The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake

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“She was a saint, a saint, I tell you.”

I find the line between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” an interesting one, drawn not so much by any objective measure, but by the viewer’s perspective and historical hindsight. Qiu Jin is a good example: she fought against the perceived oppression – particularly of women – by the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century, and ended up getting publicly beheaded for her support of revolutionary factions, by the government of the time. Now? A heroine and a martyr, who has an official museum ‘n’ stuff. Funny how things work out.

The main problem here is a film that’s almost too respectful of its subject matter: this is less a historical drama than a hagiography, with Qiu made out to be a flawless figure: devoted mother, heroic revolutionary, marvellous orator, great martial-artist, etc. Personally, it came over more as a propaganda movie than providing much credible insight into a historical figure. The structure is mostly in flashback, Qiu’s life unfolding during her arrest and trial in 1907, going all the way back to childhood and her first ‘rebellion’, when she refused to have her feet bound and quizzed her father on why only boys went to school. She was still entered into an arranged marriage with Wang Tingjun (Chang), but that doesn’t stop her from fomenting proto-feminism, poetry, and, when Wang rejects the value of her work, upping and heading off to Japan for a bit.

I did like Huang’s performance a lot – she cuts a commanding figure and it’s certainly easy to see why people followed her. There’s also one really good fight sequence early on – during her arrest, she battles the arresting officer, trying to destroy incriminating documents. Unfortunately, I was left wanting more like that, with the remaining battles more “rebels vs. army” brawls that don’t really give anyone the chance to shine. Instead, it heads more into the poetic side of her life, with Qiu taking more of a back seat, action-wise, rather than being the focus. However, Anthony Wong is as fun to watch as ever, playing a local magistrate (even if this falls far short of the exploitation insanity in his earlier work with Yau, such as The Ebola Syndrome and The Untold Story: not necessarily a bad thing, for a mainstream audience!).

Interestingly, this isn’t the only film about Qiu of late, with the documentary Autumn Gem also available. I’m curious to see it – obviously, being a doc, its approach will likely vary, but as the makers noted, some stills certainly look similar… Perhaps it might take a slightly less-reverent approach to the subject, depicting a human being rather than a flawless heroine.

Dir: Herman Yau
Star: Huang Yi, Kevin Cheng, Dennis To, Anthony Wong

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