AKA When the Kung Fu Hero Strikes
Starring Wong Yuen-San, Betty Ting Pei, Sek Kin, Elaine Kam Yin-Ling, Eddy Ko Hung, Woo Gam
Directed by Kao Pao-Shu
Expectations: Pretty high, based on my previous love of Kao Pao-Shu’s Lady with a Sword.
I had one recurring thought throughout The Virgin Mart: “What a weird movie.” Hong Kong filmmakers love to mix genres and tones, and that’s something I love about the country’s films, but it just didn’t work for me in The Virgin Mart. The film blasts off with searing rock ‘n’ roll and a montage of neon lights and pretty girls. This emotional wave of fun night life imagery is quickly challenged by the introduction of Lin Ying (Woo Gam) and Mao Song (Eddy Ko Hung), a prostitute and her pimp, still within the opening montage. As we make our way into the film proper, it becomes apparent that this is also going to be an over-the-top comedy at times. Huh. OK. Perhaps something is lost in translation, but when they strap an unwilling woman onto a Qing dynasty metal sex chair called “The Joy Rider,” and play it for laughs, I just can’t go along with it.
The Virgin Mart is also largely without a distinct plotline. After the intro montage we meet a bunch of new characters, including a few that are actually important and integral to the film and its world, such as the big boss Qiang Han (Sek Kin), another prostitute Mei Ji (Betty Ting Pei), and the film’s hero Kang Tai (Wong Yuen-San). We see how the prostitution operation lures unsuspecting young girls to Hong Kong, we see the pimps battling a rival group’s men, but there’s hardly any narrative to hold these disparate bits together. Kang Tai is the man they target as a fall guy for their organization, but after he’s introduced early — stating that all he wants to do is “Just fight” — he’s absent from the film for quite a while.
The film is also a disappointment because I had built up so much personal hype around the film’s directer, Kao Pao-Shu. She is the only female martial arts director that I’m aware of during this era, and the first film I saw from her, Lady with a Sword, is a great piece of work. It handles its female heroines in a much different light than other wuxias, and I was very hopeful about seeing more great work from her. Well, it might be out there, but The Virgin Mart is definitely not it. There’s some great framing and cinematography throughout, though, apparent even through the layers of distortion and blurred colors from my copy’s multiple VHS generations. This renews my hope that Kao has some great hidden gems in her filmography, so I’ll continue to explore.
The choreography was handled by Chan Siu-Pang & Cliff Lok. Chan worked in this capacity on almost 60 films, so he’s no slouch, and together with Lok they worked on a few Joseph Kuo films such as The 18 Bronzemen and The Shaolin Kids. Lok was more of an actor, appearing in a whole mess of early Shaw wuxias, but he was also a capable martial artist who, according to his bio on the HKMDB, “can break a man’s finger with his stomach.” Don’t try it at home, kiddos! Anyway, what struck me about their work is that the ideas present (specifically in terms of how stunts are integrated) are very similar to the kinds of ambitious things that Hong Kong would become known for in the 1980s. If this movie was made just a few years later, it really could’ve been something. As it is, it’s interesting to see the same kind of spirit at work within a less conducive environment.
I’ll leave you with my favorite moment in the film, a line of dialogue that made me glad that the only available copy of this film is dubbed in English.
“You tell that shithead boss of yours that next time we’ll go after his fat ass!”
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Chang Cheh’s next Shaolin cycle film: Shaolin Martial Arts! See ya then!