Written by Hu Pao and Ko Jui-Fen
Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng
Hong Kong, 1972
Master Li Kui (Tung Lam), aging martial artist and former member of quartet of masters, is protector of a small, peaceful village. One day, a frightful individual from his past, hunchback Liu Tou (Fan Mei-Sheng), arrives in town under the pretense that he seeks specialized martial arts lessons from Li Kui. In truth, he lusts for revenge for his brother’s accidental death many years ago. Li Kui, now retired from teaching, refuses the proposal and fends off Liu Tou’s enraged attacks, but is severely wounded in the process. This prompts him to send away his young niece Bao Zhu to a former ally, Mad Monk, for training. A decade later, Zhu (Shih Szu) returns home to re-acquaint with her family and defend it against the threat of Liu Tou’s wrath.
By 1972, director Griffin Yueh Feng was nearing the end of his long and extremely productive career as a filmmaker that had begun as early as the mid-1930s. After 40 years in the business, it is understandable that some of the creative juices may not be flowing as naturally as they once had. The Young Avenger, born from the creative process with familiar screenwriting collaborator Ko Jui-Fen, is a film that begins on the right foot, playing with some really interesting ideas at times with amusing lightheartedness, other times with touching sincerity.
The filmmakers make an unorthodox decision of playing with the chronology of the narrative without informing the viewer. The Young Avenger’s opening scene has the titular warrior ambush a trio of ne’er-do-wells in spectacular fashion, firmly planting in everyone’s mind that she is not be reckoned with. From there, the narrative cuts to the past when Bao Zhu is but a young girl living with her uncle Li Kui and her cousin Chen Shi Lun (the grown-up version played by the always reliable Yueh Hua). A solid 20 minutes are dedicated to elaborating on the unfortunate past events that have forever linked the paths of hunchback Liu and Master Li Kui. Suddenly, a completely different story is being told, one that appears to bear no relation to the opening action sequence. The villain’s duplicitous nature is explored, as is Master Li Kui’s dedication to protecting his family, both by renouncing his previously violent ways and, ironically, sending Bao Zhu off for serious martial arts training. This section of the movie is a little bit odd to dissect if only because of the curious strategy employed to abruptly go back in time without warning. The motivations are clearly established, however, and Tung Lam brings a strong performance to the role of the kindly aging protector who recognizes that his past actions have finally caught up with him.
Cut immediately to a grown-up Bao Zhu traversing the countryside by foot, en route to her hometown. She is now a highly skilled martial artist who can slice and dice her way through anything. For the viewer, the surprise ends up being that The Young Avenger is an origin story. When the viewer finally reconvenes with the adult Bao Zhu, she is not even yet recognized by the codename Young Avenger, a name made up on the fly under duress by two lowly vagabonds (Tang Ti and Woo Wai) when they are pressed to by a ruthless gang to reveal who recently attacked their encampment near the delightfully baptized Fairy Cave. It all feels rather organic, as does the emotional reunion with her family. The film takes a long pause from the action to re-establish Bao Zhu’s place within the family unit, a section that may demand some patience out of action junkies, but pays off handsomely for those who like some genuine storytelling along with their kung fu.
The appreciative playfulness dissipates however as the story enters the home stretch once the Hunchback and his minions attack the village. The film sheds its early, innocent character-driven identity in favour of some pretty brutal behavior on the part of both the side of evil and the side of good. Similarly to another movie reviewed recently, That Fiery Girl, the climax features characters who normally would behave heroically exemplifying some gruesome inclinations. What’s more, the Young Avenger is sidelined for a large portion of the battle for reasons that go unexplained. When she finally emerges from her hiding spot, she appears to be no match for Hunchback, until the monk who previously trained her (Chan Shen, in a truly bizarre cameo) arrives in the nick of time for motivation by literally encouraging her to kill the enemy and show no mercy. A lot of the good will the film earned up until the final 20 minutes or is laid to waste. Possible cultural relativism aside, it is a dumbfounding conclusion to a story that otherwise is quite well told.
It is always a precarious situation when faced with writing an article about a film that almost does everything right, only to find a way to end with a bitter pill to swallow, therefore souring the overall experience. It is nice to see Shih Szu in a starring role (both beautiful and a solid actress) but one cannot help but feel a little confused by how the old directing pro Griffin Yueh Feng concludes his movie, much like how the fuse of a bomb fizzles out rather than produce the anticipated fantastic explosion.
— Edgar Chaput