One might ask why SWORDSMAN II is the perfect D&D movie, and not a more "literary" or "important" Wuxia film or a high quality western fantasy film like LORD OF THE RINGS. It's really quite simple. There are a lot of wonderful, and serious, wuxia films that contain great plots, great acting, and stylized action. Classics like LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY or BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR come to mind, as do more recent films like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO as examples of serious wuxia films worth watching many times. There are also quite a few excellent fantasy movies in the western canon, like EXCALIBUR, but they all lack the one element that makes SWORDSMAN II perfect for inspiring D&D play. They lack the element of playfulness.
I don't know if the playfulness of SWORDSMAN II is intentional, or if it is a legacy of Jet Li's winning smile, but the film has this quality in spades. The playfulness isn't present in THE EAST IS RED, SWORDSMAN's sequel which also stars Li, a film that contains a wonderfully tragic narrative. From the opening moments when the protagonist is running on the tops of wheat stalks, using "sword energy" to cleave horses in two, to the final fight against the Eunich sorcerer where a character uses a cannon barrel like a quarterstaff SWORDSMAN II is sublimely excessive. Which is exactly what I want my D&D games to be.
Yes, interactive storytelling is a central part of the role playing experience, but so too is fun and SWORDSMAN II is fun.
To be fair SWORDSMAN II is also whimsical, which isn't the necessary component. All I need is a larger than life narrative that is fun to inspire a great day of game play. If THE EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS ends up a serious film, like CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, I will still enjoy it, but that will mean that my search for the next great D&D inspiration -- much needed given that 4th edition D&D is coming soon -- will continue. I like to find a film to define play for each edition of D&D, and I hope this one is it for the new edition.
Hat tip to friend and HK/Bollywood expert David Chute for the preview.