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

Dragon Girls

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“…and you thought your school sucked.”

dragon-girlsIf you’re familiar with Jackie Chan’s life story, you’ll know he (along with fellow future start Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao) was basically brought up in a Peking Opera school, where he learned martial arts and acrobatics as well as theatrical skills. Discipline there was notoriously strict – the film Painted Faces gives a good idea of what it was like. But that was the sixties. Surely no such abusive educational regime exists nowadays?

Well… This documentary suggests otherwise, though the scale is rather different. For the Shaolin Tagu school that’s the subject here says it has 35,000 staff and pupils on a half-million square metre campus. When you see the opening, the screen filled from side to side and top to bottom with synchronized martial artists, it’s not implausible. However, the reasons why parents send their children to these places haven’t changed a lot. Typically the family is too poor, or the kids are too much of a handful, possibly heading into delinquency, and they believe the discipline will straighten them out.

The film focuses on some of the girls, some as young as nine, enrolled in the school, including one who had run away in the middle of the second year, and returned to her family. As well as the pupils, there are interviews with the coaches, the head of the school (“A community’s backbone is shaped by rules,” he says. “In here, those rules are very strict.”) and the chief monk at the nearby Shaolin monastery, who offers a different (rather more laid-back!) perspective on what martial arts are about. There isn’t much in the way of narrative here. While there are mentions of a tournament, I didn’t realize it had taken place, until one of the participants was reporting to her disappointed father that she had failed to win first place. Some obvious questions are unanswered too, such as who is paying for this? Are these places state-sponsored?

Although the presence of the documentary crew may have reined in the harsher side of life at the school, the girls have no problem detailing the corporal punishment dished out, it seems at will, by the teachers, or the insect-contaminated food. There’s one scene where the girls compare scars and try to one-up each other, which plays disturbingly like a teen version of the similar sequence in Jaws. But it’s about the only one which sticks in the mind or goes any significant difference between the fairly obvious. I get the feeling we in the West are supposed to look on this disapprovingly, but there isn’t enough digging behind the facade to justify it. For you could likely make something not dissimilar about any high-pressure training environment here – say, for gymnastics. The main difference would probably be that, here, parents have other options…

Dir: Inigo Westmeier
Star: Xin Chenxi, Chen Xi, Guan Luolan, Yang Ziyu
a.k.a. Drachen Mädchen

Wolf Devil Woman

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“No rabbits were har… Er, never mind.”

wolfdevilwomanThis 1982 Taiwanese flick proves that, if you can’t afford to go big, you might as well go… Actually, you might as well go on regardless, because with enough enthusiasm, the surreal results can sometimes be thoroughly entertaining, albeit certainly not in a way any normal viewer would call “good”. I was still thoroughly amused, albeit more often at the film than with it, for this is sheer lunacy – yet lunacy of a fascinatingly off the wall kind. It begins with a couple suddenly deciding that they don’t want anything to do with their erstwhile master, the Blue Devil. Maybe the human sacrifice was the giveaway. They head off, with their newborn baby, only to be caught by his minions. Everyone gets buried in an avalanche and killed, except the baby, who is brought up by wolves (!) in an ice-cave, and fed a magical ginseng root by them (!!) that gives her amazing superpowers (!!!).

20 years later, the Blue Devil has become a bigger problem, so Lee (Fung) and his comic-relief sidekick Wong (Pa Gwoh) have headed up the mountain in search of the only thing capable of defeating the Blue Devil. Which just happens to be the magical ginseng root eaten by our heroine. She is now bouncing round the mountain in her fur costumes, rending innocent bunny rabbits and chickens limb from limb. And, as the tagline above makes clear, I’m pretty sure those weren’t stunt bunnies. Lee fixes her busted spine with a bit of impromptu chiropractic care, befriends her and teaches her to speak. They then go their separate ways. Lee turning to the dark side and becoming a minion of the Red Devil, while Snowflower (as she has been named) swings around from trees for a bit – as wolves apparently do in Taiwan – then gets drunk in a village tavern and is thrown into a well by irate locals.

This is part of her heroic journey, with the eventual goal of taking revenge on the man who killed her parents. To get there, she’ll also have to go through a number of battles, get some semi-useful information from a white-haired guy with really long eyebrows, and there will be a not-very stunning revelation about who the Blue Devil actually is. Let’s just say, I think Ling might have been a fan of the original Star Wars movies. One of her preferred tactics for dealing with opponents is to grab them firmly, then yank off their heads or tear them in half, so it appears those animals did not die in vain, and were simply practice. But perhaps the maddest moment is when one of her allies is set on fire: Snowflower tears into her own arm and uses the arterial spray to put the flames out. That’s hardcore.

wdw00Dull, it ain’t, and was clearly a work of love for Ling, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie, playing the heroine as well as her mother. Which is quite surprisingly, since women are generally more… sensible than this. It’s quite possibly one of the most insane films ever created by a female director. The luridly cheap execution, for example on the visual effects, only enhances the feeling you’ve wandered into someone else’s drug-propelled nightmare. This, mind you, was all based on a viewing of the subtitled version. There’s a dubbed one which adds an extra level of surrealness, if Wikipedia is to be believed, calling it “notable for its bizarre vocal performances,” and saying the Blue Devil “speaks like American cartoon character Yosemite Sam.” It’s almost enough to make me wish I’d seen that version.

Even without it, this remains jaw-droppingly bizarre, and there’s almost no written description that can possibly hope to do it justice. Fortunately, YouTube exists, and you can now appreciate this cinematic treat directly – complete with the dubbing! – rather than through the poor approximation of my second-hand words. I’d suggest having a few alcoholic beverages to hand, because you’re going to need them. For you will not have seen anything quite like this before…

Dir: Ling Chang
Star: Ling Chang, Sek Fung, Pa Gwoh

The Sister Street Fighter series

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Sister Street Fighter
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sisterstreetfighterfI have reviewed this previously, way back at the birth of the site, as part of the Women Who Kick Butt box-set, where it was easily the best film present. However, that was in a dubbed version, and having recently got hold of a copy in the original Japanese, I thought it deserved a re-watch. I’m pleased to report it remains a supremely loopy bit of fun, fully meriting the seal of approval and deserving of its own page, However could it be otherwise, with dialogue such as the title caption above, or the unforgettable line, “I killed fifty bulls with my bare hands in South America, you know.” It’s 70’s martial arts plot #26: central character goes to look for missing relative. In this case, it’s Tina (Shihomi), whose brother, an undercover cop, vanished while looking into a Japanese drug cartel. She agrees to follow in his footsteps, and soon finds the gang, under boss Hayashi (Yamamoto), handle snoopers with extreme prejudice. As that caption suggests, they bring the merchandise in using heroin-infused wigs(!), and the eccentric boss is now keeping Tina’s brother as a plaything in his basement – presumably alongside the “men who know where they are and care, but don’t drink.”

Oh, and Hayashi also collects martial artists: “Some rich men buy race horses or keep an expensive dog as a pet. But I keep unusual humans instead of animals. It amuses me.” This includes everything from an expert in the Okinawan Kobudo, a chained sickle, through to a pack of Thai kickboxers called the “Amazon Seven.” There’s also a guy with a mohawk who shoots poisoned darts from his blowgun, and bunch of fairly ineffective minions, who walk around wearing what look kinda like ski-masks made of straw. Wisely, they remove these before going into battle, although this does make me wonder what the point is. These and more will all, at some point or other, be faced down by Tina and/or her own allies, including colleagues of her brother, Sonny Hibachi (Chiba) and Emmy Kawasaki (Hayakawa), as well as a ballet-school teacher, because everyone in Japan knows some version of karate, it appears. [I should also mention the unfortunate logo of the karate school is a swastika!] Though Tina’s most startling skill is her ability to fall hundreds of feet from a high bridge, then re-appear without the slightest explanation as to how she survived.

Yamaguchi’s directorial style appears to consist of tilting the camera semi-randomly, leading to some sequences being Everyday Etsuko Shiomis, seen from unusual angles. But he also is smart enough to stand back when appropriate, letting her and everyone else do their thing, and this is when the film earns its keep. Watching Shiomi duel with nunchakus is worth the cost of admission alone, with the rest of the fights, and the general lunatic approach, merely a bonus. Released almost exactly a year after Enter the Dragon, the debt owed to that classic is certainly clear, not least in the tiger claws wielded by Hayashi. If some performances may be on the functional side (watch the drug withdrawal scene for truly epic over-acting), it still does a better of job of repaying its debts than many other imitators of the time, being an enjoyable slab of excessive kung-fu action in its own right.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Shohei Yamamoto, May Hayakawa, Sonny Chiba

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread
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ssf2Even before the original film was released, the studio was spurred into making a swift follow-up, and the rush into production shows itself in a plot more than somewhat similar to its predecessor. Koryu Lee (Shiomi) looks for Birei, a friend from high-school, at the request of Birei’s father, after she vanishes from Hong Kong. She tracks Birei down in Japan where the girl is being used as a mule by a diamond-smuggling gang, operating under the front of a company owned by Kazunari Osone (Murota). They don’t take kindly to Koryu’s investigation, and send a range of thugs to stop her, which only encourages Koryu, naturally. However, turns out there’s a more personal connection, since her sister Bykuran (Mitsukawa) is working for Osone – both on her feet and her back, if you know what I mean…

Sure, it’s smuggling diamonds not drugs, and Koryu’s sister instead of her brother who is in bed with the criminals. But if you watch this back to back with the original, it’s almost going to seem like a mockbuster rather than a sequel, albeit made by much the same people. One semi-significant difference is that replacing Sonny Chiba, you have Kurata, playing a martial-arts master who joins the Osone gang with his own agenda. The opponents for our heroine are still the same selection of fighters with different talents, each introduced with a caption describing their origin. But these seem significantly more restrained than first time round, outside of the transsexual killer with her lethal fingernails.

The main problem is Yamaguchi’s direction, apparently considerably less stable than previously. It was a while ago I watched the first film, so perhaps I just didn’t notice it there, but for this entry he seems to have developed a terrible habit of moving the camera enthusiastically during Shihomi’s fight sequences. Which might have worked better, if the SteadiCam had arrived in Japanese cinema at the time of shooting. Instead, the results more closely resemble handing the camera to a amphetamine-crazed chimp, and are an unpleasant distraction, rather than providing any kind of enhancement to proceedings. It’s a blessed relief, whenever things calm long enough for viewers to appreciate the actual skill possessed by Shihomi, with her use of the nunchakus remaining a particular highlight.

The film does seem to have jacked up the exploitation aspects, with surprisingly disturbing (for the mid-seventies time) gore, in particular some eyeball violence, with what feels like more nudity as well. These are occasionally combined, such as the removal without anaesthetic of the smuggled diamonds, from the buttocks of the woman smuggling them. That’ll leave a mark. Not sure that’s necessarily a plus, since Shihomi’s wholesome and earnest intensity was one of the pleasures in the first film, making it stand out from the more common and salacious “pinky violence” cousins, that this sequel appears to be aping.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Hideo Murota, Yasuaki Kurata, Tamayo Mitsukawa

The Return of the Sister Street Fighter
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ssf3The third in the series is something of a return to form, not least because Yamaguchi goes back to holding the damn camera steady. But, really: another friend/relative has vanished into the clutches of a yakuza smuggling ring? At this point, it’s going beyond the realms of coincidence and, as Oscar Wilde (somewhat) said, now looks like carelessness. In this case, it’s cousin Shurei, though it’s not entirely clear if she is the cousin of Koryu (Shihomi) or the detective who gives our heroine her mission. The details are largely irrelevant, however. For what matters is that Koryu has not yet touched dry land after her arrival in Yokohama, accompanied by Shurei’s adorable little daughter Rika, when she is ambushed on the pier.

Having survived that, she links up with Shurei’s sister, Reika, then goes to meet “Suzy Wong”, who supposedly knows Shurei’s whereabouts. Koryu learns Shurei has become the mistress of Oh Ryu Mei (Yamamoto), “the shadow ruler of Yokohama’s Chinatown,” before Suzy becomes another in what turns out to be quite a lengthy string of dead bodies. For Mr Oh’s approach to henchmen employment is to have the potential candidates fight each other in death matches to determine who gets the four open spots as his enforcers. One of these ends up being Takeshi Kurosaki (Kurata), though if you’ve seen the second film, you will not be at all surprised to learn that he has his own agenda once more. Really, it’s like they’re not even making a token effort in terms of the script at this point.

That said, I enjoyed this one significantly more: as noted, the cinematography is less flailing, there’s no shortage of action, and there are some surreal touches (both deliberate and, I suspect, accidental) that enliven proceedings. For example, [mild spoiler] Mr Oh is wheelchair-bound, though this certainly doesn’t stop him from being wheeled around to slap under-performing minions silly. Except, at the end, he suddenly leaps from his wheelchair into battle. I guess he was just being a lazy bastard the rest of the time. In the “accidental” category, there’s the saxophone rendition of Danny Boy, which accompanies the Very Serious conversation between Koryu and Suzy, in a spectacular display of inappropriateness.

I wondered why chunks of this felt so familiar, and eventually discovered I had reviewed this previously, back in September 2008. I wasn’t as impressed at that point, awarding it only two stars at that point (though I appear to have been equally amused then by the whole Danny Boy thing). Either my tastes have changed over the intervening years, or perhaps I was influenced by watching this in close proximity to the inferior second film? But, if I ever become an evil overlord, and have a mortal enemy in my grasp, I will not stop a henchman about to kill them, with a quip such as, “The crows will feed on her by morning anyway.” That never ends well for the evil overlord…

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Yasuaki Kurata, Rinichi Yamamoto, Akane Kawasaki

Sister Street Fighter: Fifth-level Fist
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ssf5The fourth entry marked several changes, although given it was also the final one, that suggests these were not considered too successful. A new director was brought in; Ozawa is best known for The Streetfighter, starring Sonny Chiba, which inspired the spin-off series here, though this was the last of the 30-odd films in his career. Shihomi also plays a different character from the earlier movies: Kiku Nakagawa, the daughter of an upwardly-mobile kimono designer who is trying to marry her off to a salaryman. Kiku is having none of it, not when her Okinawan friend, Michi (Love), needs help. For Michi’s half-black stepbrother, Jim (Wallace), has been targeted by the drug-smugglers he has fallen in with, who are using a movie studio as a front for their activities, under its owner Fujiyama (Kawai).

This takes a long while to get going, with Kiku having precious little to do in terms of action until the final 20 minutes or so. When it does, have to say, she and Michi deliver one of the best fights of the entire series, in an extended brawl around the film lot. Until then, it’s as much social commentary as anything, with the siblings the target of prejudice for their mixed-race nature [something which also formed a significant aspect of Rika the Mixed-Blood Girl and its sequels]. This is also more explicitly feminist than its predecessors, and not only in the arranged marriage Kiku wants to avoid. When that falls through, her father tries to set her up with Detective Suji Takagi, but he’s an unrepentant chauvinist and tells Riku: “Men are attracted to a woman’s gentleness. Cooking good food for your husband and raising your children well – isn’t that what makes a woman happy?” Showing remarkable restraint, she somehow managed to avoid punching his lights out as a counter-argument.

There seems to be a bit more comedy in this one, and additionally, it seems somewhat brave of Ozawa to make a film linking a movie studio to the Yakuza, given the long-standing whispers linking Toei, the company behind this series, to organized crime in the seventies. [According to Federico Varese, “Bosses not only took a keen interest in their portrayal and demanded to pre-approve the content of movies but also encouraged the production of hagiographies about themselves and their gangs.”] Maybe that explains why it was the last movie he ever directed… While this was also the last entry in the Sister Street Fighter series, Shihomi continued acting for another decade, before marrying fellow-actor Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, marrying him and retiring from acting at the ripe old age of thirty-one. However, these four features likely remain the definitive works in her filmography, showcasing her skills, and putting them front and centre, where they belong.

Dir: Shigehiro Ozawa
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Mitchi Love, Ken Wallace, Nobuo Kawai

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

Kung Fu Darling

As an expat Brit, I’m always pleased to see my former home coming up with action heroines. It hasn’t been a strength: any list of mainstream entries tends to run out soon after Diana Rigg, Kate Beckinsale and Rhona Mitra. However, there is some hope. Cecily Fay made an impact in Warrioress, and one of the supporting actresses there was Zara Phythian, who stars in the video that follows.

Cranking things back, Phythian first entered the public eye in 2009, when she set a world record for “Most items kicked off peoples’ heads in one minute”. [Yeah, I didn’t know that was a thing either. 43, since you ask] Zara was also the leading lady in 2011’s The Hike, but has clearly taken things up a notch since. She’s someone you’re going to be hearing more of, too, since she has a role in the upcoming Marvel movie, Doctor Strange, due out in October. There, she’ll be playing Zealot, alongside Mads Mikkelsen. She also won Woman of the Year this past April, as part of the British Martial Arts Awards.

This short, Kung Fu Darling, was written and directed by Benedict Sanderson, and has fight choreography by Joey Ansah. It’s a small slice of fast-paced fun, shot in the East End of London, in which a woman has her handbag snatched, while enjoying a coffee with friends. The culprit doesn’t realize he has bitten off more than he can chew with his unfortunate choice of target. And neither do the pals who come to his aid…

Memories of the Sword

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“Looks lovely, yet literally loses the plot.”

memoriesoftheswordThe first 30 minutes of this are truly splendid: it’s got wonderful visuals, along the lines of Hero or House of Flying Daggers. But then, it’s as if the makers completely forgot about the story-line. The remainder of the two hours consists of semi-random scenes, half in flashback, featuring characters who apparently change names at random. While it still looks awesome, unless you have a detailed synopsis printed out in advance, you’re going to be reduced to going “Ooh!” and “Eh?” in roughly equal proportions.

As best as I can tell, the story is this. Hong-ee (Kim), also known as Seoi-hee, is a young martial arts prodigy, trained since birth by her blind foster mother, Seol-rang (Jeon), a.k.a Wallso. After Hong-ee’s talents become public knowledge, Wallso reveals the motive for the training. A long time ago, as Seol-rang, she was one of three rebel group leaders. The group were betrayed to the authorities by another leader, Deok-gi (Lee BH), who was rewarded with a position as the ruler’s right-hand man, and is now known as Yoo-Baek. He once loved Seol-rang, and realizes that Hong-ee is the daughter of the third leader, Poong-Cheon. [Fortunately, he was killed by Deok-gi, so does not complicate the plot further, under that or any other name] She has been brought up to act as an instrument of revenge, driven by the knowledge that Yoo-Baek killed her parents.

There is, it appears, a bit more than that going on, particularly in the middle hour where… other stuff happens. For example, there’s the inevitable romance between Seoi-hee and another young fighter, Yoo-Baek’s champion, Yull (Lee JH). This seems to have been added purely for cynically commercial purposes, though since it largely tanked at the Korean box-office… The action scenes are generally well-staged, though some of the CGI looks more than a little unconvincing. Some moments reminded me of Shaolin Soccer, and there has been close to 15 years of technological advances since then. It’s on more solid footing when using wire-fu, and both female leads are convincing enough in their skills.

The high level of confusion likely generated, however, means this isn’t going to be much more than empty emotional experience. You’re left so busy trying to figure out who’s doing what to whom, and why, you don’t have time to care about the participants. That’s why it falls so significantly short of the films it’s clearly trying to imitate, particularly Crouching Tiger. Instead, what you have here is purely cinema as spectacle. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this approach, of course. It’s just that when so much effort has been put into the technical aspects, you’re inevitably left wishing for more. If only the film’s heart and soul had been as diligently worked on as its cinematography.

Dir: Park Heung-sik
Star: Kim Go-eun. Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Byung-hun, Lee Jun-ho