Sunday, July 6, 2014

Wuxia Inspiration: The Swordsman II (Film) and Swordsman (TV Series)

I have been going back and watching a lot of movies from the shelf that I haven't seen in a while as we work on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (a free RPG based on Sertorius). In that stack are a bunch of Jet Li movies from the 90s. The Swordsman II (sometimes called The Legend of Swordsman) is my second favorite Jet Li film from that period right after Tai Chi Master (Twin Warriors). Watching this film also prompted me to finally track down and view a chinese TV series from 2013 called Swordsman, because they are both based on the same source material. I am going to discuss both briefly and talk about how they influenced the design of Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. 

The Swordsman II is a Tsui Hark produced film (Zu Warriors, Once Upon a Time in China and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) released in 1992 and is the second movie in a three part series based on Louis Cha's The Smiling, Proud Wanderer. While watching the first film (The Swordsman) is helpful to understand the context of the second, it isn't necessary in my opinion as it is fairly easy to follow a long and figure out the important stuff. The film stars Jet Li as Linghu Chong, Brigitte Lin as Dongfang Bubai, Rosamund Kwan as Ren Yingying, Yen Shi-kwan as Ren Woxing and Michelle Reis as Yue Lingshan.  

In Swordsman II Linghu Chong and Yue Lingshan, disciples of Mount Hua Sect plan to leave Jianghu (the martial world) but get drawn back in through a conflict within the Sun Moon Holy Cult (the sect that Linghu's love interest, Ren Yingying belongs to). The former leader of Sun Moon Holy Cult, Ren Woxing, has been deposed and imprisoned by a usurper, Dongfang Bubai (his former deputy). It should be noted here that Dongfang Bubai is called Invincible Asia in the subtitles of my version of the film. I am told this is just a literal translation of the name Dongfang Bubai. Dongfang Bubai now leads the Sun Moon Holy Cult, working with Japanese allies to seize the power from the Ming Dynasty. 

Ren Yingying, the daughter of the cult's former chief, leads a small band of followers still loyal their previous master. The plot basically begins when Linghu Chong, Yue Lingshan and other members of their Hua Sect promise to help and in the process come into conflict with Dongfang Bubai. Because of an earlier encounter on the road where he mistook Dongfang Bubai for a village girl, Linghu Chong falls in love for the new leader of the Sun Moon Holy Cult, adding an interesting complication to the plot. 

Some explanation of this last point. At the beginning of the movie, Dongfang Bubai is beginning to master something called the Sunflower Manual, which contains powerful martial techniques invented by an Imperial Eunuch. The first requirement of mastering the manual is castration, which Dongfang Bubai does, causing him to become more and more feminine as the movie progresses (the part is played by Brigitte Lin the whole way through but her voice softens considerably by the end). 

I don't want to give anything away, but the film ends with an epic battle between Dongfang Bubai and all other characters I have named. There are also a number of excellent swordplay scenes throughout the movie. Even though it is not terribly long, the movie manages to cover a lot of character development (at least regarding Linghu Chong, Ren Yingying and Dongfang Bubai). 

From what I have been able to gather, Brigitte Lin pretty much set a new standard for the character of Dongfang Bubai with this performance. 

The television series Swordsman was released in 2012-13 and stars Wallace Huo as Linghu Chong, Joe Chen as Dongfang Bubai, Yang Rong as Yue Lingshan, Chen Xiao as Ling Pingzhi, Yuan Shanshan as Ren Yingying, Howie Huang as Yue Buqun, Deng Sha as Yilin, Yang Mingna as Ning Zhongze and Heizi as Ren Woxing. Those are just some of the key characters in the show, there are countless others. Like The Swordsman film series it is based on The Smiling, Proud Wanderer by Louis Cha, but because it is 42 episodes it covers more material from the book (though it apparently deviates from it plenty as well). 

The story follows Linghu Chong as he struggles to balance the sometimes conflicting demands of honor in the martial world as a member of the Mount Hua Sect. Linghu Chong is a skilled swordsman who loves to drink wine and is more open-minded than the leader of his sect. This is against the backdrop of a larger conflict involving the "good sects" and the "demon sects". Mount Hua Sect is part of an alliance, made up of five other good sects which have the stated aim of eradicating the demon sects. The alliance (called the Five Mountain Sword Sect Alliance) is unofficially led by Zuo Lengshan, head of Mount Song Sect. He is ambitious and uses the conflict between good sects and demon sects as an excuse to become head of the entire martial world. 

I don't want to give too much away here, but one of the key points of the series is this sort of hypocrisy being used by various "good" sects, enabling them to resort to evil means. Another key plot point is a coveted set of martial skills contained in the Sunflower Manual and Bixie Swordplay Manual. The desire to obtain these skills dominates the motives of many characters in the story, even those who are ostensibly good. 

Again the Sun Moon Holy Cult is important in this version as well. They are the chief opponent of the Five Mountain Sword Alliance, but also a source of personal tension for Linghu Chong who falls for two of its members (Dongfang Bubai and Ren Yingying, the former chief's daughter). As with The Swordsman II, Donfang Bubai takes control of Sun Moon Holy Cult and imprisons its chief, Ren Woxing. Ren Yingyin manages to gain the trust of Dongfang Bubai and becomes a highly respected person inside the sect. 

The character of Dongfang Bubai is treated differently than The Swordsman II. In this version Dongfang Bubai is born a woman but dresses as a man in order to hide her identity and become the leader of Sun Moon Holy Cult. It is quite different from Brigitte Lin's performance but also interesting on its own with more focus on redemption as she comes to understand the true meaning of love. 

The name The Smiling, Proud Wanderer simply refers to a song composed by two men, one from a good sect and one from an evil sect. Linghu Chong is charged with protecting the song by its composers and is deeply moved by the melody. The song also features in Swordsman II. 

I highly recommend Swordsman to anyone with an interest in the genre. It is long and like a lot of these shows it dips in and out of romance, comedy, action and suspense. The swordplay is spectacular, and I really liked how they get into the politics of the various sects. I should warn people that there are several self-castration scenes in the series (though they are not graphic and more suggestive than anything else) and some of the humor (especially that involving the character Tian Boguang, a notorious rapist) might be considered inappropriate by some western audiences. 
Both Swordsman and The Swordsman II have a lot of material to inspire a wuxia setting. Mainly I was thinking about the different martial arts techniques that could be used in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. In Swordsman II there one character demonstrates the ability to slice a person in half from a distance with a sword swipe and I would like to be able to somehow make that work mechanically (I think we may have figured out a way). The series and the film both feature Dongfang Bubai using an attack with multiple thread spools and needles. We already have needle attacks but I would really like to make this sort of thing work as well, so long as I can differentiate it from the regular needle techniques. 

In terms of setting material, I like the idea of The Sunflower Manual and would like to have something similar. I also found the way the sects were handled very instructive. 

There were also lots of supernatural elements I'd like to draw on. In particular a group of bronze monk guardians who materialized to protect an underground shrine in Shaolin Temple. 

The big challenge is creating new techniques that are different from existing ones mechanically in the game (I am not a big fan of re-skinning mechanics with different surface flavor). 

For more information on Swordsman and shows like it, I strongly suggest checking out Wuxia Edge. It is a very good Wuxia site that focuses on the positive aspects of fandom: Wuxia Edge


  1. Making the Sun-Moon Sect leader a real girl instead of a eunuch sounds like a grab for soapy-romance viewers. I haven't seen the TV version, so I'm just being suspicious. Tai Chi Master was a great bro-vs-bro wuxia movie; I have a huge poster for it.

    1. Hey Lee. Thanks for posting. I do not know the reason for the change, but will try to find out what I can. I do know some people liked the alteration and others did not. I agree about Tai Chi Master. Great movie, with a wonderful cast.

  2. Watch the 2001 version of the CCTV series It was subtitled in English, and you can probably find it online for streaming. A much more coherent, action oriented, deeper version. Less soap-opera-y.