Swordsman 2 is a film I've known for years, having first encountered it during the Jet Li boom of the late 90s (my theatre used to run HK double features all the time, this is where I first saw it, paired I think with Dr. Wai and the Scripture with No Words), but I'd never before seen the first film. Not surprisingly, the sequel makes a lot more sense after seeing the first half of the story (well, first third, these are part of a trilogy with The East is Red, which I'm pretty sure I haven't seen).
It's based on a novel by Louis Cha, the popular wuxia novelist who also wrote the novel that the Stephen Chow Royal Tramp films are based on (The Deer and the Cauldron, I've read the first volume of it and it's a lot of fun). The films also reference some of the geopolitical turmoil of the late Ming Dynasty, the context of which I've only now started to pick up on after read having read Charles Mann's 1493 a couple weeks ago. The films more or less chronicle the conflict between two ethnic groups: the Han or, as the bad subtitles call them, "Mainlanders" and the "Highlanders" over a stolen book, the "Sacred Volume" which promises super special powers to whoever masters its secrets. As mann documents, in order to consolidate their power over the coastal areas of China that were freely engaging in trade (smuggling) with European powers (and not paying their taxes), the Ming basically deported the residents of the Chinese coasts to the interior of the country. These people, who were ethnically, culturally and linguistically different from the Ming (who were Han, the dominant ethnic group in China for thousands of years), had to build their new communities in the hills and mountains as the fertile river valleys were already populated by Han (hence "Highlanders"). Naturally enough, there was plenty of conflict between the newly transplanted and the already there. (Both films work great as spectacle, but as always, knowing stuff makes things better.) Getting mixed up in this conflict is a third group, an order of swordsmen/monks, the top student of which, Ling Wu Chung, is the protagonist of both films (played by Sam Hui in the first film and Jet Li in the second).
The second film picks up a year later, the Sacred Volume now having fallen into the hands of Invincible Dawn, the younger brother of the leader of the Sun Moon Sect who has tapped into its powers and is fomenting a civil war between the Highlanders and the Ming (with the help of some refugees from Japan's own recently-concluded civil war). Dawn has also imprisoned his brother and taken control of the sect, murdering any sect members who dare oppose him, which leads to an attack on Ling's pals Ying and Blue Phoenix. The swordsmen, who after the events of the first film have decided to renounce worldly affairs and go live on a mountain are again ensnared in the ethnic conflict, this time literalized as a fratricidal war between Dawn and his brother, Zen (who is also Ying's father). The film is most famous for the character of Invincible Dawn, played by Brigitte Lin: it seems that in order to utilize the full power of the Sacred Volume, Dawn had to castrate himself. The ultimate power turns him into a woman. It's a fascinating conceit and I really wonder what King Hu would have done with it had he been able to make the whole trilogy (or what Louis Cha does with it in the novel, if this is even in the novel). As it is, though, despite the greatness of Lin, I'm left really dissatisfied. There's two ways you can go with this conceit: 1) ultimate power = woman because women are awesome so Jet Li's gonna have his hands full defeating her, bet we get some badass fight scenes; or 2) ultimate power = woman but women are weak because they get all mushy and emotional and such and Jet Li's oh so handsome so how can a poor girl resist him? Knowing King Hu's other films, I think he would have gone with option #1. Unfortunately, Tsui and Ching went with #2 and the movie really suffers because of it.
Still, a little comic misogyny isn't the end of the world, and the movie does star Jet Li, indisputably one of the two greatest kung fu stars of the last 30 years or so. Given enough great action scenes I'm willing to forgive a lot. Unfortunately, there's hardly anything in the way of martial arts on display here. This is the fantasy wuxia genre, where characters fly around and shoot energy out of their swords and hands and have all kinds of crazy magical powers and there's nary a stunt that doesn't involve wires or special effects. There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, I like Tsui Hark's brand of lunacy just fine, but it seems like a waste to have Li in your movie and not let him do what he does best. It'd be like casting Gene Kelly in your musical but only allowing him to sing and not dance. The best bit of martial arts in either film comes from the first one, when Sam Hui demonstrates his skills by lifting and juggling the flames of three candles around a room on the edge of his sword, and given how much I love Jet Li, that's just a travesty.
Still, the movie is a lot of fun, and the last hour or so (from the introduction of Zen, who proves to be even more terrifying than his brother/sister) has as much crazy momentum as anything I've ever seen, much more so than the first film, and there's some very real pathos to be found in the fates of Dawn's girlfriend (though this is undercut by her first scene, where she appears to be a doped out crazy chick) and the heroic Blue Phoenix, and in Ling's realization that he hasn't done anything but drink and get laid for the whole movie and that lots of people have died as a result (how wild is it that the ostensible hero of the film, Jet Li, essentially does nothing for almost the whole running time?). As much as he needs to withdraw from the world, the world needs heroes.
I do recommend both films, but obviously Tsui Hark isn't for everyone. He's weird and silly and when he does bother with exposition it tends to fly by faster than a non-Chinese speaker like me can catch it. What he is not is incompetent. I've seen and enjoyed Swordsman 2 four or five times in the last 15 years though I'm only know starting to pick up on some of its wider historical issues.
So I'm torn. I think Swordsman is probably the "better" film: a little more carefully composed, a little more complex in characterization. But Swordsman 2 is the more audacious and I suspect it will ultimately prove to be the more memorable and while I'm unhappy with its approach to the two main female characters, it nonetheless gives Brigitte Lin one of her greatest roles and I love what it does with Jet Li's character (though I'm very much dismayed that he never gets to show off is considerable athletic abilities). Fortunately, there's no need to choose. See them both.