Swordswomen Three [江湖三女俠] (1970)

Starring Essie Lin Chia, Shen Yi, Lo Lieh, Chang Yi, Violet Pan Ying-Zi, Wong Chung-Shun, Fang Mian, Liu Wai, Yeung Chi Hing, Lee Wan Chung, Tsang Choh-Lam, Hao Li-Jen, Suen Lam, Lee Siu-Chung

Directed by Shen Chiang

Expectations: High. The Winged Tiger was super fun.

While Swordswomen Three starts off with a lot of promise, it never successfully tells a compelling story or delivers the action thrills you’re expecting. This was Shen Chiang’s third film (and second martial arts film), but it’s riddled with all kinds of horrible storytelling and editing, making portions of the story nearly unintelligible. I’m somewhat prone to missing things in movies if I’m not entirely engaged, but there was one section of this movie that I literally rewound about five times and still didn’t have a clear understanding of what happened. The only answer is that it’s just poorly made, and in this specific case, it was mostly the editing that confused me.

Swordwomen Three tries to tell the story of two battling martial arts clans, one with the title of the Number One Clan from a recent tournament held every decade, and the other led by an upstart Lo Lieh who will stop at nothing to take the title from the other clan. He doesn’t want to wait till the next tournament because he doesn’t need to, he’ll just murder the other clan and everyone will obviously know he’s the best. Standing in his way, though, are the three swordswomen sisters of the title (played by Essie Lin Chia, Shen Yi and Violet Pan Ying-Zi). Also on the side of good is Chang Yi, the son of the master of the leading martial clan, and friend to the swordswomen.

For a film titled Swordswomen Three I can’t help but be disappointed with the swordswomen. One is sick through most of the film, the other is hopelessly in love and oblivious to the dubious motives of Lo Lieh, and the third is the leader and most proactive, but also spends a good chunk of the movie under a hood as she’s impersonating one of the male villains. On top of these weak characters, the film actually has the audacity to focus more on the male swordsman! I understand that at this time the archetype of the female swordswoman was falling out of favor, but if you’re gonna make a movie called Swordswomen Three, you gotta really go for it! While the bamboo forest finale between Chang Yi and Lo Lieh is a definite highlight of the film, doesn’t it make sense to want the title characters to figure into the ending in some meaningful way? I suppose I should just be happy with the exciting and bloody fight that I got, but it just seems so wrong to give the swordswomen the shaft like that.

But for those willing to forgive the film its flaws, Swordswomen Three does features lots of great moments. In a way this makes the film even more frustrating because the potential is clearly visible, but it’s obscured by everything else in the movie. But let’s forget the rest of the movie for now and just focus on what’s good. In Swordwomen Three there’s yet another all-powerful, unbeatable sword, but this one is one of my favorites. One side is made of specialized steel that doesn’t retain blood on the blade after killing. The other side is made of magnetic iron, and it attracts all iron within ten feet. This means that anyone who draws a sword on the wielder of this fierce blade will be quickly disarmed and at a supreme disadvantage. It’s a great weapon, and it leads our heroes to come up with new ways to face it, such as changing to wooden tonfa, poles, and in the finale, bamboo tree trunks. There’s also some great showcases of internal qi, when Wong Chung-Shun and Lo Lieh butt heads and start destroying chairs to prove their dominance.

The struggle between martial clubs is also notable, as it foreshadows a ton of martial arts films to follow, although it’s done much better in the introductory sequence in Vengeance!, and that film isn’t even about battling martial clans. That should give you an idea of the quality to the storytelling in this film. I like to think that perhaps this film’s lack of follow-through led other directors to re-use the story and deliver better results in later films. We’ll never know, but it’s fun to theorize.

The action here is probably the film’s greatest strength, even if it’s nothing terribly special. It was all choreographed by Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung, and they do a great job as always. While it feels like they weren’t quite given enough to create something wild and memorable, the scenes are exciting and incredibly well-shot. The finale in the bamboo forest is a highlight for sure, as is the opening fight between Chang Yi and Lo Lieh. The wuxia elements come out strong in this film, with fantasy bursting forth from the edges of reality and heightening the fights into the high-flying wish fulfillment that every fan of wuxia cinema enjoys.

Swordwomen Three is a film with tons of potential, and tons of great idea, but not a lot of quality execution. The action is great when it comes around, but the storytelling to pointlessly overcomplicated and confusing. It’s the cinematic representation of the old saying, “One step forward, and two steps back.” Despite its flaws, though, it does contain so much stuff jam-packed into its 95 minute runtime that any wuxia fan will get a fair amount of enjoyment out of it. I’m not exactly recommending it, but you could definitely do worse. Unfortunately, Swordswomen Three has a lot more in common with Shen’s scripts for the Temple of the Red Lotus films than it does with his martial arts directorial début, The Winged Tiger.

Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s The Heroic Ones, the second film in the series to have a US Blu-ray release!