is not real martial arts that would be used in an actual street fight, so Brigitte Lin has not been cast to make us believe that she is a man at the beginning of the film. Rather she has been cast so that her handsome type of beauty, dignified glamour and otherworldly bearing can involve the audience in the fascinating, and confounding creature that is Invincible Asia.

It is worth bearing in mind that certain conventions exist in Asian cinema and theatre in regards to cross dressing and artists acting characters of a different gender:

This convention can be traced back to Come Drink with Me, and it reflects a Peking Opera sensibility, wherein men played female roles and the audience was expected to accept their impersonation without question” p 118, From Chasing Dragons by David West.

There is a lot of cross dressing in martial arts films. For example, Jet Li drags up in Martial Arts of Shaolin and Dr Wai in the Scripture with no Words, and even Jackie Chan does the same in City Hunter. Brigitte Lin dons men’s garb once again in New Dragon Gate Inn, and Josephine Siao (trained in Chinese Opera as a child), in her portrayal of Fong Sai Yuk’s mother, has her character impersonate a youth in both Fong Sai Yuk films. Her performance puts me in mind of principal boys, which were young boy characters that were always played by sexy young girls in English pantomimes from the 1800s into the 20th century. The audience was not expected to believe that the girl actresses were really boys, but rather they were expected to get a little thrill from the sight of a strapping young lass in tights. Interestingly, when Siao was a young actress she starred in a series of films with Connie Chan Po Chu – Siao often played the female lead with Chan dragging up to play her male romantic interest. Their films together were big mainstream hits in Hong Kong during the 60s.

When I lived in Japan I was taken to see the famous Takarazuka Review which, for decades, has been presenting glamorous and epic romantic musicals to packed houses. In the Takarazuka Review, all of the parts, including the males, are played by women. Certain Takarazuka Review performers specialise in male impersonation for the whole of their careers. The musicals are luscious and gorgeous, but are also the campest, queerest things I have ever seen. But the (mostly) middle class, heterosexual, female audiences who make up the Takarazuka Review’s enormous fan base don’t even blink at watching a cross dressing woman sweeping another woman off her feet. They accept the male impersonation without shame or question, and revel in the skill of the male impersonators in the Takarazuka Review’s companies.

In Chinese theatre the sex of the players bears no relation to the sex of the characters they play: both actors and actresses can take male or female roles. This is possible because the style of acting is sophisticated and the professional players are highly trained.” p. 43, The Chinese Conception of Theatre by Tao-Ching Hsu

An interesting film to watch while bearing this in mind is Sammo Hung’s kung fu classic Prodigal Son starring Lam Ching Ying as a male Chinese Opera performer (and martial arts expert) who is famous for playing female roles. Lam gives a stunning performance, as he moves from acting the dignified and ascetic martial arts master offstage to playing coquettish Chinese Opera characters in full costume and makeup onstage. Lam, director and performer Sammo Hung, lead actor Yuen Biao and God knows how many other of the film’s cast were all trained in Chinese Opera. In the interviews in the Special Features on the DVD version of this film that I saw Sammo Hung mentions that he had faith in Lam to carry off his part, including the female Chinese Opera roles,  because of his training in Chinese Opera. If you are interested in the influence of Chinese Opera on kung fu films, as I am, and particularly the traditions it may have bequeathed, such as cross dressing,  then Prodigal Son is a fascinating film to watch. Entertaining overall, in Lam’s character it seems to pay homage to the Chinese Opera and kung fu movie convention of cross dressing, and the skill that directors and cast need to pull it off. Swordsman 2 is tapping into this convention in the casting of Brigitte Lin to play the character of Invincible Asia.

(My next, and final, blog on Swordsman 2, will be about grotesque bodies)

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This entry was posted in jet li, kung fu movies, martial arts movies, performance, Swordsman 2, Uncategorized, wu xia and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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