Lady With a Sword [鳳飛飛] (1971)
Starring Lily Ho Li-Li, James Nam Gung-Fan, Meng Yuen-Man, Wang Hsieh, Chai No, Lam Jing, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Lee Pang-Fei, Lee Hoi-Lung, Chen Feng-Chen, Lee Ho, Lei Lung, Goo Man-Chung
Directed by Kao Pao-Shu
Expectations: Pretty low, based on the poor title.
You’ve no doubt heard the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” before, but you also shouldn’t judge a foreign movie by its lazy English title. Many Hong Kong films feature translated titles very similar to their Chinese counterparts, but because Lady With a Sword was originally named after its hero, Feng Fei Fei, no real translation to English could be made. I imagine that whoever was in charge of the English titles at Shaw Brothers decided to slap on the first thing they came up with and call it a day. So we’re stuck with Lady With a Sword, one of the most boring titles for a film ever.
Although, as the film played I kept rolling the title around in my head, trying to uncover some justification for why someone would slap it on this film (other than the fact that it is indeed about a lady with a sword). Film companies ultimately want to make money, so you’d think they’d want to use a title that relates in some way. By the end of the film, I had come around to it not being that bad of a title because at its heart, Lady With a Sword is about the mothering instinct and how when pushed, a female is not only capable of anything a man is, they are capable of more because of that instinctual ability to throw all caution aside to protect their loved ones. There had been many previous swordswomen films, but this one dared to actually treat them like women with distinct traits and desires, instead of a gender-neutral person that many mistake for a man.
What makes Lady With a Sword even more interesting is the fact that it was directed by a woman, Kao Pao-Shu. Perhaps this is why the female characters feel more well-rounded. This the first time in the Shaw series that I’ve come across a female director, and honestly when I found this out a couple of hours before watching the film, it dawned on me that I had never even considered there might be one lurking somewhere along the line in this series. Kao directed 11 films from 1971–1980, but Lady With a Sword was her only film for the Shaw Brothers. This was also her debut film, which is an incredible achievement given how accomplished and solid this one feels. Ample praise must also be directed at the script by the stalwart scribe Ni Kuang, who once again crafted a thrilling wuxia tale that starts out rather innocuously, but grows into a rich, tangled web of martial intrigue.
But to get back to Kao Pao-Shu’s directing, even though this was her first film she clearly has a distinct style that stands apart from the sea of Shaw Brothers films. Snap zooms were an expected norm in all Shaw films since the late ’60s, but here Kao uses them liberally to both reduce the amount of editing the film required (the original reason they were used in Shaw films) and to create dynamic bursts to illustrate a character’s feelings, pulling the audience into the character’s head as they discover some key piece of info. There’s also a lot of matched shots, such as person rolling away from a swinging sword that cuts to another person rolling away from a different swinging sword. This technique was used throughout the film to connect scenes, but none more perfect than during the mid-film, simultaneous fights that occur in two neighboring establishments.
On one side you have the traditional brothel/fancy home set from numerous Shaw films, where Lily Ho battles a sea of enemies, her focus specifically on a pair of devious bandits who opened the film by raping and killing Ho’s sister. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall is Hu Tou (Meng Yuen-Man), the young son of the woman killed in the film’s intro. The third of the bandit trio has come to the restaurant across the way to collect his buddy’s arrow when he spots the kid. A fight breaks out, and while it might seem a little one-sided to pit a kid against a grown man living a life of crime, Meng Yuen-Man more than holds his own. My first thought was that he reminded me of Jackie Chan, the way he flipped around acrobatically, rolling away and dodging every strike the bandit attempted. I looked him up to see if he had done any other films, and lo and behold the little guy was a member of the Seven Little Fortunes, just like Jackie, Sammo & Yuen Biao! No wonder he reminded me of Jackie! So while both fights are raging, there are many instances of Kao Pao-Shu skillfully cutting between them, but she also employs a technique that I’ve never seen used so far in another Shaw Brothers film. She actually kind of acknowledges that we’re in a studio, by placing the camera above the sets and panning from one set to the other. It’s a small thing, but I found it really impressive and smart to do something like this.
Unfortunately, a lot of great innovation and storytelling are not the only components to a great martial arts film. For every great moment of choreography, there are five that are merely standard. The choreography was handled here by Han Ying-Chieh & Simon Chui Yee-Ang, who have both worked with others to create great martial arts sequences, but this new team-up doesn’t exactly deliver fireworks. I’m probably being too harsh, though, as many of the battles are rather tense and well-executed. But I can’t ignore the nagging fact that the final battle was probably the worst fight in the film, especially when it comes after a really emotionally charged battle that should have ended the film. I can understand why it is the way it is, but it does make the end of the film anti-climactic. That’s probably just my Western story sense talking, though.
Lady With a Sword lived up to its title by providing Lily Ho one of her best swordswoman roles. She owns the screen and commands your attention whenever she’s on it. The film definitely has its flaws, but it’s exceptionally well-directed and written, not to mention a lot of fun. It’s also a brisk 84 minutes, and it’s very interesting to see how a female director handles a traditional Shaw Brothers wuxia production. Turns out she does pretty damn well, and I will definitely keep an eye out for some of her other films.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the Hsu Cheng Hung film, Swordsman at Large! His last film in the series, The Secret of the Dirk, was pretty good, so here’s hopin’ it can keep this streak of good to great Shaw films alive! See ya next week!