China Armed Escort
(PAO PIAO) 1976

Director: Chen Ming-hua (Chan Ming-wa)

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

China Armed EscortI loved the folksy themesong behind the opening credits for the Taiwanese wuxia China Armed Escort (Pao piao; or, Bao biao, 1976) & I wonder if the singer happens by any chance to be Pearl Ling-cheung (aka Ching Ling), in her first starring role.

She plays a humble white-clad swordswoman whose father/sifu taught her that true swordsmanship & martial integrity is a thing of the soul & does not flourish amidst flaunting or boasts. She has a quiet dignity & is slow to reveal her skill.

The talky script provides one of those needlessly complicated plot lines that requires characters to expound at length on what is happening & why, without adding to character depth, & really without clarifying what's going all all that well.

When the dialog slackens & unnecessary points made, the action when it comes is extremely well done. Still, between exposition & action there seems to be too little room left over for character & plot.

China Armed EscortThat such elaborate family connections & side-histories & convoluted storylines muck up so many wuxia films -- such as are basically action-obsessed & should have more direct storylines -- is inherited from wuxia novels, which profoundly inform the cinema even in ways they should not.

The novels are extremely long & meandering & episodic. They invite readers to allign themselves, in their imaginations, with certain characters for reasons of lineage, family history, & sect alliances.

These elements work well in novels for an audience themselves alligned with family groups or tongs. But they translate poorly to cinema, though they worked well enough for the original audiences who in the 1970s & early 80s read many of those big pulp novels.

Today the equivalent of that young audience from the 70s would play video games instead of read pulp novels, & videogames have become the new big influence on action cinema, as CGI comes unfortunately to dominate martial arts movies.

China Armed EscortIt's a long wait for the heroine to show up, then to get 'round to fighting. When at last Tu Shuang reveals her skills, she's the first character to overuse springboards or jumping-nets & to hop through trees, looking so darned silly.

But when she settles down a bit for some reasonable swordplay, Pearl Ling Cheung unquestionably has graceful physical charisma while in motion.

Her hopping skills can be annoying to those of us who always hope for realistic fighting & get wire-fu instead. But the character she is playing does in fact have mystic qualities that might excuse a bit of the unreal incorporated into her fighting style.

In later examples of Pearl's fighting films the magical in her style is often wildly overdone, but here we get a few simple FX in order to see her sword shimmering with a mystic light.

China Armed EscortThe action style for the majority of the characters is not touched by this mysticism, so it sets Tu Shuang apart.

The style has a formality that makes it stagey, yet choreography is rapid, aggressive, & in general convincing, with minimal flying & hopping antics for the rest of the cast. The various swordsmen butch it up beautifully with postures & forward momentum.

Escort services in wuxia are not to be confused with escort services in New York of Las Vegas. These are powerful regional offices, sometimes having governmental authority or what amounts to it within "the martial world." If you have goods or persons who need to get from one place to another, bandits will keep it from happening, unless you can hire a top escort service.

Her father is fatally wounded by representatives of a rival travelling escort company. Tu Shuang inherits her father's company, & her goal will be both to avenge her father & restore the integrity of the company. It's a hoary plot you'll see in many such films.

China Armed EscortPearl can look so stern when she replaces sword in sheathe; I have not seen her with so much sense of authority & power even when standing still in any other of her films, not that I've seen nearly all of them.

Her final extended battles are with a man with iron garments, wildly staged, with a shocking final sword thrust that made me gasp.

A good film overall, for its type; & even my complaint that it's too talky is an improvement over the type of film that never stops the fight scenes long enough to let any character development even a little.

It's a shame that (as I write this review) a restored & remastered sharply subtitled dvd does not exist for this film, & the self-styled "rare" distributors (meaning pirated dvd sources) sell only cruddy transfers. So for the time being it's a film for the die-hard fans who can bare up to hideous dvd quality. But if is ever decently restored, this one will merit widening viewership.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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