Think of how many lackluster sequels kept reusing the same protagonist and had the poor individual constantly having to "return to action" after some repetitive tragic event inspired them to do so. This is one of the many reasons why I appreciate what Tsui Hark and his group did with The East Is Red. Ling was a great character, but they went as far as they could go with him—he could not be successfully developed further after the events of Swordsman 2. The film-makers had the good sense and the originality to give Ling a break and allow him to leave the world of martial arts with grace. Asia The Invincible, however, was a fascinating and complex character who definitely had room for further development. The East is Red is to Asia, what Swordsman 2 is to Ling. Returning in the director's chair is Ching Siu Tung, with some help from director Raymond Lee (Dragon Inn). Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia reprises her role as Asia The Invincible (as if anyone else could ever play the role). Two new characters are introduced in this film: A former concubine of Invincible Asia's, played by the alluring Joey Wong (A Chinese Ghost Story) and a military officer, named Koo, played by Yu Rong Guang. Invincible Asia 2: Turbulence Again Rises lives up to the moniker and pulls the viewer into a madness that the prior film only hinted at. With images like ninjas flying on kites and Asia The Invincible riding a suggestive swordfish, this film ups the visual ante of the first two films. In addition, The East Is Red is a bizarre, haunting fable that tackles poignant issues like alienation in a troubled world, true faith vs. organized religion, and the ultimate futility of imperialism.
With the stakes continually rising in this trilogy, the Spaniards (personifying Europe on a whole) are now in pursuit of the Sacred Scroll. Tricking a group of Chinese officers, the Spaniards are led to the Black Cliffs, the site of Asia The Invincible's defeat in the previous film and where her grave is located. Fighting to protect her grave, the moralistic, Chinese officer Koo gains the respect of Asia The Invincible, who turns out not to be really dead, but instead, hiding out—incognito—at the bottom of the Black Cliffs. Officer Koo informs Asia that throughout China there are numerous Asia The Invincible impostors that have been causing much turmoil. This outrages Asia who—like Ling before her—has grown disenchanted with the martial arts world and wishes to live a reclusive life. She demands that Koo take her to the fake Asia The Invincibles and the strange journey begins. After tracking down a primitive tribe that is worshipping a false Asia The Invincible "God", officer Koo and the real Asia The Invincible have a disagreement and Asia throws Koo (very far) out to the ocean. Luckily (or unluckily) for Koo, he gets picked up by a Sun Moon Sect battleship, which is commanded by one of the many Asia The Invincible impostors. The only difference with this one is that she is a former concubine of the real Asia The Invincible, named Snow. She is obsessed with her ex-lover and is masquerading in order to be reunited with Asia The Invincible. After a few minor complications, Koo forms a shaky alliance with Snow (who he has developed a strong attraction for).
After kicking the collective butts of many Asia The Invincible impostors, the real Asia The Invincible attempts to drop out of the martial arts world again and disguise herself as a prostitute. But after a group of Japanese warriors show up at whore central and push their weight around, Asia The Invincible is up to her old tricks again. It turns out that the head Japanese warlord isn't who or what he appears to be and after emasculating him, Asia takes his place and fronts the Japanese army. Throughout the movie there is a repeating motif of characters not being who they claim to be and using false names to further their ambitions. In the first Swordsman film, the old tramp tells Ling that the problem with the worldly mass is that they are too concerned about the names of things. Names only serve ego and separatism—true spirituality transcends such oblique presentation. It is easy to see that one of the things which ties these three movies together is an underlining cynicism of bureaucracy and of individuals who seek power only to gain notoriety and a more eminent position in society.
One of the interesting things about The East Is Red is how there is not a clear protagonist in the film. In the previous two films, Ling is clearly the protagonist. Even though Asia The Invincible is shown to be a complicated and occasionally sympathetic villain in Swordsman 2, she is still the film's main villain nevertheless. In The East Is Red, however, the line is blurred almost to the point of no recognition. Some may argue that officer Koo is the protagonist but initially there is just something a little too rigid and self-righteous about his character. Towards the end of the film, Koo becomes completely bewitched by Snow and a lot of his so-called righteousness goes right out the window. It does not take him very long to also become intoxicated by power as he leads a group of Chinese officers to battle Asia The Invincible. Officer Koo might be a better man than any of the officers in the other movies, but he is definitely lacking the fortitude and honorable nature of Ling's character. Ling did not have to speak righteous words (in fact, he often did the contrary), he simply lived righteously. Sure, he liked wine and women a lot and he did so without shame, but what is truly wrong with that? When it came down to it, Ling was prepared to battle a woman that he was infatuated with, when he realized that she was on the wrong side of things. Officer Koo, on the other hand, kills another officer who stands between him and Snow, even after her duplicitous and twisted nature is revealed to him. And the fact that he does this after scolding Asia The Invincible for killing people, makes him a hypocrite.
Despite being the villain in Swordsman 2, I believe that Asia The Invincible is the true protagonist of The East Is Red. Sure, she is not the typical protagonist, but she was never the typical antagonist either. There is a mad purity to her character in The East Is Red, which all the other characters lack. In the beginning of the movie, Asia has forsaken her prior ambitions and has chosen to live in seclusion—in order to spare the world of further bloodshed. Asia only returns to the world of martial arts after she discovers that with or without her, the world is in a downward spiral of perpetual chaos and power-struggle. When Asia dominates her foes this time around, she does so not for the glory that she sought in Swordsman 2, but in order to "bury everything". In her mind the secular world is corrupt beyond repair and beyond redemption. Thus being, it is her moral duty to completely erase this troubled reality and in order to do so, she must conquer it first. This may seem insane and "villainous" to some, but I see it more as a hyper-emotional form of nihilism. A subtle, but important, difference. The film's climax begins subsequent to Asia taking control of the Spanish warship and proclaiming herself "Asia and Europe The Invincible". With both the Japanese and Spanish warships behind her, Asia clashes with the Chinese battleship that officer Koo is commanding. Asia is successful in burying everything, but at the cost of her ex-lover, Snow, getting killed in the crossfire. Tragically, only after it is too late, Asia realizes how very alone she is "on top of the world".