Lady of Steel [荒江女俠] (1970)
Starring Cheng Pei Pei, Yueh Hua, Wong Chung-Shun, Fang Mian, Lee Pang-Fei, Goo Man-Chung, Chiu Hung, Lee Wan Chung, Law Hon, Tung Li, Lau Gong, Ho Wan-Tai
Directed by Ho Meng-Hua
Expectations: Moderate, but Ho Meng-Hua’s due for a great one.
Maybe if this film had some out a few years earlier, I’d have had a better reaction to it. Coming out in 1970, though, Lady of Steel is clichéd, derivative and without much to set it apart from the large amount of swordswomen revenge films, most of them starring this film’s leading lady Cheng Pei Pei. The intro sets up a rather adventurous, vengeful tale, but as in many of these early films, the revenge is saved until the end of the film. They’re taking this “best served cold” part of the saying way too literally; there is definitely such a thing as too-cold revenge.
Lady of Steel opens with Cheng Pei Pei’s father and his friends stopping at an inn for the night and getting attacked by bandits. They’re transporting a million taels of silver cross-country and openly talking about it at the small town inn, one might say they were asking for it. A large fight ensues and Cheng’s father tries to whisk his daughter to safety, but not before getting a dagger thrown into his forehead. As you might expect, this is rather damaging for the young Cheng Pei Pei. Her father dies before her eyes and his buddy takes her into the forest and leaves her with an old kung fu master. For anyone who’s seen a lot of these, I’m sure you already can guess that child Cheng Pei Pei grows up and learns martial arts during the credits sequence. I really look forward to the days when these training sequences make up the bulk of the film.
As soon as the credits are over, Cheng decides it’s time to take on her father’s killer. She’s so mad that she says even if he’s already dead, she still wants to find him and desecrate his corpse. Damn! Her master also gives her a letter to deliver which just so happens to take her directly to the man she is after… but she doesn’t know it, of course. The rest of the movie is a Three’s Company-style mistaken identity tale, in which you can see the plot twists and resolution a mile away. If you’re just after a quick Saturday afternoon slice of wuxia, this will fit the bill, but it’s pretty uninteresting. I had a hard time keeping my attention focused on the film because I was so checked out on the story. As I’ve said before, the fights are not sophisticated enough in these early films (and especially in the ones like this that were not choreographed by Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung) to make up for the faults in the story.
Other than the fun cast, the one thing Lady of Steel has going for it is the sheer number of fights. In a film that’s only 85 minutes long, there’s gotta be at least ten fights. Most are inconsequential one vs. many battles that focus on making you think a lot of shit is going down instead of actually having a lot of shit go down, but a couple of them are rather fun. The first good fight is between Cheng Pei Pei and Yueh Hua, as Yueh attempts to figure out what Cheng’s after. They fight all around one of my favorite Shaw sets, from the bridge to the ground to the rooftops. It’s high-flying and fantastical and really fun to watch. The other really memorable fight comes at the end of the film when Cheng Pei Pei faces off against Lee Wan Chung, one of the two men who killed her father. She battles him against the backdrop of a fireworks display and the deep red hues of the explosives color the faces of the combatants.
OK, I lied there is another good fight. The end battle between Cheng Pei Pei, Yueh Hua and Wong Chung-Shun is pretty dope, but it’s really too little too late. There’s some real inventiveness on display, including a section of the fight where Wong Chung-Shun tries to escape via a giant chain, but Cheng cuts it and then jumps on a chain of her own and they battle in the air while hanging on these giant chains. It’s hard as shit to describe, but trust me, it’s fun. That only lasts a few seconds, though, and then it’s back to the same tired slicey-dicey you see in all of these. I guess I’m still waiting on that great Ho Meng-Hua movie.
Cheng Pei Pei is of course perfect in her role as always. Yueh Hua once again plays the playful sidekick, this time as leader of the beggars that recalls his past work as the Monkey King in the first two of Ho Meng-Hua’s films based on Journey to the West. I wish I could say that they add something interesting to the genre, or that this one rises above by sheer force of will, but I cannot. It reminds me heavily of earlier efforts in the 60s, and while it is better made than many of those films were, it’s about as equally well-written, which is to say it’s not at all well-written. Check it out if you have it on hand and nothing better to do; it’s fun in its own way but nothing special.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Lo Wei’s Brothers Five, the earliest Shaw film to be available in the US on Blu-Ray!