The Vengeful Beauty [血芙蓉] (1978)
Starring Chen Ping, Yueh Hua, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Lo Lieh, Lam Fai-Wong, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Siu Yam-Yam, Wai Wang, Lee Sau-Kei, Lee Chung-Ling, Wong Ching-Ho, Keung Hon, Chiang Nan, Hung Ling-Ling
Directed by Ho Meng-Hua
Expectations: Hoping it’s better than Flying Guillotine 2.
The Vengeful Beauty opens with narration about how the Qing Dynasty emperor is ferreting out dissension among his subjects, and even the booksellers and proofreaders aren’t safe! I suppose that puts me right into his sights, but I will not be deterred from my mission, no matter what it costs! And just like me, Rong Qiu Yan (Chen Ping), better known in the martial world as The Bloody Hibiscus, will also stop at nothing to help people fight the ruthless emperor. During the day she is a sweet, doting wife to the imperial officer Han Tian De (Lee Chung-Ling), but when Tian De catches wind of the emperor’s secret flying guillotine assassins, the emperor orders his whole family murdered to keep the secret safe. Of course, Qiu Yan escapes the guillotine squad, and pivots her brave wuxia heroics from part-time avenger to full-time vengeful beauty.
I’m not sure what the production specifics were, but The Vengeful Beauty is Ho Meng-Hua’s follow-up to his trendsetting 1975 film, The Flying Guillotine. For some reason, Shaw decided to give the “official” sequel to Cheng Kang (and later Hua Shan), resulting in an OK movie that shows its production woes and ought to be much better than it is. Ho’s The Vengeful Beauty is a much more cohesive film, and while it definitely pales in comparison to the original, it’s a far better sequel than the “official” one. For that matter, so is Ho’s The Dragon Missile.
I hesitate to call The Vengeful Beauty a real success, though, as it feels like too much of a step back into the early ’70s wuxia mold than anything truly unique. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but it just can’t stand up to the high caliber of films debuting around it. 36th Chamber of Shaolin released about a month earlier, and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow debuted just 10 days prior to The Vengeful Beauty. Both of those films are landmarks that shaped the industry going forward and remain classics to this day. Flying Guillotine 2 and The Vengeful Beauty released about two months apart, and did roughly the same at the box office (coming in at #66 & #70 respectively), while Chor Yuen’s Clan of Amazons came out between them and ranked at #16. The Vengeful Beauty is a great example of the older style of wuxia, but it’s a film that would undoubtedly play better outside of its temporal context.
The film is relatively well-written and plotted for a film of its ilk, offering Chen Ping a great role to show off her skills. Norman Chu also gets a meaty chance to shine as Ma Sen (essentially the Chen Kuan-Tai main character of The Flying Guillotine), at a time when he was generally relegated to much smaller supporting roles. I don’t necessarily think he has the weight to carry the burden quite yet, but he stars in two of my all-time favorites (Bastard Swordsman and Duel to the Death) so I really enjoyed seeing him so much here. The attempt at a love scene between Chu and Chen Ping doesn’t work well at all, though, mostly because their “romance” showcases some of the worst on-screen kissing I’ve ever seen. Thankfully, Siu Yam-Yam saves this section of the film with her brooding menace.
Tang Chia handled the choreography, so the fights are every bit as competent and exciting as you’ve come to expect. What they aren’t, though, is especially memorable. There are elements that stand out, but highlights within the intricacies of the choreography are rare. The fight on the branches of bamboo trees is fun, even if the illusion isn’t especially convincing. The usage of various weapons is great, too — specifically Chen Ping’s transforming spear and Lo Lieh’s three-section staff — and the variety elevates the fights considerably. Yuen Biao, Yuen Bun, and Corey Yuen were among the film’s stunt team so the extensive use of wider shots within the fights allow us to see the stuntmen’s agile performances, something this film only has because of its late ’70s production time. But the key is that these are all broader aspects that elevate the older style, while the more successful films of the era were delving deeper into the nuts and bolts of the choreography itself. Chor Yuen’s films didn’t, but this is a notable exception, and he makes up the difference by adapting the density of the martial world to the screen.
If you enjoy the older style wuxia, then The Vengeful Beauty is definitely one to watch. Just try to forget what year it came out and enjoy it for what it is.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the non-Shaw box-office smash, Bruce Lee’s Game of Death! See ya then (hopefully soon)!