Sunday, March 22, 2015

DVR Diary: LADY WITH A SWORD (Feng Fei Fei, 1971)

Kao Pao Shu was a veteran Shaw Bros. actress who moved behind the camera to make her directorial debut with Feng Fei Fei. So is it because she was a woman that this is one of the more tearjerking martial arts pictures? Hard to say, since a man, the prolific I Kuang, wrote the screenplay. But I still wonder whether the prevailing unhappiness of the picture reflects a feminine touch. Lots of martial arts films end unhappily, but usually that's because all the characters are dead. There are plenty of survivors at the end of Lady With a Sword, by comparison, but they're all very unhappy. It's hard to blame them, though.

I wonder whether writer or director saw the American western Last Train From Gun Hill. In that picture Kirk Douglas destroys his old friendship with Anthony Quinn because he, a lawman, has to take Quinn's son to prison. Feng Fei Fei escalates the emotional stakes of the basic situation to an almost unbearable level. The title character (Lily Ho) goes into action when her young nephew staggers into the family compound to report that his mother, Fei Fei's sister, has been raped and murdered. She learns that the culprit (James Nam) is the scion of a family, the Jins, who've long been friends with hers. Worse, he is her childhood friend and the man everyone considers her destined husband. He's fallen under bad influences, egged on by his retainers, one of whom calls in his brother, a formidable bandit with a small arsenal of weapons, to protect his master. The brother is a bigger villain than anyone; he murdered Fei Fei's brother-in-law and seeks to exploit the deteriorating situation, with his younger brother's help, to destroy both families. Meanwhile, the Jin family is coming apart at the seams. Dad (Li Peng-Fei) is ready to wash his hands of his wayward boy or hand him to Fei Fei, but Mom (Ching Lin), whom Dad blames for spoiling the boy, is protective to a fault. She's the Anthony Quinn character in this story, and pretty much the woman who wears the sword in the Jin household. When Fei Fei manages to strongarm Jin Lian Bai out of the compound to deliver him to the magistrate, the mother pursues with the untrustworthy retainers in tow, and they see a golden opportunity to escalate the feud between Jin and Feng....

Novice director Kao makes impressive use of a small town set in early fight scenes when Fei Fei and her nephew (Yuen Man Meng) are a team. Fighting with Lian Bai's buddies, Fei Fei fends off several attackers at one end of town while the kid struggles to escape another in a restaurant and stable. Commanding overhead shots sweep across town establishing the good guys' relative positions as they battle for their lives. The nephew has a story arc that might trouble western viewers. There's almost always an element of slapstick to the little guy with the silly tuft of hair on top as he falls on his face repeatedly trying to dismount his horse. Some of his escapes in the fight scene I mentioned are silly, including teeter-totter gags that were old before talkies. He meets cute with a young girl on a caravan, but any hope of a happy future is dashed when Lian Bai kills him during an escape attempt. Some people may be uncomfortable with such a traumatized child being used for comedy relief only to get brutally killed -- the film ends with Fei Fei weeping over his corpse -- but I suspect most people around the world are more ready to laugh or weep on short notice over the vicissitudes of life. The overall sadness of the picture may well reflect a more humane spirit in this particular director; Kuang wrote so much that it's hard to credit him with any singluar sensibility. Another director might have ended the picture with the deaths of the evil brothers; in a charming touch Fei Fei's mom and dad both ride to her rescue, while Lian Bai's dad doesn't buy the brothers' attempt to blame everything on the Fengs. Many martial arts films end with that sort of violent catharsis (see Lady Assassin in particular). Kao seems more interested in the emotional consequences for the survivors. If that's a personal touch then more power to her.

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