The Lady Hermit [鍾馗娘子] (1971)
Starring Cheng Pei Pei, Shih Szu, Lo Lieh, Fang Mian, Wang Hsieh, Chiu Hung, Chuen Yuen, Tong Tin-Hei, Lee Siu-Chung, Law Hon, Woo Ka-Kei, Siu Wa
Directed by Ho Meng-Hua
Expectations: Moderately high. I’m hoping this is a Cheng Pei Pei/Ho Meng-Hua collaboration to remember.
Ho Meng-Hua made many films with Cheng Pei Pei, always to entertaining, if somewhat less-than-stellar, results. With The Lady Hermit, both talents turn on their A-Game and deliver a film that’s actually worthy of the star’s wonderful charisma. The Lady Hermit is easily one of Cheng Pei Pei’s best films, and although it wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, it contains a lot of fun and martial intrigue.
Cheng Pei Pei plays the titular character, who’s doing her best to stay out of the limelight. But when a young, ambitious girl (Shih Szu, in her first film) comes to town proclaiming that she will find the Lady Hermit and become her student, it begins a chain of events that eventually leads to Cheng Pei Pei being outed from her cushy hiding spot. Such is the martial world. Add in a bit of a love triangle between Cheng, Shih and Lo Lieh, and all the pieces are in place. There is of course a villain as well, but in this film the focus is more on the three heroes than any villain shenanigans (but there’s still that too, villain shenanigans fans).
With the introduction of Shih Szu, and the fact that this is Cheng Pei Pei’s second-to-last Shaw Brothers film, it’s hard not to see the parallels between the film’s story and real life. It’s very much a torch-passing film, hoping to introduce the world to a newly found swordswoman sensation that will fill the robes of martial arts cinema’s first and best lady swordswoman. I’m not familiar enough with Shih Szu’s career to say whether she actually achieved that, but from a quick glance at her filmography I can see she worked rather steadily until the early ’80s, so that’s something. In any case, Shih Szu is great as the young pupil, and gets many opportunities to strut her stuff in battle, including a lengthy sequence as she works her way into the enemy camp and up their tower (the same tower that housed the finale to Have Sword, Will Travel).
Many of the fights are also punctuated by moments of extreme gore and violence. These aren’t the protracted death thralls of Chang Cheh’s fights, but are instead quick and brutal. My favorite of these moments comes when Cheng Pei Pei confront three Black Demon henchman, slicing large, unmistakable wounds into their faces. She tells each in turn, “I want your head, I want your shoulder, I want your leg.” And then she takes what she wants, delivering three meaty, satisfyingly bloody dismemberments. It’s a special sight to behold. And the runner-up for best gore moment would definitely be when Lo Lieh knocks a bunch of dishes at some henchmen and they embed themselves in the henchmen’s faces.
The other defining characteristic of The Lady Hermit is its stunning cinematography. Lots of Shaw films look great, but few look as good as this. The film is filled with wonderfully composed images and interesting locations. This is thanks in part to it being filmed largely on their outdoor sets instead of being studio-bound, but just as much credit must be given to director Ho Meng-Hua and the three-man team that handled the cinematography: Lam Gwok-Cheung, Danny Lee Yau-Tong and Cho Wai-Kei. They all had long and storied careers in the Hong Kong industry, and their work together here proves why.
While I did find the story a little lacking in its “good vs. evil” drive, it more than makes up for it with a shitload of great fights. The final 20 minutes is nearly non-stop action, and it’s enjoyable, satisfying action too! It could definitely be better — you won’t likely remember many of the encounters outside of a shot or two — but in the moment they are all incredibly entertaining. The action was choreographed by Leung Siu-Chung, a man who’s perhaps not a household name for martial arts fans, but he is notable for being the father of Bruce Leung!
If you’re a Cheng Pei Pei fan, The Lady Hermit is a must see. Easily one of her best films with the Shaw Brothers, The Lady Hermit feels like it’s the end of an era. I know there’s one more Cheng Pei Pei film left in the Shaw lineup, but this one feels like it should be the last. With Cheng playing the master, passing on her teachings to the eager student, it’s hard not to want this to be her final film because we humans love something as neat as that. It’s not the case, though, and honestly I’m glad. I’m not ready to see her go just yet.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog… isn’t a Shaw Brothers movie! That’s right, on the same day that The Lady Hermit was released, newly formed upstart studio Golden Harvest debuted their first film: Lo Wei’s The Invincible Eight! I thought it’d be fun to review it in the context of the Shaw output, especially considering so many of the people involved with it were ex-Shaw. Should be fun!