(My previous blog was about Invincible Asia and the tradition of cross dressing in kung fu movies).
“At one level, the kung fu film can be seen as what Steven Shapiro and Linda Williams call a ‘body genre’ (although neither include it as one) alongside pornography, horror and the ‘weepie’ films that offer a ‘display of sensations that are on the edge of respectable’ (Williams). Kung fu is a genre of bodies; extraordinary, expressive, spectacular, sometimes even grotesque bodies.” p. 2, Kung Fu Cult Masters by Leon Hunt.
This blog was inspired by a recent conversation with my friend Romaine that happened during our viewing of a Filipino martial arts version of a James Bond style actioner starring a midget called Wang Wang. As we watched the tiny and wizened Wang Wang pummel hulking great baddies with his little fists and snuggle hornily up to the nubile female lead (who disconcertingly looked as if she should have been tucking him into bed with his teddy instead) our conversation turned to the way the human body is depicted in film and art. We were particularly interested in the grotesque, and how deformity or abnormality is exploited in film, and the kinds of reactions it can trigger in audiences. In this blog I have jotted down some thoughts about some of the physical grotesqueries that are on display in Swordsman 2.
Invincible Asia – the film’s arch villain, played by Brigitte Lin.
Invincible Asia starts off as a man, but when the film begins he has castrated himself according to the instructions of the Sacred Scroll. This scroll outlines an occult procedure to gain supernaturally destructive martial arts powers. Already a martial arts master, Asia is willing to do anything to access these powers and this leads to his self-castration, which is a central requirement of the scroll’s occult procedure. As he waits for the transformation of his new powers to become complete, he undergoes another transformation. Hong Kong kung fu movies aren’t the most politically (or anatomically) correct of movies, and the premise of this film is that, once dickless, Asia starts turning into a woman. At first he keeps this a secret from his court, and still dresses as a man. But I get the impression that this is not from shame, but rather from expediency, as Asia seems to embrace his emerging feminine identity and physicality with cheerful curiosity rather than panic. Dressed as a man Asia still can count on the respect of the men who serve him. When he reveals himself as a woman, her mastery over her new occult supernatural powers is complete and she can be secure in the knowledge that she can easily pulverise these same men if they get snide. When other male characters reveal surprise over her new appearance and womanly voice she smiles or laughs coquettishly. In the climactic fight scene, her nemesis Master Wu has a good hearty laugh at her expense and makes a few sneering comments on Asia’s transformation, but his ribaldry is just met with a smirk from an unconcerned Asia.
Asia is fawned over by his luscious sexpot concubine, controls an extensive court and entourage, and is kowtowed to by pirates, soldiers and dignitaries. Even before the Sacred Scroll takes effect he has a reputation as a penultimate martial artist and is feared by many. I get the picture that he was definitely an alpha male. What is so intriguing is how unbothered he is by his transformation into a woman. Although at times he is shown to be experiencing some confusion, at others he comfortably goes with the flow into female territory by flirting with the handsome hero Ling (played by Jet Li), taking up embroidery, and mastering the niceties of feminine makeup and dress.
Asia is played by the beautiful Brigitte Lin, who is as far from being physically grotesque as it is possible to be. And yet, the character of Asia is grotesque. Partly this is to do with Asia’s immorality – his sociopathic cruelty renders him morally grotesque. But it also has to do with his castration. Asia’s mutating gender, and the fact that he did it to himself, makes him sexually grotesque. The physical grotesqueness, therefore, is a manifestation of his moral deformities.
Master Wu – A powerful chieftan who is Asia’s enemy, played by Yam Sai Kwun.
Master Wu undergoes a particularly disgusting and sadistic form of torture and constraint at the hands of Invincible Asia. When Ling discovers him in a dungeon, he is not only emaciated but is suspended in the air by a network of chains attached to giant hooks that have been embedded into his bones and flesh. Shortly after Ling frees him, Wu regains his strength by using a supernatural martial arts technique which sucks the life force from various expendable characters. This technique leaves the victims’ bodies as nothing more than limp, formless, oozing skins. Both Wu’s ordeal and his vampiric methods of recovering vitality edge towards horror movie content. He quickly establishes himself as a character to be dubious about. His experience has left him vengeful, paranoid and angry. He is never a sympathetic character – his behaviour is too deranged and worrying for us to warm to him. But I did find his madness understandable, if repellant. Nobody who had had their skeleton threaded by giant hooks for a long period of time could be expected to be in the pink of mental health.
Master Wu is a grotesque figure – not just physically at times (such as when we see him hanging from his chains) but also psychologically, as indicated by his hysterical and dangerous behaviour. At the end of the film he has been reduced to a shambling physical wreck and an outright bloodthirsty crazy as a result of being pierced by scores of embroidery needles and threads during his final fight with Invincible Asia. The body of Master Wu seems to be the target of the nastiest violence in this film, and Wu’s physical suffering cuts him off from sanity and humanity. The extreme violence lifts him out of any capacity he might have to be a civilised human being. At first view, this violence is lurid and inventively nasty. It is the kind of thing that has gleeful fans (like myself) saying “Only in a Kong Kong kung fu movie…” But, as with so many of these movies, this florid brutality has another purpose rather than just providing moments of sensationalism. One of the things Swordsman 2‘s plot revolves around is the conflict for rulership between Wu and Invincible Asia, and one of the film’s themes is the price of untramelled ambition. This price, and its dehumanising effects, is not articulated in dialogue so much as represented through the bodies of the cast. The depredations and alterations visited on the bodies of Wu and Asia symbolise the moral ramifications of power hungriness.
Zen – a loyal follower of Wu, played by Shun Lau
In order to disguise himself and go undercover to search for his imprisoned Master, Zen disfigures himself both physically and vocally. He scars his face and looks hideous. He disguises his voice by damaging his vocal chords and speaks in a husky rasp throughout the film. His facial and vocal disfigurements are expressions of extreme loyalty. The effectiveness of this disfigurement as a disguise reflects a determined adherence to the cause of Master Wu and his clan.
At the end of the movie, when he chooses to disobey his Master’s orders and let our heroes (Ling and Kiddo who is played by Michelle Reis) escape, he cuts off his own arm. Slicing off this limb is an expression of more than one thing. It could be seen as Zen punishing himself for not following his Master’s orders. It could be a means to disguise what really happened – maybe Zen will tell Wu that Ling caused the injury as he fought to escape. It could be an expression of Zen’s disgust and misapprehension at the direction that the deranged Wu’s leadership will now take. Zen has already expressed ambivalence about Wu’s psychological capabilities as leader earlier in the film when he plans to escape and live in seclusion with the Wah Brotherhood. These notions would be difficult and complicated to articulate in text – we would need lengthy dialogue to do so convincingly. It would be out of character for a taciturn inhabitant of Jianghu (the martial arts world), and one driven by Confucian motivations of loyalty to his Master, to suddenly start babbling volubly about his doubts and insecurities. There is no doubt that by the final scene in the movie Zen is in an untenable situation. He is torn between his sworn loyalty to Wu as his leader and his own sense of humanity and fairness. A simple, if extreme, gesture (if auto-amputation could be called a mere gesture) expresses the complex and conflicting ideas that possibly roost in poor Zen’s brain. His earlier actions of disfigurement to effect disguise have maneuvered him into an extreme place – both in his own psychology and in his status as Wu’s devoted follower. It takes no less than the action of cutting off his arm for this character to express his predicament.
Wire fu and sex
The bodies of the characters of Invincible Asia, Master Wu and his henchman Zen are the ones who could be seen as the most grotesque in this film. The rest of the cast seem to be without disfigurement (and are mostly played by extremely attractive performers). But there are 2 other aspects of Swordsman 2 that undermines the presentation of the cast of characters, as a whole, as being physically ‘normal’. One of these aspects is the sexuality of the characters. I have written a whole blog on this and I wont go into detail about it here. In a nutshell, for all the romantic longing many of the characters have for each other no one gets it off with the one they love. Some of the characters seem to be cases of arrested development and are downright adolescent in their attitudes towards sexuality and romance. There seems to be a theme of truncated sexual and romantic desire in this film. Just as Asia actually does castrate his genitals, so too are the opportunities for consummating passion cauterized by plot developments in Swordsman 2. Healthy expression of love and lust is not possible for the cast of this film, no matter how much they want it or how hard they try to get it. In this way, the normality of their physicality has been distorted and undermined.
The other way normal, natural physicality is distorted in this film is through the choreography of the action. This choreography is dominated by wire-fu and special effects. The martial arts shown is not in the least bit naturalistic – fighter after fighter goes zinging up into the air. The characters cover metres of landscape in a single bound. Adepts like Master Wu and Invincible Asia can wreak destruction without even touching their victims. Asia can make walls explode and cauldrons catapult through the air with an absent minded flick of her wrist, whereas Wu merely has to face his palms towards his victims to completely drain their bodies of their life force. The martial arts in this film has nothing to do with the normal capabilities of the human body. The pleasure of watching Jet Li (as Ling) fight in a movie like Fist of Legend or Martial Arts of Shaolin or Kiss of the Dragon is that the viewer gets such a strong impression of his physical capabilities (as well as the other fighters in these films). Even a film like Tai Chi Master or the Once Upon A Time in China films (which do have notable amounts of wire fu in them) focus squarely on the human body as a performative device. But the wire fu in this film is used to such an extent that it strips away any opportunities for us to watch continuous and detailed sequences of movement. The human body in the many fight scenes in this film is reduced to a mere projectile instead of a sophisticated performance tool. In a film which has 3 important characters with grotesque aspects to their physicality, it is interesting that the very choreography of the films distorts or distances our identification of / with the performers’ bodies. It is as if we, as viewers, are experiencing a body dysmorphia in our viewing of and connection to the martial artists in this film. Many of us fans, after all, watch martial arts films to enjoy “extraordinary, expressive, spectacular, sometimes even grotesque bodies.” Knowing that the performers we watch in these movies are often trained Chinese Opera acrobats or, as in the case of Jet Li, bona fide martial arts experts gives us a certain feeling of proximity or closeness to the physicality onscreen. Swordsman 2‘s over reliance on wire fu robs us of this feeling of proximity and turns the physical gifts of people like Jet Li or Yam Sai Kwun (a veteran martial arts actor) into something that has no connection to natural human bodies. I find the overuse of wire fu in this film to be aesthetically grotesque.
I have stated in other blogs that I am becoming increasingly interested in the parallels between kung fu movies and the Western tradition of melodrama, which relies on mise en scene to represent extreme emotions and psychology that is not so easily articulated in dialogue. In their book, Melodrama, John Mercer and Martin Shingler describe melodramas as being:
“… texts of muteness, forced to transform the unspeakable into spectacular action sequences or mise-en-scene.” p. 87
The same could be said of kung fu movies, as they deal with epic themes and florid emotions by relying on elaborate choreography and colourful sets and costumes to tell their stories. In Swordsman 2 the physicality of various characters being rendered as grotesque in various ways communicates a whole range of stances on themes such as sex, power and loyalty.