Monday, April 5, 2010

Lady With A Sword with Lily Ho

A short film, 1971's Lady with a Sword is a decent Lily Ho action pic from female director Kao Pao Shu who was also an actress for the Shaw Brothers in many films like A Place To Call Home (1969) among others.

In a pre-credits scene, Gong Zi (Wong Hap) and three other villains attack a woman and her little son. The kid goes to hide in the woods but his mother is raped and murdered in a surprisingly rough scene -- though the blood she spits up looks pretty fake in a Hammer Horror-kind-of-way. Maybe I just wasn't expecting this from a female director?

The kid goes for help as the credits start and the music begins to pound.

Within minutes the film has a visceral feel thanks to the real locations being used; this opening would not have had a punch if it had been shot on a fake studio backlot.

The kid, Hu Tou, finds his second aunt (Lily Ho). Seems that the woman had been on a mission to get revenge for the death of her father at the time. Lily and the boy find the body of the boy's mother, Lily's sister, and also an arrow that leads the duo to connect the murder with a large, prestigious family in the area.

Wong Hap and his buddy (James Nam Gung Fan) are entertaining beauties at the local whorehouse. An impromptu archery contest breaks out -- and why not? -- and a stray arrow shoots outside of the compound and into the wall above Lily Ho and her nephew at the inn.

It's weird how formidable Lily Ho looks in this film. I mean, Cheng Pei-Pei gets branded with the tomboy label and yet her wuxia films have a kind of balletic grace to them. And Lily Ho, the modern fashion queen, surprisingly projects a look that could kill here -- her stare is striking down opponents even before a weapon is drawn.

As Lily strides into the complex, dressed as a man presumably, she basically picks a fight with Wong Hap and his crew and, after some little show of strength in the trash-talking preamble to the brawl, the courtesans rush up to her with cries of "hero" and Lily just brushes them off like flies.

That scene is a hoot!

Then the fighting begins! Really masterful work from director Kao Pao Shu here as there are tracking shots, some handheld camera work, and a lot of expertly staged action bits. I especially liked the very wide tracking shot that covers the whole set and goes from Lily Ho fighting over to the little kid in the inn as he tries to escape the clutches of a goon chasing him. I think this must have taken a bit of planning to pull off in one take.

Then the scene cuts from the boy rolling on the ground dodging a kick to Lily Ho kicking an assailant. The cut on the beat of the action shows the really great editing at work in Lady with a Sword.

As the fighting rages, it spills inside and Lily Ho's sword is causing blood to splash on walls like paint, her white robes getting a bit dirty. Then it's back outside as she stands on a knocked over table and cuts down onrushing opponents.

A shockingly good scene that guarantees this film classic status.

But Lily Ho doesn't kill the rapist even when he's within the path of her blade. She catches sight of a medallion on his waist and and realizes that's he's Lian Bai, a guy she was due to marry according to the families' plans.

There's another cool ambush scene and some more action and then the film turns into a bit of a drama briefly as Lily Ho arrives at the family home of Lian Bai, the old friend and now killer she needs to kill. As the smiling Lam Jing prods her on, Fei Fei (Lily Ho) enters the man's room. Will she kill him or will she spare his life?

Lady with a Sword seems to be front-loaded with action but the suspense is sustained throughout the film's short running length due to the central, ingenious premise of will Lily Ho's character kill the man who happens to be her family friend and betrothed lover? Will justice triumph over tradition?

You can order Lady with a Sword on DVD here