Shaw Brothers Saturdays: ‘The Tigress of Shaolin’ is aimless, scriptless and pointless
Directed by Chi Lo
Written by Chi Lo
Hong Kong, 1979
There are no two ways about it. Sitting down to right an assessment of a comedy is a prickly matter. What makes one laugh in a movie may very well leave the other rolling their eyes, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the end credits. These things are difficult to predict. All one can do when transposing one’s thoughts to the page or a web site is try their utmost in describing, at the very least, why it is that something made them laugh, even though the truth of the matter is that the person reading the article might just flat out disagree for very idiosyncratic reasons. Part of the joy in writing a Shaw Brothers column, apart from the obvious part which involves watching these great films, rests in discovering the gems that one may never had heard about previously, especially when the martial arts genre is toyed around with to a degree, like with elements of comedy, as in the case of this week’s film, The Tigress of Shaolin. Unfortunately, a gem this film most certainly is not.
The above general information section regarding the film alludes to an individual who ‘wrote’ the script Tigress, although truth be told, that may very well be a joke in of itself. To attempt to provide a plot synopsis is an exercise in futility, for the characters, if they may be described as such, merely venture from points A to Z in a series of practically unrelated events and misadventures. An attempt to compare the nature of Tigress might lead one to the films of Stephen Chow or Jeffry Lau from the 1990s, the sort of films in which nothing really made a lot of sense and the cast put on the most theatrical, exaggerated performances imaginable. In a nutshell (a very fragile nutshell at that), Tigress follows the plight of a young, up and coming martial artist named Ah San (Lau Ga-Yung) who is sent by his dying father to a special clinic run by a band of Tibetans. Apparently someone at the institution will offer him a job, although such a plan does not turn out as expected. Along the way he encounters some rather odd characters, such as an old masters named Drunken Shrimp (Huang Ha), his goddaughter Xiao (Kara Hui), an old lady inflicted with leprosy (Liu Jui-Yi) and a waiter at a local restaurant named Little Rat (Sham Chin-Bo). Upon discovering that the Tibetans produce fake medicine (at least that is how characters refer to it in the film. Normal people would probably use the term ‘placebo’), Ah San’s road to becoming a martial artist himself grows only more arduous.
Tigress is a perfect example of how a specific portion of people enjoy their comedy. It is a Chinese version of Scary Movie in which kung fu replaces ghosts and monsters. The point being driven at is that the film dispenses with any sort of sense of pacing, ingenuity or cleverness. The instances in which the picture gives off the impression that the filmmakers simply operated on a day-by-day basis without any sort of genuine planning involved are nearly incalculable. Direction, both in terms of narrative and acting, is entirely absent, condemned to looking at the action from the sidelines as illogical subplots and chaos reign supreme. Once again, just to reiterate as well as to make an attempt at being considerate, there are legions of movies goers who enjoy this brand comedy. The Hong Kong film industry has made hundreds of such movies in which the gags come in every two seconds, courtesy of lunacy and a desire to be as showy as possible. Few would deny they make money (studios would stop producing them if the opposite were true), but despite that claim to victory, as pieces of cinema films such as Tigress are shockingly disposable.
Of course not every comedy need use a well thought up script as its foundation, but a minimal of thought in character and narrative can go a long way, even just a modicum of planning and preparation. As it stands, director Chi Lo does not seem to have any agenda whatsoever other than throw as much goofiness onto the screen as his budget permits. There is strictly no reason to care for the protagonist Ah San. He father has passed away. So what? His life is in danger because the Tibetans wish silence him after learning of their immoral business practices. So what? His biggest dream is to learn the ways of kung fu. Really, so what? Nothing matters at any moment whatsoever in this film. The movie plays it so fast and loose with logic that one character actually poses as an American-style 1960s hippy despite that this story takes place long before that era and not in the same country for that matter.. In another moment the creators surely thought was brilliant at the time, Ah San, battling against his soon to be friend Little Rat in the latter’s restaurant, breaks out some John Travolta-esque dance moves by repeatedly pointing his index finger to the sky, going so far as to utter the word ‘Grease.’ Wrong movie, my friend. The only ‘smart’ aspect to that instance is when Little Rat responds by asking ‘Who’s greasy!?!’
Perhaps the film’s most unforgivable crime is to have only a select few action scenes imbued with any comedic heft. For the most part, the action is played pretty straight, which is very strange in a comedy since the athletic prowess of a terrific stunt crew can be a great potential source for physical comedy. The single memorable scene is the aforementioned restaurant brawl between Ah San and Little Rat, a sequence which thankfully understands that the setting can be utilized to fantastic effect, both to give a sense of excitement and provide some well earned laughs. Sadly, apart from that 5 minute battle, the majority of the action is hapless and uninspired.
Viewers are to take Tigress for what it is worth. It proudly wears its silliness on its sleeve, showing it off like a badge of honour. It is absolutely unconcerned with developing anything that makes a lick of sense, not even on a basic emotional level, which otherwise would have helped the viewer care for the protagonist at least. If such is the brand of comedy that suits one’s fancy, then by all means give Tigress a chance. For the rest, consider this a warning.