Saturday, June 18, 2011


My first impressions of Hong Kong martial arts films were made by "Kung Fu Theater" broadcasts on independent TV when I was a kid. None of those films were shown in their proper aspect ratio, and most of them dealt almost exclusively with bare-handed fighting, with exceptions made for what we called "numbchucks." Now that I'm watching more of the earlier sword-oriented films in remastered widescreen editions, I get a new impression (however inaccurate it may be) of aesthetic decline over the course of the 1970s, with production values and character development being sacrificed to the virtuoso display of fighting techniques in stripped-down settings. That impression reflects actual Hong Kong movie history less than it does my admiration for the wuxia films I've been seeing lately from the Albany Public Library's recently augmented collection. These compare favorably with the best American swashbuckling films, and I feel that Douglas Fairbanks Sr. would feel at home in films like these with their exuberant action and moral simplicity. Films like Ho Meng-hua's Lady Hermit take place in a "martial world" where people consciously aspire to be heroes and are widely recognized as such, but rarely without learning moral lessons along the way. In their self-conscious, unambiguous heroism, dedicated as often to justice as to vengeance, with the two often intertwined, these films resemble Italian fusto films about Hercules, Maciste and other wandering do-gooders, but benefit from a dynamism that the Italian films often lacked. The wuxia films often manage to be more emotionally complex than the fustos without sacrificing their moral commitments, and sometimes strive for genuine pathos, as in Lady Hermit.

Ho tells a simple story made fresh by its focus on female heroism. It's a story oft-told in the martial world of a brash student eager to learn from an admired master, but for the wrong reasons initially. Here the would-be student is the whip-wielding Chin (Szu Shih), who attaches herself to a security service escorting caravans in the hope of meeting her idol, the heroic fighter known as "Lady Hermit." Chin wants to be a famous fighter and is arrogant about her ambition, not knowing that a humble servant woman she encounters is the great heroine herself (Cheng Pei-pei) traveling incognito while recuperating from a battle with the local arch-villain, the Black Demon (Hsieh Wang). She reveals herself in order to break up a racket run by the B.D.'s Taoist con men in which they fake hauntings and supernatural attacks and then sell charms and protections to the yokels. Once she reveals herself it's time to move on, with Chin following her like a stray puppy. After repeated rebuffs, Chin finally wins the Lady over. From carrying her bags she'll move on to learn the technique the Lady has developed to counter Black Demon's main attack. He injured her waist some time back using this devastating attack, which consists of grabbing someone and tossing them into the air. Her new technique emulates the cat's ability to land on her feet, but the Lady herself may still be too fragile to practice it in combat. So she spends hours tossing Chin about until she gets the hang of the technique, in case it falls upon the new apprentice to take down the Black Demon.

The villain.

The Lady has another admirer, security guard Wu Chang-chun (Lo Lieh), who is gradually torn between his devotion to the heroine and his growing affection for Chin. The apprentice herself notices the closeness of her friend and her master and grows jealous. Her idea of showing them what's what is to take out Black Demon and his gang single-handedly, despite the Lady's forceful insistence that she isn't ready. But the Lady can't stop Chin from running away and laying siege to Black Demon's compound. She takes out numerous minions but is gradually softened up before the man himself deigns to engage her in unequal combat. As you might suppose, the Lady and Wu rush to the rescue, setting up the long-awaited rematch between the black-nailed villain and the avenger in the white straw hat....

Humiliated by the Lady Hermit, Chin seeks redemption by conquering Black Demon's compound.

Chronologically speaking, Cheng Pei-pei is probably the first of the Seventies' cinematic superheroines, a global cohort of game-changers on whom she had a few years' head start dating back to her breakout film, King Hu's Come Drink With Me. As the Lady Hermit Cheng is an iconic figure in a costume very similar to what she wore in The Brothers Five one year earlier. At age 26, she already seems an authoritative elder stateswoman of the martial world. There's a poignancy to her performance as a heroine who's relegated herself to a lonely life, whether for religious or other reasons. You get the sense that, the great battle won, everything could be straightened out between her and her two proteges, who really belong together but could still use a benevolent master. But she closes the film Chaplin-like striking out on her own again, with a repentant Chin determined to find her once more. I can't really judge Cheng's martial arts, but my understanding is that, pre-Bruce Lee, technique wasn't the be-all-end-all of martial arts films. It suffices that Cheng is entirely convincing as a superheroine in her fantastic milieu.

Better known for sleazier later films as well as the King Kong ripoff Goliathon (aka The Mighty Peking Man), Ho Meng-hua directs the action energetically while displaying an admirable eye for landscape and architecture. The screencaps, hopefully, speak for themselves in favor of Ho's direction, the art direction by Johnson Tsao and the cinematography of Li Yu-tang and Lin Kuo-Hsiang. While pictorially attractive, Lady Hermit is also occasionally gory in a cartoonish way that doesn't really compromise the fantastic flavor of the film. It's unpretentious stuff filmed, written and performed with consummate professionalism for effortless entertainment.

More images from The Lady Hermit

For more on Cheng Pei-pei, check out my review of Come Drink With Me and a Brothers Five review coming soon....


Mark said...

Great write-up per usual, this brought back many memories of watching these films years ago on Channels 5 and 20 in the DC market.

Between this blog and the other, I don't know how you manage to crank out so much intelligent writing. This truly is one of the best film blogs on the web. Keep up the fine work.

Travel For Less said...

Great article, thanks for your share and your time which you spend for us!

venoms5 said...

I thought I had commented here, Sam, but apparently I didn't. Great write up as always, Sam. Also, if you can find it, Shih Szu featured in a pseudo sequel to this movie called THE BLACK TAVERN (1972). It's one of the goriest HK actioners I've ever seen and has one helluva brutal finale. Ku Feng as the whip wielding villain was like some kind of Wuxia Terminator.