Starring Polly Kuan, Samuel Hui Koon-Kit, Lau Wing, Angela Mao, Lee Kwan, Tien Feng, Wang Lai, Tong Ching, Carter Wong, Wu Jia-Xiang, Han Ying-Chieh, Fung Ngai, Huang Chung-Hsin
Directed by Lo Wei
Back Alley Princess feels like one of those movies that was popular in its day, but it’s hard for a modern viewer to see exactly why. It’s an odd mix of a light comedic tone, heavy drama involving a prostitution ring, and some martial arts action… none of which are of quality enough to stand on their own. Ordinarily a multi-genre film like this might have a story that strings it all together, but in the case of Back Alley Princess that didn’t seem to be too high of a priority (which is somewhat odd, because Lo Wei generally packs a lot of story twists and turns into his scripts).
What Back Alley Princess is full off is a whole lot of working-class strife. Chili Boy (Polly Kuan) — AKA Hot Pepper Kid in some translations — and Embroidered Pillow (Samuel Hui) are a team of con-men doing whatever they can to make a few bucks and survive on the streets of Hong Kong. This leads them to meet up with the martial arts troupe of Teacher Chiang (Tien Feng), who agrees to join up with Chili and Embroidered Pillow in the interest of making more money. But this isn’t really the foundation of a story, as the film’s main concern is seemingly to endear Chili Boy to the audience so Lo Wei can drive the point home how important family and community are to the individual.
This is obviously a very valid point for a person to take in and remember, but Lo Wei’s methods in Back Alley Princess are far from ideal. Everything hinges on your ability to quickly latch onto the characters and care about their day-to-day struggles, all without the aid of an overarching storyline. For me, this didn’t really work and I had a terribly hard time making through the film. The success of the film in its day — it was #8 on the 1973 HK Box Office — tells me one of two things: either it’s a product of its time and viewers in 1973 were more open to this type of film, or that something of an East/West disconnect is happening between the film and I. I suppose a third option combining both of these is perhaps the most likely. In any case, while I found Back Alley Princess to be largely boring, I will concede that it could just be me.
One of the strangest aspects of the film is one that comes up to a lesser extent in many other Hong Kong films. Our main character Chili Boy is played by a female, and while she has short hair and looks passable as a man in many instances, it’s always clear that Chili Boy is actually Chili Girl. Some of the film’s comedy uses this for laughs, but for the most part it’s not an issue. This kind of thing shows up in many wuxia films, but it rarely lasts the entire film (which is good because it’s always very transparent!). Even when the inevitable reveal comes from Chili Boy, it is done in a way that leaves the other characters — and the audience? — still questioning what the reality is. But the film is called Back Alley Princess, so that clearly gives it all away, right? If anything, playing with the formula was at least something that I hadn’t seen before. I should also note that Polly Kuan is great in this role, showing a lot of range, and even won the Golden Horse for Best Actress for the film!
As for the fights, they’re mostly mediocre, but with some great flashes of skill. Han Ying-Chieh’s fight choreography is usually hit or miss with me, so this isn’t entirely surprising, but it’s still disappointing given the cast. Polly Kwan and Angela Mao both showcase their abilities well, with Angela Mao’s kicking skills being the most impressive. Carter Wong plays a limited supporting role (this was only his second film role), and late in the film he also gets a few good moments. If nothing else, it’s fun to see him so young!
I can’t think of anything else to say about Back Alley Princess, but that doesn’t mean I’m done with Chili Boy and Embroidered Pillow! They’ll be back in my life whenever I get around to 1974 in this review series, as Back Alley Princess was so successful that it warranted a sequel! And that sequel made it into the top 10 of the HK box office! Anyway, until then Chili Boy & Embroidered Pillow!
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the Chang Cheh classic, The Blood Brothers! See ya then!