The East Is Red is the third entry in the remarkable Swordsman series. An evil kung fu master named Asia the Invincible, played by Brigitte Lin, following the instructions of a stolen sacred scroll, has castrated himself to develop god- (or goddess-?) like powers of destruction. It's unclear whether the penisless Asia is turning into a woman, but as the movie opens, he, or she, is in hiding. Meanwhile, Asia's ex-lover, Snow, is impersonating him (or her). Snow is still in love with Asia, and pretending to be her or him, but is also falling in love with Koo, a government official who first wanted Asia to kill him (via a mysterious process the movie calls "closing his valves") and now wants to kill her. Or, rather, him. And did I mention the scene where Snow administers opium to a Japanese ninja (who is -- what else? -- posing as a woman) tongue to tongue? If you're not completely, gloriously confused by reel two, then something is very wrong with you.
The gender fu of The East Is Red is nothing compared to He's a Woman, She's a Man and its sequel, Who's the Woman, Who's the Man. These two screwball comedies explicitly parody the overheated fan culture obsessions with sexual preference and gender-bending in a head-spinning frenzy. Canto-pop singer Leslie Cheung, who in both films plays a homophobic record producer who finds himself falling in love with a man, has long been the subject of conjecture about his sexual orientation. Both Anita Yuen and Jordan Chan, who spend much of these movies in drag, are prime practitioners of the androgyny and sexual role-switching that's currently the rave in Hong Kong pop culture. (Chan also plays a gay hairdresser in A Queer Story, the one uncomplicatedly gay film in the "Yang & Yin" series.)
With Hong Kong's takeover by the repressive Chinese government just a few days away, what might have been a just-for-fun series has a bittersweet taste. Like the Roxie's recent pre-code series, "Yang & Yin" presents a cinematic world where options are endless and choices are ours to make. You might complain about a couple of the inclusions here: What, no Naked Killer, with cigar-chomping lesbian assassin Carrie Ng? And why Peking Opera Blues, which, while one of the truly great Hong Kong movies, is only marginally a gender-bender? But they're all well worth seeing as a look into a past, if not a future, of possibilities.
-- Tod Booth
The East Is Red plays at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, June 25, at the Roxie.
He's a Woman, She's a Man plays at 10 p.m. on Monday, June 23, at the Roxie.
Who's the Woman, Who's the Man plays at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24, at the Roxie.
A Queer Story plays at 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 28, at the Castro.
Peking Opera Blues plays at 10 p.m. on Friday, June 27, at the Roxie.
Hu-Du-Men plays at 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 26, at the Castro.