In King Hu’s Dragon Inn, a large man and his companion, a woman clearly dressed up as a man knock on the door of an inn, after much arguing they’re allowed to stay in one of the rooms. The fact that the woman is clearly a woman dressed as a man is never commented on to any great degree, it’s just accepted, it’s a trope that has long existed in the Wuxia universe. King Hu would use a similar device in Come Drink with Me with Cheng Pei Pei, she posed as a male figure of authority until it’s revealed she’s really a woman with her own battalion of female guards. Women in Wuxia films usually fall into two categories, female warriors or demure women, throughout the sixties the Shaw Bros. were largely powered by women at the box office until the tide shifted and male leads began to dominate instead but their bread and butter was in Wu Xia films. During the late seventies, director Chu Yuan directed a number of Wu Xia films for the Shaw Bros. but it was in Clans of Intrigue that Chor introduced the concept of transgender and bisexuality into the world of cinematic Wu Xia, the film starts largely as a murder mystery as Chu Liu Xiang (Ti Lung) after having drinks with an old friend Monk Wu Hua (Yueh Hua) is confronted by a woman, Gong Nan Yan (Nora Miao) an emissary of the holy water palace, who accuses Chu of stealing some of the Holy Water from their enclave and also committing a series of murders, he negotiates to solve the mystery within a month, if not, the Mistress of the Palace will kill him.
The plot for this film isn’t high art, as Chu navigates his way towards the murderer, it also contains a subplot involving Gong and Monk Wu are carrying on an affair despite the fact that Gong and her mistress, Princess Yin Chi (Betty Pei Ti) are also intimately involved, he too is carrying on an affair with Princess Yin. It’s eventually revealed that Monk Wu was born as a girl to a half-japanese Iga Ninja, when her father was killed by four prominent members of different martial arts schools. She trained under a blind priest before mysteriously developing into a male at the age of fifteen. This newfound power allowed her to operate as both male and female within the Wu Xia world, and allowed Monk Wu to exact revenge on the men who killed her father without being traced. It’s all nonsense when you think about it, but consider how revolutionary it is, to have a transgender character in such a prominent role (I’m aware it’s an unflattering portrayal but still, it’s something).
In the early nineties, producer Tsui Hark attempted to revive the Wu Xia genre by adapting the Louis Cha novel Swordsman for Sam Hui to star in and offered it to King Hu to direct, it was a troubled production and King Hu eventually quit forcing Tsui Hark to take over directing duties, The resulting film has Sam Hui as Ling Hu Chong and his sidekick Yue Ling Shan aka Kiddo (Cecilia Yip) as they arrive to deliver a box and a message to Lin Zhen Nan, which goes disastrously wrong as Lin is attacked by a powerful eunuch Gu Jinfu (Lau Shun) and his second in command Ouyang Cheng (Jacky Cheung). A sacred scroll was stolen from the royal palace and Gu is doing damage control by killing Lin and retrieving the scroll but Lin has hidden it, he passes on the whereabouts of the scroll to Ling and to tell his son of it’s location. On the run, Ling and Kiddo encounter Qu Yang (Lam Shing-Ying) and Liu Sheng-Feng (Wu Ma) as they’re also being tracked by Zuo Lengshan (Yuen Wah) for being senior members of the Sun Moon Sect. Qu gives Ling his treasured Gu Qin before committing suicide to be with his dead friend. Ling and Kiddo run into gang of smugglers led by Ren Ying Ying (Sharla Cheung) and her second in command Blue Phoenix (Fennie Yuen). Ouyang poses as the dead son of Lin and attempts to infiltrate the Mount Hua sect where Ling finally shows up and mistakenly gives Ouyang the location of the scroll, he’s poisoned for his efforts. Kiddo is revealed to be the daughter of Mount Hua sect leader Yue Bu Quan (Lau Siu-Ming) and to be married off to Ouyang. It’s revealed Yue is also after the sacred scroll for his own purposes.
For the majority of this film, Kiddo is posing as a man largely for comedic effect until she’s finally revealed to be the daughter of a prominent sect leader, who follows the traditional path of marrying her off, much to her furious protestations. The relationship between Ren and Blue Phoenix contains subtle lesbian overtones but their relationship remains largely professional and antagonistic, Ren constantly chastises Blue for her wanton desire for men. Blue takes advantage of a drunken Kiddo and takes her into a room planning on raping her unaware that Kiddo is actually a woman, it’s lucky that Ling shows up to engage in a fight with Blue, who is punished by Ren for her reckless behaviour. This film is largely overshadowed by it’s sequel, which is a shame because it’s just as entertaining.
Buoyed by the success of the first film, Tsui went into production with the sequel but recast the roles of Ling and Kiddo with Jet Li and Joey Yung and Ren with Rosamund Kwan. Following the events of the first film, Ling & Kiddo now roam the Jiang Hu with the rest of the Mount Hua sect where they settle on a small abandoned inn. They find dead bodies but ignore them until scouts from the imperial palace show up and they’re forced to abandon the place but not before Ling tries to rescue his horse from being taken which leads to his first encounter with Asia the Invincible (Brigitte Lin) who encounters him with a certain bemusement. Ling, Kiddo & crew re-unite with Chief Ying (Rosamund Kwan) who informs them that her Uncle Asia imprisoned her father Wu (Yen Shi-Kwan) and took over the Sun Moon Sect with the help of two Japanese refugees, Chimp (Chin Kar Lok) and Hattori Sengun (Waise Lee).
Asia’s ambitions extend much further than the Sun Moon Sect as she plans on full scale revolution against the Ming Empire with the knowledge of the sacred scroll which has made him extremely powerful. Ling attempts to infiltrate Asia’s compound and ends up running into Asia, who he still doesn’t understand who she really is and, after escaping with her and getting knocked out, ends up in prison only to discover Wu (Yen Shi-Kwan) in the jail cell opposite, he contrives a plan of escape and finds Wu chained up in his cell in a particularly brutal manner, Ling frees Wu and they both attempt to escape, Wu dispatches the guards using his essence absorbing skill which leaves Ling feeling a little disturbed. Wu reveals himself to be a more than harsh leader who wants to find Asia and exact a most painful revenge. Asia learns of Wu’s escape and sends her assassins to eliminate him and whoever is helping him while Ling goes back to Asia’s compound, who convinces her lover Shi-Shi (Candace Wu) to pose as her and make love to Ling. She agrees while Asia goes to find Wu which results in Asia killing just about everyone except for Ying, Kiddo and Wu’s Lieutenant. Wu reveals that Asia has been using the sacred scroll to make himself more powerful by castrating himself and transforming into a woman. Ling, Kiddo, Ying & Wu confront Asia at Blackhill Cliff.
In some ways this film harkens back to the Shaw Bros. era of Chu Yuan films. Asia the Invincible is one of cinema’s greatest villains thanks to the force of nature that is Brigitte Lin, she conveys a certain grace even while she’s killing people in particularly gruesome fashion. Ling & Kiddo continue their affectionate relationship in much the same manner as the first film, Kiddo pines for Ling, her attempts to maintain a more feminine presence are played for comedic effect. The love story between Asia and Ling evolves primarily from mistaken identity but it’s fascinating to watch as Asia finds herself bemused at first by Ling, although her true feelings are reserved for Shi-Shi, who recoils in horror when she discover’s Asia’s secret and finally commits suicide after making love to Ling. Asia looks genuinely hurt when Ling rejects her after discovering her true identity but plays it off, her refusal to admit whether it was her that Ling made love to is the last desperate act of a scorned woman, even though she was once a man. The relationship between Ying and Blue remains largely the same as the first film, with Blue maintaining affectionate feelings for Ying but aware that Ying loves Ling and just wants her to confess her love for him. Wu emerges as the film’s true villain as he once stakes his masculine dominance and Asia’s feminine presence, although malevolent and no less destructive is banished (she would return in the sequel ‘East is Red’ though)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would adopt the trope of a young woman dressing up as a young man and, in accordance with the times it was released in, make the trope an act of defiance on the part of the young woman, Jen (Zhang Zi Yi) as she flees an an arranged marriage and enters an inn, disguised as a man, and proceeds to destroy it after being challenged by a group of men, as is the customary way of the Wu Xia world. I find these movies endlessly fascinating for their approach to these things, where else would you get love triangles of men in love in with women who were once men or women dressing up as men and no-one cares.