Shaw Brothers Saturdays: ‘Lady of Steel’ makes the epic very intimate, and the intimate very epic
Directed by Ho Meng Hua
Written by Liang Yen
Hong Kong, 1970
Movies whose stories are set within the parameters of grand scale wars can tell one of two types of stories. Either the film speaks to the grandiose nature of the conflict, with the themes and ideologies concerned with the overall attitudes towards war in general, or they will concentrate their efforts on sharing a specific, more personal story that in some is a microscopic version of the epic battle that unfolds. Some prefer the former because the featured action is often more epic in scale, but the latter may provide with a more intimate storyline for which characterization is more pertinent than lofty themes. Ho Meng Hua, with his 1970 action film Lady of Steel, goes for the second option, exploring how one woman’s quest for revenge relates to the oncoming invasion of a massive army.
A small band of experienced soldiers are transporting a serious cargo of silver tales across the country side. Their aim is to assist refugees displaced by ongoing fighting elsewhere in the country. They choose to stay at an innocent looking inn, only to discover that it is run by an old gangster, Han Shi Xiong (Wong Ching-Shun). The host reassures them that they are in safe hands, his days of theft and murder are long behind, but the sudden appearance of Wei Tong Ming (Lee Wan-Chung) does little to ease their suspicion. Unsurprisingly, this was all a set-up: the heroes are ambushed, their silver taels stolen, with lone survivor being a small, innocent girl, daughter to one of the deceased warriors. Lost in the woods, she is rescued by an elderly kung fu master, and as the opening credits role, we see her grow and become an expert his that martial arts. Now a grown woman, Fang Ying Qi (Chang Pei-pei) is sent by her master to Da Kun Mountain where various heroes are gathered to prepare for what seems like an inevitable Jin invasion. It turns out some old enemies, Wei Tong and Han Shi Xiong (who now goes under the name Cai Yi to hide his true identity) and operating as spies for the Jins. Ying Qi not only has the opportunity to save her country, but finally avenge the death of her family…with a little help from the leader of a band of thieves, Shang Yi (Yueh Hua).
Lady of Steel is, overall, a cleverly devised story, with multiple characterizations which relate both to the immediate danger facing the region (the Jin invasion) as well as the various story lines which dictate the paths of the individual characters the viewers meets along the way. The most pressing matter the film concerns itself with is, naturally, the Fang Ying Qi’s personal journey to locate and destroy those who took away her family when she was but a child. Rather than merely utilize that plot point as the main and possibly sole focus of the film, director Ho Menh Hua and writer Liang Yen devised a clever way to add some more heft to the picture. True enough, from the moment Ying Qi becomes knowledgeable of the fact that her mortal enemies may still be alive and well and, top to top it off, helping her country’s enemy, her determination in helping the heroes at Da Kun Montain increases tenfold. However, since Ci Yi and Wei Tong are helping a greater enemy as spies (they offer the approaching army sensitive information via secretive letters), Ying Qi now has a second matter to be concerned with: her country’s well being. Just as the antagonists tricked her father so many years ago, they are currently duping the protagonists via lies. Suddenly, the intimate and grand scale story lines have intertwined. If Ying Qi fails at one, she automatically fails at both. Another appreciative aspect to the overall story is the film’s handling of the Qin Shang Yi character. At first it seems as though him and his loyal followers are merely up to no good, and even have Ying Qi herself question their motives at the outset of her mission. Shang Yi’s main reason for tagging along at first mostly has to do with his attraction to the heroine, but through the multiple trials and tribulations of the adventure, he becomes himself a hero, someone who is genuinely fighting on the side of good for the explicit purposes of doing good. In essence, both principal characters are awarded their own meaningful journeys.
A trend that movie buffs who watch a certain amount of Shaw Brothers films may come to notice is how often in these stories the thirst for revenge is always very intense and single minded. For many others films, screenwriters and directors would in all likelihood have the protagonist forgo their blood lust in the latter stages, making sure that the character, in order to stay righteous, eventually understands the futility of hunting down his prey mercilessly. That rarely happens in Shaw movies, where the characters on a quest for vengeance not only find their target, but vanquish them in horrific ways. One assumes there is simply a different mind set dictating how the Hong Kong and, say, North American filmmakers want to entertain their respective audiences. When Ying Qi finally, at long last, has Cai Yi in her grasp completely at her mercy, she certainly does not waste the opportunity to put a definitive end to that chapter in her life. It not a major factor in evaluating these movies, but an interesting curiosity that makes them stand out a little bit more from similar stories made in other countries. Even the instances when the vengeful protagonist gets what he or she most deeply desires, there at least at a recognition, albeit too late, that their personal vendetta corrupted a piece of their humanity. Not in these movies. One goes after a villain, slices him into pieces and than celebrates afterwards.
Lady of Steel certainly lacks no action sequences, but one may conclude that they are decidedly more restrained when set against other pictures. The movements of combatants appear as a bit slower than usual, which is a bit unexpected given that both stars, Chen Pei-pei and Yueh Hua, are not strangers to fight sequences. It should not be understood that the action sequences are poor in quality. So far as quantity is concerned, there is a decent handful, and each does have a moment or two of sheer violent glee, like when one chap is on the receiving end of a blade in the forehead but keeps on hacking and slashing his way through hoards of enemies and, of course, that wonderful brief but remarkable spurt of blood that erupts whenever a soldier is cut down, but overall the fights feel less creative, less inspired than has been the case in many of the pictures reviewed for the column in recent weeks (topping the moment when in The Thundering Sword when Cheng Pei-pei cuts someones hand off, takes the victim’s blade and tosses it into someone else’s head is…difficult to top),
Lady of Steel is aided by a cleverly devised script, but by typical Shaw Brothers standards, does not excel when it comes to the fight sequences. In fact, as previously stated, the fights are not especially exciting or bold for that matter. Then again, a very dependable cast is present to give the drama some heft. It certainly is not top tier Shaw material, but it serves as a thoroughly entertaining 83 minutes.