Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Girl Fighter (1972)

The Kim family dominates a province in ancient China through the force of their supreme martial arts and lots and lots of money.

The worst of the family is Kim junior, Kim ten-jiao. When he gets it into his head to rape the female head of household of the Lio family and her husband, the rest of the family of course still tries to protect her. Alas, he kills them all, including the woman.

The local magistrate, especially after he has been pressured by higher-ups in the bureaucratic hierarchy, would very much like to arrest the younger Kim for this deed, but the people in the area are so afraid he just can't find anyone willing and able to do the arresting. Until Sima Mu-rong (Polly Kuan) appears, that is. The young woman is just burning to help bring Kim to justice. The magistrate is afraid of her girl cooties at first, but a short demonstration of her martial arts convinces him that she is the right woman for the job. It should always be this easy.

Later, we will re-learn the lesson that people in wuxias are blind in any case and have difficulty to parse someone looking like Polly Kuan (with make-up and all) as a woman as soon as she dons male clothing, so Polly could just have spared herself the trouble and pretended to be a boy from the beginning. Ah, the glories of cross-dressing!

The arrest itself isn't too difficult. Sima outclasses Kim quite easily, but the real trouble begins afterwards. Sima and a handful of guards have to transport Kim the long way to court. Kim senior is not going to stop at anything, even the theft of the magistrate's official seal, to get his son back.

Help for our heroine comes in the form of the slaughtered Lio family's nephew (Tien Peng). At first, he plans to kill the prisoner himself, but quickly adjusts his goals when he realizes the efforts the elder Kim makes to put a stop to Sima.

A Girl Fighter is another Taiwanese wuxia made by people from the surroundings of King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen. Director Yeung Sai-Hing was the production manager of those films, and the first half of A Girl Fighter makes at times quite clear why he didn't work as a director too often. The film starts out rather lackluster, hitting all the right genre beats without making much use of them. Especially the fight sequences are a minor disappointment, seemingly filmed to look as fake as humanly possible with some dreadful wire work that lets the fighters resemble nothing so much as bumble bees, making this part of the film a swell example of the deadly bumble bee fu style so feared in ancient China.

Surprisingly, the second half of the film very suddenly picks up the slack by transforming itself into a variation of a Howard Hawks western with a neat siege sequence and a rather exciting trek through trapped enemy territory. The fights start to look a lot more convincing too and the whole tone of the film shifts into a much tenser and darker direction, until it all culminates in the sort of grand finale Cheng Cheh usually traded in - although seemingly edited with a butter knife.

Even before the action of the film gets watchable, the exciting phenomenon known as Polly (Shan) Kuan, as well as the less exciting, yet dependable phenomenon that is Tien Peng, should be enough to keep one watching. What I find so wonderful about her is the determination she brought to everything she did. No matter if it was a "normal" wuxia like this one, a nice and friendly kung fu comedy or the sheer insanity of many of her later works, Polly brought the same amount of energy to every movie she acted in. She was game for just about anything, and automatically elevated each of her movies into the "entertaining" category through sheer presence, even in those cases when she was the only good thing about her films.


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