In the history of China, during the Sung dynasty, the Yang warrior family trained all its women for battle.
Perhaps at first they were only intended to be defenders of the home, while the men were in distant places with the camp, but every woman right down to the lowliest housemaid was skilled with sword, spear, pole, & halbard.
There were four generations of these powerful martial women, some of whom became generals in their own right, & are celebrated in novels, art, plays, & operas.
The 14 Amazons (Shi si nu ying hao, 1972) is a bigger-than-average wuxia epic that plays off this history, well known throughout China.
The film stuffs its cast with actresses of consideral merit, though the one who stands out most strongly is Ivy Ling Po as as Mu Kue Ying. Lisa Lu as the Grand Dame, the warrior grandmother, is also outstanding in the cast.
Perhaps the strangest casting is Lily Ho (best known for Ainu the avenging harlot of Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan) as Yang Wen Kuang the last "male" heir of the Yangs.
Her charactrer is identified as a warrior boy throughout the tale. This kind of casting is not unique to Chinese cinema
But in this case, Lily doesn't even dress as a boy, & it seems to me some of the nuances of the script did not make it into the translation.
Lily's character is in fact the fourtenth "Amazon" & is she not literally playing a boy. Rather, with the last biologically male heir having fallen at the front, there was no "proper" heir remaining.
Mu Kue Ying's first-born daughter was therefore designated "son" & must live up to the unusual honorific in every way "he" can. All characters in the story go along with this "open ruse," as a method of insuring the survival of the lineage.
The actual last male heir of the Yangs had been the betrayed Tsung Pao (Tsung Hua), Mu Kue's husband, slain in the battle that opens the film, in a startling sequence that leaves him the last man standing on the battlefield though dead.
Only women remain in the family, who vow revenge against the Xia (Mongols). They should have been able to lead the Imperial Army, but there are politics impinging on the Yang women, not all of which can be overcome.
The first barrier is the assumption that the Yang lineage will now die out. Thus the women present Mu Kue's first-born as designated "son."
The second governmental assumption is that there is no one remaining to avenge the family, which is a serious matter over which officials will soon be disabused.
The third problem, due to a corrupt official, is not settled in their behalf: They will not be permitted to lead the Imperial troops as Yang men had always done. The women are on their own.
Grandmother leads the punative expedition to western Xia. Her bearing is extraordinary. Her daughters & granddaughters are her lieutenants. They are all committed to the idea that "Song Dynasty's future lies in the hands of Yang heroines."
The one fault of this fascinating film is how few "character" encounters occur among the gigantically staged battles.
The women for the most part remain a "group" with few standing out. The exception is always Ivy's character. Her first duel with her husband's killer (Lo Wei) is charged with power & dynamism.
There's a great deal in a sub-plot about Zhen Zhu with her brother Yuen Hua who have been slaves of the Xia barbarians for ten years. They of course look forward to the revenge of the Yangs, & they have some fine scenes as they rebel against their slavemasters.
But I couldn't help but feel the film would've been better served if this time had been used to show various of the fourteen amazons of Yang on individual exploits.
A secondary problem I had with the otherwise visually stunning film was how the "barbarians" were costumed.
Their garments made them like like a bunch of Santa's elves, & hard not to giggle at their meanest cruelist moments since they're clad so silly.
One wonders if there isn't still a lingering dislike for Monguls as conquerers of China, for which reason costumers like to make them look absurd.
Yang Pei Feng is one of the more famous of the Yang women generals celebrated in plays & operas & novels.
She occurs in 14 Amazons, played by Shu Pei-pei, as the personal bodyguard of of Young "Master" when Pei Feng & Wen Kuang head off on night-raids to steal food & supplies.
One of the most unusual sequences wasn't physically possible but was certainly colorful & exciting to see.
This was the construction of the "bridge of women" who used their acrobatic skills to built a tower of themselves, then fall forward like a downed tree to form a bridge across a gorge, over which their women's army passed.
Though it was a big hit at its revival at Cannes, & it had been a big money-maker when Shaw Brothers first released it in 1972, The novelty of so many swordfighting women in one film is great, & the visual impact of their big scenes of action stunning.
And the serious tone is appreciated, too, with its broad strokes of patriotic sacrifice. Still, the tone of "significance" surrounding this film is not supported by its content, for it still has the feeling of being Shaw Brothers "product."
If not for Ivy Ling Po's amazing performance carrying through right to the final battle, The 14 Amazons wouldn't have stood above the common press of 1970s wuxia. With Ivy, though, it does stand a mite taller than average.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl