April 5, 2003 -- "The Legend of the Swordsman" (Xiao ao jiang hu zhi dong fang bu bai, or "Swordman 2") is a 1991 movie recently reissued on DVD by Dimension Films. It features dazzling photography and equally dazzling fight scenes. Unlike most martial arts films, the story actually makes sense, but it is very complex, and hard for a Westerner to follow.
The movie stars famed martial arts actor Jet Li ("Kiss of the Dragon," "Romeo Must Die" and "The One") as Ling Wu Chung, a master swordsman who has wearied of fighting and plans to retire to a life of quiet contemplation. However, he is drawn into a battle of warring factions, including a deadly rebel group who wants to take over all of China. All of this takes place in the 22nd year of the reign of Emperor Soon in the Ming Dynasty. This is during a historical period when the Chinese have crude cannons and guns, but swords are still the weapon of choice.
At the center of the power struggle is the Sun Moon Sect, a martial arts school which has been taken over by Asia the Invincible (played by Brigitte Lin), brother to Master Wu (played by Yee Kwan Yan). Master Wu is the former head of the school, but he has been imprisoned by his brother. Wu's daughter, Ren Ying Ying (Rosamund Kwan), is romantically interested in Ling, but she's not the only one. There is a romantic quadrangle in the story, as well as some gender-bending. In addition to battles with elements of the Chinese Army, there are battles between the warring factions within the school itself. Some Japanese warriors have also taken sides in the conflict. Like I said, it is a complex story. Eventually, of course, the story comes down to a battle between Asia and Ling since they are the best martial artists around.
The cinematography, by Moon-Tong Lau is excellent. The colors are rich and fully saturated. A lot of trick photography is used to enhance the film's many fight scenes. Some of these tricks include running the film backwards to give the illusion of swords whirling through the air and being caught bare-handed by skilled swordsmen. The lighting is very effective, including the use of blue-tinged lights in outdoor night scenes. Effective use is also made of slow motion and there are a fair number of special effects in the film. Lots of wire stunts are done. In some scenes, you can easily see the wires. All kinds of supernatural stuff goes on as Master Wu sucks the life force out of people with his hands, swordsmen cut trees and horses in half without actually touching them. People fly through the air and one guy runs on the tops of long grass stems more than a foot above the ground. This kind of magical stuff is a tradition in some Chinese martial arts films. Some of the magic stuff in the film is related to an ancient text of magic secrets that is referred to several times in the film. The acting in the film is generally a lot better than in most films of this type.
The fight scenes in the film are elaborately staged and very entertaining. The battles proceed with lightning fast pace, and there is little letup in the action during the film. There is also some humor added from time to time to lighten up the tone of the film. This is a good martial arts film, but it will probably take most people more than one viewing to figure out what is going on. It helps to have a solid background in the genre, or to have a solid understanding of Chinese history and culture. This film rates a B.
The DVD has good image quality for the most part and the video transfer was very good, although the film used in the video transfer was not of good quality. There are many scratches on the film. The video format is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The dubbing is out of sync, but it is better than the standard dubbing job on most martial arts films (which is faint praise, indeed). Unfortunately, the DVD does not include the original language soundtrack. English subtitles are available, but these offer little additional information not heard on the soundtrack. The soundtrack is a Dolby (TM) Digital 2.0 surround English dub track. Sound quality is poor, making it difficult to understand the dialogue. I used the English subtitles in order to better understand what was going on, as well as to get some spellings for this article. The DVD rates a C. This is a film that deserves a better DVD treatment. Indeed, other versions of this film exist on DVD.
Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.