Thursday, January 10, 2013

In short: The Avenger (1972)

aka The Queen Boxer

Shanghai in the early 20th Century (I think). The city's crime is ruled by a certain Mister Bai (Lee Ying) whose endless numbers of henchmen crush all opposition. Before the film's credits, Bai's people just barely manage to overwhelm Ma Yongzhen who attempts to kill Bai for some righteous reason or other.

Clearly, this sort of thing isn't without consequences, so it will come as no surprise to even the least experienced martial arts movie fan when Ma's sister Ma Su Chen (Chia Ling, whom I'm not going to call Judy Lee) arrives in Shanghai to avenge her brother. Ma Su Chen isn't Bai's only problem, though. A man named Fan Kao To (Peter Yang Kwan) has taken it on itself to make life difficult for Bai through acts of what is difficult not to describe as childish trolling.

While Fan Kao To is acting like a stupid kid, Bai erroneously - and for no reason the film ever bothers to explain - assumes his freshly arriving family to be the Ma family coming to town to take vengeance on him, resulting in a very dead Fan family, and another guy desperate on killing Bai.

Seeing as how their life goals align so beautifully now, Ma Su Chen and Fan Kao To are bound to stumble upon each other and maybe try to help each other out in the avenging biz.

Obviously, The Avenger is another very standard story of martial arts vengeance whose major discerning plot element is the rather dubious competence of everyone involved - the bad guys are too dumb to kill the right people and the good guys too emotional to ever make a sensible plan. The rest of the narrative consists of standard motions to get its characters in a position to fight, told in sometimes awkward ways but at least performed to some excellent needle-dropped music (hello, "Them from Shaft", old friend!).

Fortunately, once the film really gets going, these fights are a joyous and exciting thing to watch. It's not so much action director Mo Man-Hung's for the most part competent but not overwhelming choreography that is responsible for the effect of these all-important scenes but a combination of two things. Firstly, there's Chia Ling's highly enthusiastic performance of the genre-mandated glowering and ass-kicking with all the physical presence I want from my martial arts heroines. Secondly, (female) director Florence Yu Fung-Chi's ability to make even the least excitingly choreographed moments of the film dynamic through the power of creative direction and a sense for pacing that is so often missing in the cheaper martial arts films. Even though I've really seen it all before, and often better developed and surely better plotted, Yu's direction keeps everything moving and exciting.

The film's major highpoint is surely the grand finale where Chia Ling has to fight through a small army of henchmen armed with hatchets and lime inside the rather cramped interiors of Bai's home. Here, it's not only Yu's direction that's creative, but suddenly, Mo's choreography becomes daring too, as if the challenge of setting the final fight in cramped quarters and still making it exciting and dynamic hit a point of professional pride. The combination is riveting, making The Avenger's climax so exciting my complaints about the film's narrative flaws felt rather unimportant afterwards.

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