“Never mind the quality, count the heroines!”
Yes, you certainly can’t argue about the quantity here, with four generations of a family being represented, from “Grand Dame” matriarch (Lu), through widow Mu Kuei-ying (Po) all the way down to her great-granddaughter. They are forced into action after the Mu’s husband is killed on the border of the Chinese empire, trying to repel an attack by Mongolian hordes. The government wants to sue for peace, but Mu and the rest of her family have vengeance on their mind, and march off to the front, in direct disobedience of official orders. The journey is fraught with danger, as they are ambushed going through a narrow pass and their supplies lost, forcing them to eat tree bark, but Mu and her forces press on, raiding their enemies’ camp to bring back food, as they battle their way towards the inevitable final showdown with the the leader of the Mongols, Wang Wen (Tien).
It’s more than a little confusing, not least because the “male” heir Yang Wen Kuang is played by Lily Ho, and they don’t make even the slightest effort to make her look other than female. That took me a while to work out. It’s also true that, with such a high number of characters, the great majority are severely under-developed, with less than a handful getting enough screen time that you give a damn when they are killed. Must confess, if they had worn jerseys with numbers on the back, it would have helped to differentiate them, because they all look kinda the same, especially when dressed in their military garb. The film’s plot also has moments of utter implausibility, with the “human bridge” sequence among the most “I’m so sure…” I’ve seen in some time. And last but not least, the Mongols’ uniforms looks unfortunately festive – red hats with white fur trim – giving the impression China is being invaded by a horde of Santa’s little helpers.
Yet despite the significant flaws, this is an entertaining epic, with a good sense of spectacle, and it’s nice to see a film from this era where the characters’ sex is virtually a non-factor (once they’ve escaped official jurisdiction, at least). For the most part, everyone behaves with surprising smarts – even the Mongols aren’t portrayed as dumb barbarians, though their savagery is certainly not underplayed. Cheng delivers the battle sequences impressively enough, and you can see why this was one of the top box-office hits in Hong Kong for the year it was made, 1972. The same source material was mined again almost 40 years later, as Legendary Amazons (from our review of which, I confess, I recycled the tagline above!), and I would just have to give the edge to the original, because of its intelligent approach to the story. Whatever the remake gains in whizzy CGI and arguably superior cast, the plot makes a good deal more sense here, and I’ll take that any day.
Dir: Cheng Gang + Charles Tung
Star: Ivy Ling Po, Lisa Lu, Lily Ho, Tien Feng