Angel Force

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“In the jungle, the Lee-on sleeps tonight…”

This is confusing. For the IMDb lists a completely different film by the same title – also made in 1991 and starring Moon Lee. That one stars Simon Yam: this one doesn’t. Meanwhile, Amazon has Yukari Oshima in the cast – I may have blinked and missed her, but more likely she was in the other one. It is also, despite the title, entirely unrelated to the Angel series, though did remind me I’ve not yet got round to reviewing parts two and three of that. If you see it referred to as Mission Kill and Mission of Condor too, I think that’s the “other” Angel Force as well; one site even refers to this movie as Lethal Blood 2, although it bears no relation to the first movie there either. I hope this helps…

Regardless, I wondered early on if this would even qualify, as May (Lee) takes a back seat, playing second banana to her boss, Peter (Lam). He has been tasked with rescuing kidnapped Westerner Harrison, stashed away after his capture, deep in the Burmese jungle by local drug lord, Khun Sa [who appears to have been a real person]. After putting together a team, on virtually the eve of the recovery mission, Peter is gunned down in an attempted hit, and it’s up to May to lead things. There are problems both outside and inside the team. A mole is leaking information on the mission to the people they are after, and the first guy Peter recruits, Benny (Ng), turns out to be a borderline psycho, who gets a bit rapey with a captured enemy. It’s up to May to complete the mission, get out alive, and then figure out who is the informant.

Right from the start here, there’s no shortage of action. Though a bit too much of it consists of two group spraying automatic gunfire at each other, through thick jungle foliage and with all the accuracy of Imperial Stormtroopers. While I am never averse to seeing a guard-tower explode in a good, giant fireball, there is a limit to the appeal of such things, and it is certainly reached here, well before the arrival of what may be the first deus ex helicopter in cinema history. I was also amused by the painfully early nineties approach to both mobile phones the size of bricks,  and high-tech searches represented by a computer screen where the text largely consists of word-processor installation instructions. No wonder the team ended up with Psycho Benny.

Fortunately, the guns here jam or run out of ammo with regularity which could be concerning if I were a weapons manufacturer. As a viewer though, the film is on far more solid ground when dealing with the hand-to-hand action. Lee leads from the front with some fights that showcase her speed and agility to good effect. The most notable of these is a battle against Fujimi Nadeki after the near-assassination of Peter, in which May chases the killer through the streets on a motorcycle, to a half-demolished building. A savage gun-battle follows, notable not least for May’s point-blank execution of one man, ending with her going up against Nadeki. While it forms the high point, more or less any time Lee puts the gun down is a good indication you should start paying greater attention here.

Dir: Shan Hua
Star: Moon Lee, Wilson Lam, Hugo Ng, Fong Lung
a.k.a. Tian shi te jing

Golden Swallow

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“Roc beats Swallow”

If this seems somewhat familiar, it’s because it is not dissimilar to Iron Swallow, reviewed just a couple of weeks back. However, this is the official sequel to Come Drink With Me, in which Cheng reprises her character of Golden Swallow, rather than being the Taiwanese knock-off. Ms. Swallow is living a fairly quiet life, fighting for the rights of the underdog, etc. along with the aid of Golden Whip (Lo). Their peace is disturbed by the actions of Silver Roc (Wang Yu), who is carrying out various massacres, and leaving Swallow’s trademark darts at the scene, in order that she gets blamed for the crimes.

Turns out this is Roc’s idea of courtship, figuring it’ll force Swallow to track him down – and not with the aim of serving a restraining order, as I’d have said was more likely. Odder still, this “massive body count in lieu of a bouquet of flowers” concept actually appears to work, at least piquing Swallow’s interest, and thus  setting up a love triangle between Swallow, Roc and Whip. It’s only interrupted by the arrival on the scene of Poison Dragon (Yeung), and the two suitors put aside their scheduled duel to the death on top of a mountain, in order to take care of the real villain.

Despite the title – particularly the alternate one, which promises a whole level of action the film isn’t interested in delivering – and lead billing, this is significantly less about Swallow than Roc. And that’s a shame – Wang Yu would get plenty of his own opportunities to shine, he didn’t need to be hijacking the limited chances given to Cheng. Took me a little while to work out, too, that his character is named after a mythical giant bird, not a boulder. The references to “soaring rocks” were quite confusing for a while, until I figured this out.

The fights are okay, rather than impressive. They’re certainly not helped by Chang’s style, apparently an early ancestor of the MTV style of shooting action. This involves the camera being pushed too close in to capture the skills of the participants, and a primitive version of steadicam, which is certainly not steady in the slightest. I didn’t like it. I had high hopes for a scene which began with Swallow sitting quietly in a tea-house, which seemed to be echoing one of the most memorable sequences from Come Drink With Me, but it was little more than a nod, and was over before it had properly begun.

I wasn’t all that impressed with Drink, finding it more influential than entertaining. But it is still considerably better than this, which never gets off the ground thanks to a laughable plot, and carries out something perilously close to a bait and switch, with the heroine of its title reduced to a supporting role. What a waste of Cheng’s talents.

Dir: Chang Cheh
Star: Cheng Pei-pei, Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Yeung Chi-hing
a.k.a. The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick

Angels With Golden Guns

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“Virgin on the ridiculous.”

The beautifully lurid sleeves above and below probably give you some idea of why this one fell across my TV. They probably also explain the sarcasm dripping from Chris’s lips, during the three minutes she remained in the room. I can’t really argue with her on this one: it’s an entirely incoherent mess, though I have to say, I was entertained somewhat more than the one and a half star rating above would imply. The latter is a reflection of quality, and that I could only recommend this, even in the loosest of terms, to fans of bad movies who are feeling significantly masochistic.

The plot, and I used the term loosely, focuses on a white slavery ring, that seems to specialize in the bulk abduction of models who, in between being rented out to sleazy individuals. are then held in a remote jungle compound, from which there is no escape. We know there is no escape, because they try – quite why the captives don’t wait until the rather more escape-friendly location of their renting-out, is never clear. But, hey, this gives the warden who oversees them the chance to yell a lot, and there is also the opportunity for what may well be the biggest cat-fight in cinema history, so that’s nice. Meanwhile, a detective is also investigating the gang from the other direction – when not pretending to be gay, in a disco sequence which is either extremely tolerant or very homophobic, I’m not sure which.

According to what I’ve read, producer Joseph Lai inherited a film studio which had a lot of abandoned movies in various states of completion, and made his career out of finishing them – usually with little regard for continuity or logic – and marketing the results by focusing heavily on the sizzle. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this, yet it certainly goes a long way towards explaining the results here, which includes a strip version of Play Your Cards Right (Wikipedia advises me that US visitors should read that as Card Sharks). Matters are not helped by English dubbing that seems to have assigned accents at random, and music stolen from other, much better movies – I’m fairly certain Goblin didn’t give Lai permission to use chunks of their score from Suspiria, anyway.

Not that it’s an inappropriate choice, for this does capture a similarly incoherent, dreamlike quality – I suspect less through artistic vision, more a result of scenes that appear completely out of nowhere, bear exactly no relation to anything that has happened, then vanish without any further reference to them or their participants. If Andy Sidaris was Chinese, and entirely out of his gourd on magic mushrooms, this might be the sort of thing which would result. Just do not take that as any kind of recommendation.

Dir: “Pasha” (Shan Pa)
Star: Eva Bisset, Gigi Bovee, Emma Yeung, Hok Nin Lau
a.k.a. Virgin Apocalypse
or Terror in a Woman’s Prison
or, entirely inexplicably, Anger

Full Strike

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“Shaolin Shuttlecocks”

fullstrikeThis mediocre sports comedy seems to want to do for badminton what Shaolin Soccer did for the beautiful game. However, it falls short on just about every level, delivering little more than a shallow series of cliches. Former champion Ng Kau-sau (Ho), a.k.a. “Beast”, was drummed out of the sport ten years ago for anger management issues. However, her love of the game never died, and is rekindled when she bumps into a trio of former armed robbers, led by Lau Dan (Cheng). They have reformed and taken up the sport, under the tuition of an alcoholic former star, Master Champion Chik.

This is much to the consternation of the locals, who believe “Once a thief, always a thief.” They set up an opposing team, with their own coach, and both sign up for the Fantastic Five Asia-Pacific Badminton Tournament in Macau. Meanwhile, Lau Dan’s old buddies are trying to lure him back into a life of crime, and are plotting a raid on the Macau casinos the same night. What are the odds? About the same as both teams making it to the tournament final and facing off in a climactic showdown. Which, in this kind of film, is probably close to 100%.

There are a bunch of problems here, starting with the lead character, who isn’t exactly sympathetic. Let’s just say, her nickname is justified. The film then diverts into a middle section which seems almost to forget about her, being more concerned with Lau Dan. The height of the comedic stylings on view is when Master Champion Chik throws up, delivering the longest and grossest projectile vomit scene since The Meaning of Life. I will admit, I actually laughed. Still, it gives you a new appreciation for the true genius of Stephen Chow, who makes this kind of “plucky under-dog” comedy look easy. He combines plot, characters and, yes, jokes with grace into a consistent whole.

This never achieves anything like the same degree of cohesiveness, lurching uneasily from broad comedy to heartfelt drama. Then we reach the tournament, which covers most of the film’s second half. This involves a contrived version of badminton, requiring teams to substitute personnel half-way through the game. Why? The sole reason is, because the plot demands it. There’s no sense of escalation here either, unlike Shaolin Soccer. If you’ve seen one slow-motion shot of a shuttlecock crossing marginally above the net, or landing just inside the line, you’ve seen… The last 20 minutes of the movie to be honest.  The idea here isn’t without potential, and most of the personnel involved here have proven their talent elsewhere. The actual end product, unfortunately, falls well short of delivering.

Dir: Derek Kwok and Henri Wong
Star: Josie Ho, Ekin Cheng, Ronald Cheng, Tse Kwan-ho

Woman Avenger

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“A simple tale of vengeance, vigorously told.”

womanavengerThis appears to have been virtually the sole starring role for leading lady Shen, and that’s a shame. While, unfortunately, the only way you can see this is a badly cropped, English language version, her martial arts talents are undeniable. Chris caught the last 15 minutes on her lunch-break, and once she saw the skills on display, went from mocking the dubbing to yelling “Kick him in the balls!” at the TV. Repeatedly.

She plays Lu Ling Chi, who is delivering goods with her husband in the countryside when they’re attacked by a band of robbers. He is killed; she raped and left for dead. She’s rescued by a conveniently passing Buddhist priestess (Tai), who nurses our heroine back to health and, after some doubts as to the nature of her mission, teaches her kung-fu. Three years of training later, Lu goes undercover to infiltrate the gang, in the process, setting a new record for “least convincing male impersonator”, even by the low standards of martial arts films. She works her way up the chain, yet still lacks the skills necessary to best their leader, Kwong Wu Chi (Peng). However, she meets a woman (Yeung, I believe, though she’s not in the IMDb listing), crippled by Kwong and reduced to working as a prostitute. Her father used to be Kwong’s kung-fu master, and she offers to give Lu that techniques which will take him down.

The stuff between the fights is mostly blandly inoffensive, following the standard tropes of the genre, such as training montages, while Lu perfects her skills, under both her teachers. Though it is certainly unusual that both those are martial arts mistresses, rather than masters, making this an almost literal war of the sexes. But the presentation, in particularly the ludicrously inappropriate dubbing, reduces the film to something you might find at 3am in the morning on the El Rey network. [It’s not all the dubbing: Kwong’s blond wig doesn’t exactly encourage solemnity] Similarly, the reduction of the frame to a strict 4:3 ratio does the abilities of the stars absolutely no service at all.

It still isn’t enough to conceal the expertise of the participants though, with even the training montages showcasing Shen’s extraordinary flexibility. There’s a genuine sense of progression over the course of the film, with Lu learning new techniques and building them into her arsenal. For example, she learns how to attack her enemy’s joints from the priestess, and that’s seen a lot against the lower minions. However, it proves ineffectual against Kwong, and she needs to adopt different tactics, radically different from her early bouts. This allows Shen to demonstrate a number of styles, and if some are better than others, the overall impact remains impressive. Below, find a sample of her skills: I love, in particular, the way she disarms the gym owner, then discards the weapons obtained! I have to wonder why she never received any further chances to shine as a lead; whatever the reason, it’s probably our loss.

Dir: Lee Tso Nam
Star: Shen Kwan Li, Peng Gang, Tai Chi-Hsia, Sharon Yeung Pan-Pan

Women on the Run

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“Letting the Cat III out of the bag.”

womenChinese teenage martial-arts champ Li Siu-Yin (Guo) is seduced into a life of prostitution by her boyfriend, but eventually snaps and kills him. She escapes to Hong Kong, only to be arrested there, and given a stark choice: help ensnare crime boss King Kong (Kim) or be deported back to China. Unwillingly, she takes the former and goes back over the border with undercover cop Hung (Cheung), who is also having an affair with colleague David (Lai). However, it turns out that David is in cahoots with King Kong, and the pair end up in Canada and in jail. It’s a long way back from there, before the two can take their revenge on the men who betrayed them.

It appears my memories of this were conflated with another “Cat III” (the Hong Kong adults-only film classification) kung-fu film, the considerably more sleazy Escape From Brothel. Aside from some nekkid kung-fu and a couple of scenes of sexual violence, this is mostly mainstream. And it’s kinda hard to take the gang-rape sequence seriously when the perpetrators are set up as being Really Bad People by punting a clearly stuffed dog, as they make their way into the warehouse where our heroines are hiding out. Elements like these deflate entirely apparently serious attempts at drama; see also a flashback to an apparently kinder, gentler era of airport security when you could not just take your stun-gun onto a plane, you could apply it to other passengers without anyone rushing you with a drinks trolley. Ah, those were the days, eh? There are also bad subtitles which translate the line “smoke some weed” in English as, “get some sweet meat,” and a really nasty portrayal of Canadian law-enforcement, that left me wondering if the directors got a traffic ticket in Vancouver or something.

Fortunately, salvaging proceedings are some decent to solid action, as you’d expect from Yuen, who has a long track record of such things. Both Guo and Cheung are more than credible; the former, in particular, to an extent where it’s a surprise that she never appeared in anything of significance again. As a villain, Kim lets his feet in particular do his talking, and he makes for a formidable opponent, particularly at the end. There are a number of solid sequences before that, that let both leads show their skills – though I could perhaps have done without the comedic drug addiction, Liu doing her best kung-fu after a little H. I guess it’s a variant on Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master? All told, this is more or less your typical Cat III film, containing both the good and bad the classification implies. Action, exploitation, comedy, brutality and nonsensical aspects all rub shoulders, with the end product being… Well, while I could point out any number of other flaws, let’s accentuate the positive instead, and just say. this is certainly never dull.

Dir: David Lai and Corey Yuen
Star: Tamara Guo, Farini Cheung, David Lai, Kim Won-Jin

The Fate of Lee Khan

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“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 14 Amazons

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“Never mind the quality, count the heroines!”

14amazonsYes, 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

Fox Hunter

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“For Fox’s sake…”

foxhunterGrittily disturbing, only some misplaced and failed stabs at comedy prevent this from likely being Leung’s best work ever. She plays rookie Hong Kong cop Jenny, following in the footsteps of her late father, who takes on an undercover mission aimed at trapping gangster Tung (Fung). While it succeeds, Tung escapes, and takes vengeance on Jenny, killing her uncle in brutal fashion. This, in turn, pushes her over the edge, and she teams up with his pimp-turned-informant (Chan), who is feeling aggrieved after having not received his promised reward from the authorities. The pair head to China, where Tung is hiding out, only for Jenny to rapidly wear out her welcome with the local cops and their commander (Guang). Worse is to follow, when Tung finds out they are on his tail, he begins a campaign of terrorism, culminating in wiring an entire shopping mall with explosives. He’s very fond of explosives…

The cover (right) is surely among the least accurate I’ve seen, depicting a frothy concoction mercifully not present – and the movie contains absolutely no pineapples at all, in case you were wondering. In particular, they really shouldn’t have tried to make Chan’s character any kind of comedic foil, because it just doesn’t work. During the early going, I was praying for his rapid, painful demise, though he does become more sympathetic in the second half. Fortunately, the other aspects outweigh the ill-considered negatives. Though this is one of only four films directed by Tung Wai (including an all time HK favorite, Magic Cop), he has a long pedigree as an action director – among his works previously covered here are Mulan, Reign of Assassins and The Assassin – and that’s where this movie shines. Particular standouts are a sequence where Tung shows up at the apartment complex where our pair are hiding out, and the final battle up and down the insides of the mall.

It’s clear throughout that Leung is doing most, if not all, her own stunts; the sequence where she uses a sofa to escape a grenade blast is so realistic, you can virtually smell her singed eyebrows. It also helps that she isn’t portrayed as all at some kind of superwoman. Indeed, Tung is depicted as stronger, and far more brutal than the heroine, resulting in a genuine sense of peril for her – Jenny has to dig deep into her reservoir of tenacity simply in order to survive his onslaught, never mind prevailing over her nemesis. As well as the cover, the English-language title doesn’t do this justice, conjuring up a rather different set of images. While I get the sense of her going after a predator, something like Wolf Hunter might have been more appropriate, in terms of getting the hard-edged tone for which this aims.

Dir: Stephen Tung Wai
Star: Jade Leung, Jordan Chan, Ching Fung, Yu Rong Guang

My Young Auntie

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“Serious kung fu, light gags.”

youngauntieHui won the Best Actress award at the first ever Hong Kong Film Awards for her role in this 1981 film, in which she plays Cheng Tai-nun, a young martial-arts expert who marries an elderly landowner so that his unscrupulous brother won’t be able to take the landowner’s assets upon his death. Instead, title passes to Tai-nun, who heads off to Canton to stay with her (much older) nephew, Yu Cheng-chuan (Lau), and his son Yu Tao (Ho), whose hip, young ways clash badly with Tai-nun much more traditionalist views. But the brother plans to steal the dead to what he considers “his” estate, and it’s up to Tao and Tai-nun to prevent that – with the help of a roster of elder relatives and Cheng-chuan, who must also be coached in the ways of kung-fu.

There’s three-quarters of a very good film here, and Hui is amazing; not someone to whom I’d paid any attention before, she was both lithe and graceful. This isn’t limited to her fighting skills. Perhaps the peak of the film is a masked ball which Tai-nun is tricked into attending by Tao, and her lack of dance skills are embarrassingly exposed, in a range of genres from tango to swing. It’s brilliant, because you get a real appreciation for the coordination required in making yourself look incredibly uncoordinated. That this turns into a massive and well choreographed sword-fight, with Tai-nun dressed as Marie Antoinette [at a guess] is merely a very pleasant bonus. Director Lau went on to helm Drunken Master II and this has much the same approach, combining comedy and action to good effect; the laughter flows naturally from the characters, rather than (as so often) appearing forced; the caption from the trailer, quoted at the top, gets it about right.

The main problem is a final third which unceremoniously shunts Tai-nun off to one side, with the climax pitting Tao and his older uncles against their thieving relative, as they try to get the property deed back to its rightful owner. If decent enough, there’s nothing at all to separate it from a plethora of other films of its kind and type from the era, and you just wish they had given Hui – perhaps with Ho – a final chance to shine, instead of all but eliminating her from the movie that bears her character’s name. Still, if you can keep your brain around the blizzard of generational family loyalties (or, alternatively, ignore them completely), you’re in for a fun time. If it could fairly be accused of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the wall, more than enough sticks to justify it, and Hui makes for a striking heroine, whose other films I am clearly going to have to chase down.

Dir: Lau Kar Leung
Star: Kara Hui, Hsiao Ho, Lau Kar Leung, Wang Lung Wei, Gordon Liu