Stoner

starstarstarhalf
“On Her Mao-jesty’s Secret Service”

This production had a long, convoluted and quite interesting path to the screen. While Lazenby was always on board, the original plan was for him to be a Western bad guy, going up against Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba. But Lee’s death – oddly, he was supposed to have had dinner with Lazenby that night – resulted in Chiba quitting, and Warner Bros then also backed out of their worldwide distribution deal. It was reworked as a much smaller film, at less than one-tenth the original budget (although at around $850,000, was still very expensive for the time, location and genre), with Lazenby now teaming up with Angela Mao.

He plays rough, tough Australian cop, Joseph Stoner, who heads for Hong Kong after his sister gets hooked on the new, super-powerful aphrodisiac “happy pills” created in the laboratory of evil drug kingpin, Mr Big (Hwang). She’s Taiwanese cop Angela Li, sent undercover to bring him down. Eventually, they join forces, but this isn’t until well over an hour into the film. To that point, they are each investigating in their own way Mr Big’s activities. Stoner’s approach appears to involve doing an impression of a bull in a china shop, while Li uses a smarter approach, to infiltrate the temple which is the distribution hub, posing as an innocent vendor of soft drinks. Both eventually end up in the same place – a cage in Mr Big’s lair – leading to a creepy scene where she has to fend off a happy pill-crazed Stoner.

It’s interesting that, in both the dubbed and subbed versions, Mao gets top billing ahead of Lazenby, despite the latter’s fame for having played 007 a few years previously. It is very much a two-hander, with each getting their own share of screen time. Lazenby does a surprisingly impressive job with the more physical aspects, and apparently put in a great deal of training. The problem is – as with his portrayal of James Bond – the actor’s inability to convey any emotions with the slightest degree of conviction. Even when talking about his sister, he might as well be reciting sports scores. Still, there’s plenty of funky seventies style to appreciate, such as the rotating desk apparently bought by Mr. Big from a yard sale at a local TV news-room.

Mao is, for our purposes, the true star, and I’d be hard pushed to say this would have been improved by the presence of Sonny Chiba. You have to wait quite a while for any significant action from her though, coming when she sneaks into Mr. Big’s headquarters. This unfolds in a way which suggests Bruce Lee’s foray from Enter the Dragon, and you wonder if this was part of the original script, intended for him before his untimely demise. On the whole though, I’d rather have dispensed entirely with Lazenby, and given the entire film to Mao, for this demonstrates that brains is often more interesting to watch than brawn.

Dir: Huang Feng
Star: Angela Mao, George Lazenby, Betty Ting, Hwang In-shik
a.k.a. The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss

The Fate of Lee Khan

starstarstarstarhalf
“Out of the frying-pan, inn to the fire…”

leekhanProbably best to start with a quick history lesson. In the fourteenth century, part of China was under Mongol rule, but there was a growing movement to oust the occupiers. Leading the battle against the rebels is the titular general, and it appears he has a mole inside their headquarters, who has arranged to pass Khan a crucial map that could derail the rebellion entirely. Learning in advance that Khan will be staying at the Spring Inn, a venue owned by one of their own, Wendy (Li), the freedom fighters set in motion a daring plan to steal back the map, and assassinate Khan before he can take advantage of the information. However, it turns out – as usual! – that there are others at the inn who have agendas of their own, operating undercover on both sides. So when Khan and his sister finally show up, they may be  well-aware of what lies in wait for them…

A lot to enjoy here, not least Wendy’s newly-recruited four-pack of waitresses, who all have shady pasts of their own, including a bandit, a pickpocket, a street performer and a con artist, and who are no less adept than Wendy with their fists and feet. The pickpocket, who swipes a pearl off the front of a customer’s hat as he plays dice, is played by Angela Mao in a small but significant role, as it’s her attempt to steal the map out of Khan’s locked case that triggers the climactic outburst of violence. There’s also Khan’s sister, Wan’er (right), played by another King Hu regular, Xu Feng, though this is Hu’s only work to be so heavily femme centered. The first half reminds me of Dragon Inn, made by Hu six years previously (and remade in the nineties), with its tale of shenanigans at a remote inn, on which a motley crew of heroes and villains descend. While generally entertaining, it’s somewhat hard to keep track of who’s doing what and for whose side.

When Khan shows up, the entire dynamic changes, with this movie developing a much clearer focus. Wendy and her allies try to regain control of the key map, while unsure how much Khan and Wan’er know about their plans, and who is on their side. Eventually, one of the rebels is caught in an untenable position and is summarily executed – though Wan’er “charitably” donates a hundred taels of silver “in order to bury her properly.” Such an obvious act of provocation will not go unpunished, and it’s time for all martial arts hell to break lose (or, at least, as close as it could given the era – this was just before Bruce Lee blew the doors off the genre). All of the women here have a strict zero-tolerance policy for nonsense, and are entirely capable of handling themselves. To have one such character would be impressive, but the full half-dozen we have here, indeed pushes this into the stratosphere for its time.

Dir: King Hu
Star: Li Lihua, Han Ying Chieh, Roy Chiao, Angela Mao

The Invincible Eight

starstarstarhalf
“Clearly one-up on The Magnificent Seven.”

TheInvincibleEight+1971-85-bThis early Golden Harvest ensemble piece focuses on a plot for communal revenge against the evil General Hsiao (Han Ying Chieh), who was responsible for killing the fathers of the titular octet during his rise to power. However, he’s not all bad, as he raised a couple of his victims’ children as his own, who are now on his side, unaware of his involvement in their status as orphans. Three of the eight are women, a solidly respectable ratio given the 1971 provenance. They include both relative newcomer Mao as Kuei Chien Chin, who disguises herself as a man – as thoroughly unconvincingly as these things usually are in Hong Kong movies! – to infiltrate Hsiao’s camp, and the more established Miao as Chiang Yin, one of the previously mentioned surrogate offspring adopted by the general. The third is Lydia Shum, who is perhaps actually the most memorable, being loud, abrasive and larger than life in a very physical way.

While clearly not as gifted, she reminded me of Sammo Hung, which is interesting, since he was one of the action directors on this file; he and another well-known future face of Hong Kong cinema, Lam Ching-Ying of Mr. Vampire fame, are among the general’s nine whip-wielding bodyguards. This does at least allow for a touch of variety among the fights, since it makes a nice change to see whip vs. sword rather than an endless parade of sword vs. sword. However, it is still fairly limited in its own way, even if does force our heroes and heroines to come up with a special pair of double swords, which can be used to counter the menace. Hsiao is, as villains go, a bit less cartoonish than you’d expect, his killing having been for purely pragmatic reasons, and his desire to take care of some of the children indicates the acts were not entirely guilt-free. There’s a case his right-hand man, Wan Shun (Pai) is worse, though by the time the eight get past him and fight their way into his chambers, Hsiao is not exactly pleading for mercy.

It is a bit of a mixed bag, both in terms of action and in characters; this kind of thing has a tendency to feel over-stuffed, as if the makers are touting the quantity of characters more than their quality. This also has a negative impact on some of the fight sequences, particularly later on, when you have, literally, eight fights going on simultaneously, and as an early Golden Harvest film, they are still clearly finding their feet artistically. Lo Wei would go on to help more memorable movies such as The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, though how much of their success was down to him is, naturally, open to question. Certainly, they had something this film unquestionably lacks; a central star who can command the audience’s attention for the entire length, even if it’s passable enough, as a kung-fu version of Ocean’s 11.

Dir: Lo Wei
Star: Nora Miao, Tang Ching, Angela Mao, Pai Ying

The Angry River

starstarstarhalf
“A bridge too far.”

angry riverNot just Angela Mao’s feature debut, it was also the first film produced by then-fledgling studio Golden Harvest, who would go on to become arguably the premier name in Hong Kong Film production, up until the colony’s handover back to China in 1999. Even discounting their work with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark, Stephen Chow, Donnie Yen, etc. and sticking purely to the action heroine field, Golden Harvest were the company behind She Shoots Straight, the Inspector Wears Skirts series and Naked Killer. Their commitment to our field is apparent right from this inaugural movie, where Mao plays dutiful daughter Lan Feng, whose father becomes one of the victims of ‘Poison Dart’, whose name pretty much explains what he does. Cursed to a long lingering death, the only cure is a rare herb.

Lan sets off to find it, crossing the fiery Angry River, going through the Merciless Pass, and encountering another couple of dangers without names, but we might as well call them the Cave of Really Bad Optical Effects, and the Giant Gecko That Knows Kung-Fu. The latter actually defeats our heroine (though she does save 15% on her car insurance), but impressed by her filial piety, she is given the herb, albeit at the cost of losing her kung-fu skills. She then has to make her way back home, which is even more perilous now she can’t fight, and has to rely on the kindness of strangers to protect her, because there are a lot of other people who are also very keen to get their hands on the mystical plant, whose powers extend beyond being merely an antidote to poison. And when she finally returns to her home, a nastier shock awaits.

Maybe it is just me: I kept being reminded of Homer’s Odyssey, with Mao playing the hero, whose objective, simply to get back home is endlessly diverted and derailed by external forces. I suspect any such similarity is, as they say, purely coincidental, and they just share the same basic plot of the hero’s journey, as introduced by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. But there are elements where you can tell it was a debut film, such as the rubber-suited lizard which, it’s charitable to say, presumably worked better on the page than the screen. It’s also a mis-step to rob the heroine of her powers for almost the entire second-half, leaving her a spectator to her own story – even Odysseus only spent a bit of time tied to the mast. Particularly early on, Mao’s fights feel stilted – punch-pause-block-pause-kick – though there actually is a storyline reason for why she has to be reined in to start with, in order that Mao can go full-throttle at the end [like I said, the herb has other uses…] You can see where they were aiming – slightly to the side of the then-dominant Shaw Brothers studio – yet overall, there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement here. As a first effort, I guess it’s okay.

Dir: Feng Huang
Star: Angela Mao, Kao Yuan, Pai Ying, Han Ying Chieh

When Taekwondo Strikes

starstarstarstarhalf
“The Angela Strikes Back”

7242870.3There’s more than a hint of Hapkido here, with many of the same cast, and more less the same thirties setting, with Korea again laboring under the yoke of Japanese occupation, etc. Things kick off when Jin (Wong) seeks sanctuary from the occupying forces in a local Catholic church. The Japanese soldiers rush in, but get demolished by Uncle Li (Rhee), a rebel topping their wanted list who has been hiding out as the priest’s gardener. Jin and Li depart, along with the priest’s niece (Winton), but the priest himself remains, and is captured and tortured for information about Li’s whereabouts. Wang Lin Ching (Mao) is drawn in when Li asks her to check on the cleric, causing her to become targeted by the Japanese too. An attempt to rescue the priest goes wrong, ending with Li being captured, and the others having to flee Korea for mainland China. However, that may not be far enough, and when the Japanese figure out where they are, they us Li as bait to lure Wang and the others out of hiding.

Despite being considered the father of American Tae Kwon Do, and a good friend of Bruce Lee, this was Rhee’s only released film (rumors of another have been heard). Seems a bit of a shame, as he makes his presence felt here, particularly toward the end. For action heroine fans, the focus will naturally be on Mao, and we’ll get to her shortly. However, we shouldn’t forget Winton, also in her only film role, who makes an immediate impression as an martial arts trained nun  Going by her clothing, anyway; the film is kinda loose on Catholic ritual. Man, The Sound of Music would have been so much cooler, if Julie Andrews had only known kung-fu…

As for Mao, she has a couple of absolutely stellar fight scenes, including a church brawl [after the soldiers realize she isn’t Catholic, because she didn’t cross herself on entering!], a battle in a forest, and the final fight. However, in terms of her action, things perhaps peak when she returns to her family restaurant to find a long-haired Sammo Hung, playing a Japanese henchman, roughing up her mother, along with his goons. The last is embedded below – it should start at the correct time, but if not, 39:20 is where you want to be. I just love the way she casually flicks her pigtail round the back just before things kick off, as if to say, “I am serious Angela Mao. This is serious business.”

The one thing that stops the film from getting a seal of approval is a disappointing slump in the middle, after the (fairly lame) effort to rescue the priest. Nothing much happens for what feels like a good half-hour, and that’s a shame, since the action elsewhere is both copious and often excellent. Many fights are virtually the equal of any Bruce Lee film, not least because there are half a dozen excellent martial artists involved here, rather than Bruce being far and away the best. This adds a real sense of balance to proceedings, and if you’re looking for an introduction to the movies of Angela Mao, this is certainly recommended.

Dir: Huang Feng
Star: Angela Mao, Jhoon Rhee, Carter Wong, Anne Winton

Angela Mao: Lady Kung-fu

angelamao“Now you can die, too. Because I’m going to kill all of you!”

Mao Lin Ying, better known in the West as Angela Mao, may not have been quite the first “Queen of Kung-fu” – Cheng Pei-Pei probably beat her to the punch there, as it were. But with a slew of excellent work in the seventies, she certainly paved the way for those who were to follow, from Cynthia Rothrock to Michelle Yeoh. Mao is probably best known in the West for her small role in all-time martial arts classic, Enter the Dragon, where she played the sister of Bruce Lee, Su Lin, who is attacked by Han’s minion, O’Hara, and commits suicide rather than be raped by him. [Mao was paid the princely sum of $100 for her performance!] But that just scratches the surface of a career which included nearly thirty films during that decade, with Mao the star of many, rather than a supporting character.

She was born in Taiwan, less than a year after its establishment as an independent state, following the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek by the Communists. In her early year, she took a similar route to Jackie Chan, being enrolled in a school for Chinese Opera at the age of five, where she trained for the next 14 years – among her classmates for a time there was another future Taiwanese action heroine, Judy Lee. Around the end of sixties, she was introduced to Raymond Chow, who was then attempting to get his fledgling movie studio, Golden Harvest, off the ground, and was looking for a female star who could headline its slate of pictures, in the same way as Cheng was being used by the rival Shaw Brothers. The combination of dramatic and physical skills which Mao brought to the table proved a good fit, and she was cast as the lead in Angry River, the debut production from the new company.

“You want some more?”

angelamao2In it, she plays Lan Feng, who goes in search of a rare, much sought-after herb needed to cure her sick father. Shot in Taiwan, and using music in large part ripped off from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s clear Angela’s martial arts talents were still evolving; you really need to remember she was still a teenager when she made it. Mind you, the sequence where she takes on a giant rubber-suited “lizard” that knows kung-fu, appears to come from the imagination of a six-year-old. As well as the first film for Angela and Golden Harvest, it also marked the beginning of a frequent collaboration between Mao and Sammo Hung, who was the action director as well as playing a supporting role. They’d work together another dozen or so times over the subsequent decade, and it seems fair to credit Sammo for helping Angela develop, coming up with a style which meshed with her balletic training and flexibility.

It was two subsequent films, Lady Whirlwind (a.k.a. Deep Thrust – surely one of the finest exploitation retitlings of all time) and Hapkido, which elevated Mao’s star, particularly in the West, where she broke through in a way that none of her sisters could quite equal. That helped lead to her supporting role in Enter the Dragon, and her career continued to roll for the rest of the decade, both for Golden Harvest and in work for other studios. Perhaps the most notable – if not, it has to be admitted, the best – is Stoner, a.k.a. The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss, which was originally intended to star Bruce Lee. In this, he would team up with both Sonny Chiba and one-time 007, George Lazenby, who had signed on for a three-picture deal with Golden Harvest.  The story had Lee taking down a gang of drug-smugglers headed by Lazenby [with the tagline, “It’s Lee! It’s Lazenby! It’s Bruce Versus Bond!”] but Lee’s death derailed the project. Chiba and co-producers Warner Bros. both backed out, and it eventually became a vehicle, with a budget just a fraction of what was originally intended, for Lazenby as the cop, with Mao stepping in to provide a local box-office draw.

angelamao3“Killing you is going to be a real pleasure!”

She married relatively young, in 1974, and had a child two years later. It was this that led to her abandoning her film career in 1982, barely into her thirties, so she could devote more time to her family. It was a decision she apparently never regretted, going by the lack of any effort at a comeback – much though many people would have loved to have seen it. It certainly did Cheng Pei-Pei no harm; her turn as the Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was one of the highlights of an extremely good movie, and introduced her to a whole new generation of movie-lovers. But, hey, perhaps there’s time yet: Mao is still only 64!

For now, we have to make do with her films, and there has been a recent surge of decent releases of many, Golden Harvest having apparently realized the value of what they hold in their vaults. So, rather than necessarily having to endure poorly-dubbed entries, cropped to oblivion and taken from prints that appear to have spent several decades at the bottom of a cat’s litter-box, we get to enjoy them in a pristine format. Particularly recommended is the six-film set, The Angela Mao Ying Collection, which contains six of her features, including Stoner and the thoroughly entertaining When Taekwondo Strikes.

It’s easy to see the influence of Mao on those who came after, for example in the shapes of Moon Lee, Cynthia Khan and Michelle Yeoh, who share Angela’s agile grace and earnest, fresh-faced wholesome charm. What they all have, Mao perhaps more than any of them, is the ability to play to their strengths. You don’t see Mao going toe-to-toe with bigger, heavier opponents, trying to outslug them. Sure, her punches have impact, but it’s the speed of them, and the variety of angles from which they arrive, which is her strength, rather than her… ah, strength. The size differential is always an issue when you have women taking on men, and some films do a better job than others, of addressing this issue in a credible manner. With Angela Mao, it’s never a problem; even when going up against someone like Sammo Hung, you never get the sense she is physically over-matched. Forty years on, they are still some of the best example of female martial arts made, and Mao’s title of “Lady Kung-fu” remains entirely justified.

Our Angela Mao reviews

Below, you will find a playlist containing more than twenty Angela Mao features, all of which can be enjoyed on YouTube. Some are dubbed, others subbed; some are beautifully widescreen, others… not so much. You take what you can get! They’re in chronological order, and I’ll update the playlist with new or upgraded entries as appropriate.

Lady Whirlwind

starstarstarhalf

“Because Lady Moderate Breeze wouldn’t sell as many copies.”

deepthrustI’m not saying this is a bad film. But when I watch one called Lady Whirlwind (though here is as good a place as any to acknowledge the wonderfully tacky alternate title featured on the poster at the right), I expect a good deal more lady whirlwinding. The focus is instead on Ling Shi-Hao (Chang), beaten and left for dead after trying to leave a gang. Wisely, he decides to continue with his death, hiding out in the country for three years with girlfriend Hsuang Hsuang (We). This anonymity is shattered by the arrival of Tien Li-Chun (Mao), who wants a word with Ling, along with ripping the beating heart out of his chest. For it turns out, he was a bit of a bastard who jilted Tien’s sister, leading to her suicide. Hence, when he thanks Tien for saving him, she replies, “I just didn’t want somebody else to kill you.”

Ling admits he deserves his fate, but asks for a stay of execution, so he can first take revenge on his former colleagues (who include Sammo Hung in an early role). Tien is clearly pretty laid-back about the whole vengeance thing, since she’s nowhere to be seen during the lengthy training montage that follows, after Ling helps a Korean herbalist, bitten by a snake, and is taught the deadly Tai Chi Palm style. Will that help him beat the bad guys? And will Tien then stop lurking off-screen and goddamn do something?

There’s certainly no shortage of action, though in comparison to some other Mao films I’ve seen recently, the fight scenes doesn’t seem as smoothly choreographed and frankly, get a bit boring – it also suffers too much from the “we’ll attack you one at a time, while everyone else circles about aimlessly” trope, common to many movies of the time. Indeed, I must admit, there was one of Ling’s battles in the middle where I actually fell asleep: never a good sign where a martial-arts films is concerned. The frequent use of musical cues definitely not composed for the film is also rather distracting: one, in particular, will be particularly familiar if you’ve watched James Bond movies, but other sources say the pillaging also includes the works of Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann. Hey, if you’re going to steal, do it from the best, I suppose.

Mao does have some good fight scenes, particularly going one-on-many with a copious line of henchmen. But you wonder why she’s so apparently disinterested in her revenge, particularly at the end, which is entirely ludicrous, and all but negates everything that happened over the previous 80 minutes. Not one of her best, with not enough going on beyond her usual graceful performance, to merit your attention.

Dir: Huang Feng
Star: Chang Yi, Angela Mao, Pai Ying, June Wu
a.k.a. Deep Thrust

The Lady Constables

starstarstarstarhalf

“Crazy people have to be good fighters.”

lady constablesI first encountered this in a dreadful copy on Youtube: dubbed, cropped to 4:3 and apparently filmed off someone’s TV during a Force 10 storm at sea. However, what was left after that, was still impressive enough to make me track down a better copy. Well, somewhat better: it had subs, albeit burned in and incomplete, while the 16:9 ratio was at least a vague approximation to the original widescreen print. Still, you take what you get, and this is certainly enough fun to overcome the adversity of any flaws in the format.

The film starts with a robbery, in which five priceless pearls are snatched by the Black Wind Fortress gang under Coldstar Tiger (Chang). They split up to avoid detection, reckoning without the investigative – and, more importantly, interrogative – prowess of leading ladies Ti Yung Hing (Mao), who despite the title, is the only actual agent of law-enforcement here, and Tang Lin (Lee), whose uncle was killed during the robbery. Although they have similar goals, they refuse to team up, each preferring to work alone; adding an extra angle is Hung Yi (Wang), the bodyguard to the prince for whom the pearls were intended. Gradually, and not without some bickering on the way, they work their way up the Black Wind Fortress chain of command, and finally reach Coldstar Tiger. Though someone appears to be trying to cover the trail by offing their prisoners…

Yeah, as stories go, it’s pretty basic, and it’s clear the invention here was reserved for other aspects, such as the characters and the kung-fu. All three leads have their own quirks and foibles. One of the weapon’s in Ti’s arsenal is the ability to shoot scarves out of her sleeves, like a mad magician, and use them to encumber her opponent. Meanwhile, Tang keeps a plentiful supply of coffins on hand for her revenge, and isn’t a follower of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners, to put it mildly. And finally, Hung doesn’t speak – not because he’s mute, mind, he just doesn’t like to talk. He communicates instead with prewritten scrolls, which always have exactly the phrase he needs on them, and which he unfurls with a tinkly sound-effect.

The fight scenes are heavily wire-assisted, but that probably contributes to the action having stood the test of time better than many of its era (1978). They are no less imaginative than the characters, particularly at the end, with Mr. Tiger (Coldstar to his friends) wielding a mean umbrella/drone, on which one of our heroines hitches a ride. That previous sentence likely makes no sense if you haven’t seen the movie: if you do, then it will all become clear. Trust me on this, it provides a fitting climax to an entertaining piece of bare-bones action. With not one but two fighting ladies, this Taiwanese feature is deserving of a better presentation than it has received to date.

Dir: Cheung San Yee
Star: Angela Mao Ying, Judy Lee, Wang Kuan Hsiung, Chang Yi

Hapkido

starstarstar

“Forbearance. It’s vastly over-rated…”

lady_kung_fu_poster_011934 Korea is under the yoke of Japanese occupation. At the hapkido school of martial arts, Yu Ying (Mao), Kao Chang (Wong) and Fan Wei (Hung) are learning the form. On graduation, they return to China and open an establishment of their own, only to fall foul of the Japanese Black Bear group, who bully both local residents and other schools, and try to run the hapkido practitioners out of town. Despite their teacher’s mantra of “Forbearance,” of which Ying has frequently to remind her colleagues, hot-headed Wei is eventually baited into fighting and killing some of the Black Bear students, and has to go into hiding. Chang’s efforts at diplomacy fare no better, leaving him beaten within an inch of his life, and the Bears seize the opportunity to tell Ying they’ll be incorporating her school into theirs. She finally realizes that turning the other cheek can only go so far before you have stand up for what’s right. Which, in this case, is some kicking of asses belong to the Japanese and their minions.

The film certainly loses points for obviously cloning Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, also released in 1972 and similarly based on a conflict between Japanese and Chinese martial arts schools. The strong anti-Japanese sentiment is no less shrill and strident here, and the style adopted for the fights is also largely similar, with one or other of our hero(in)es taking on a large group of rival students, before finally battling the big boss (or The Big Boss, if you prefer…).  Still, this is remarkable for the future output of those involved in the film. As well as being an early entry in the careers of Mao, Wong and Hung, there are minor roles for Billy Chan, Lam Ching-Ying (Mr. Vampire), Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen (director of Yes, Madam, She Shoots Straight and DOA: Dead or Alive) and Jackie Chan, who plays one of the Black Bear students.

But it’s mainly a showcase for the leads, and the action demonstrates why they’d all go on, to varying extents, and become stars in their own right. Mao is, obviously, of most interest here. After an early demonstration in Korea, which shows her as the smartest and sharpest of the trio, she largely takes a back seat in the middle, trying to keep the peace and practice that whole “forbearance” thing, before exploding into action again at the end. Particularly cool is the use of her weighted braids as a weapon, to whip her opponent about the face – you never saw Bruce Lee do that! And this is probably what defines the film. When it’s trying to be no more than a Lee-mitator, it comes off as second best, for obvious reasons. However, when the creators go their own way, it’s inventive and much more entertaining as a result. Shame the ratio isn’t tilted more heavily towards the latter.

Dir: Huang Feng
Star: Angela Mao, Carter Wong, Sammo Hung, Bai Ying
a.k.a. Lady Kung Fu

Dance of Death

starstarstar

“Putting the ‘arts’ in martial arts.”

danceofdeathIn the seventies, Angela Mao was the queen of Hong Kong cinema, occupying much the same position as Pam Grier in the blaxploitation films of the decade. Probably best known in the West for her role as Bruce Lee’s sister in Enter the Dragon (for which she was paid the princely sum of $100!), she had much meatier roles in a slew of films. This is my first exposure to her work, albeit in a print which has seen better… well, never mind days, I’m thinking better decades. It was dubbed and had subtitles, though the English track often matched the English subs more in spirit than anything else. And it wasn’t even ranked in her top 25 by IMDB rating. But, whaddya know, it actually wasn’t too bad.

She plays Fei Fei, a nomadic orphan who comes across two fighting masters, that have been battling for years, without being able to decide who is better. She offers them a solution: they can both train her, and she’ll then go off and fight people – whoever’s training is most useful, is clearly superior. [This kind of thing only makes sense in a kung-fu movie. Fortunately, that’s exactly what this is.] In her first encounter, she sees off members of the Bird Gang, rescuing a member of the Five Styles School, which leads her to join the latter group. However, the rest of the Bird Gang continue their mission to wipe out their rivals, with Fei Fei the sole survivor. She returns to her original teachers to learn more and, after picking up a sixth style from a surprising location, is ready to take on Bird Gang leader, Mu Fa Shan, and his “Upside-down Horse” style.

Early on, I was ready to write this off, because Fei Fei’s fighting skills are second-rate at best. However, as things progressed, I realized that was actually the point: she progresses over the course of the film from being an enthusiastic amateur, through study and training, to someone who can credibly take on a top fighter. Her character may not have much of a story arc: instead, it’s her kung-fu that does. By the time of the final battle – which lasts about 15 minutes – she’s graceful and fluid, filmed by Lu in lengthy shots which do Mao justice. Now, it’s still a style of cinema very different to modern action films; but if you can accept the difference (which I’ll admit, takes getting used too, because it’s relatively slow and far more obviously choreographed), you’ll be fine. I kept being reminded of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – and that might give you a clue as to the source of the sixth style… Oh, never mind: the title gives it away. It probably helps that stunt co-ordinator on this was Chen Yuan-lung – whom you might know a bit better as Jackie Chan.

It does suffer too much from the perpetual bane of the genre – too many comedic elements, and a resulting horrid unevenness of tone: the revenge motif which is crucial to the plot never comes over as having any emotional punch, not least because the members of the Five Styles clan bite the bullet before Fei Fei has apparently done more than be introduced to them. But Mao has enough charisma and presence to stop you, just this side of throwing things through your TV. If this is one of her minor works, I’m looking forward to the better ones.

Dir: Chuan Lu
Star: Angela Mao, Shih Tien, Shiao Bou-Lo, Chin Pey