King Hu's Come Drink With Me (Da zui xia, 1966) starring Cheng Pei-pei in her first great role inspired a new type of wuxia or historical martial arts film.
Ho Meng Hua was one of the earliest proponents of this new form, all but devoting himself to the cinematic approach of King Hu, although Meng-hua also pioneered the the exact opposite & extremely bizarre approach to kung fu cinema, in films such as Cave of the Silken Web (Poon shut dung, 1967) which long prefigured Chinese Ghost Story (Sinnui yauwan, 1987).
As a director Ho Meng Hua has often been called "versatile" because he can affect the style of many directors so well, & never quite developed a vision uniquely his own (which so far as Shaw Brothers was concerned made him the best).
The King Hu approach required a degree of realism, a great deal of atmosphere, an almost Kurosawa-esque insistence on suspense & emotion in every action sequence, action reflecting character, rather than action for the sake of action.
Prior to this new kind of wuxia, earlier films about swordsmen & swordswomen tended to be operatic, in the Beijing Opera meaning of the word "opera" as full of noise & posturing & cool acrobatics, but not the least bit real.
And then years later, after the golden age for the realistic martial historicals was over (& even the great King Hu sidelined by the film industry), action would be for action's sake, without emotional content, rapid editing cuts so that the stars didn't even have to know how to fight since the editing could fake it for them, aimed at very short attention spans.
Ho Meng Hua's greatest directorial success in the manner of King Hu was The Lady Hermit (Zhong kui niang zi, or in Cantonese Chung kwai leung ji, 1971). It was another Cheng Pei-pei vehicle.
She would almost immediately thereafter move to the United States & for all intent & purposes retire from films to marry & raise a family & run a dance studio in San Francisco's Chinatown for many years. So Come Drink with Me & The Lady Hermit rather "frame" that first & last for the primary part of her career.
Her co-star for Lady Hermit was Shiz Szu (Si Si) as Cui Ping, a teenaged swordswoman whom Shaw Brothers was obviously grooming as Pei-pei's replacement.
Devotees of short-attention-span kung fu theater can sometimes be impatient with a real film. But anyone with a lick of sense will recognize The Lady Hermit as a work of art, easily comparable to Come Drink With Me, Seven Samurai, or The Good the Bad & the Ugly in abject greatness.
After an eerie pre-credits sequence, we see Cheng Pei-pei as Miss Leng walking calmly down a busy street, shopping for fresh vegetables.
A hulking sword-flailing ruffian is further down the street pretending to be dangerously mad, so that no one will come near him. He spots an old man completing a business deal, given a small bag of silver ingots, & begins to harass the old fellow, stealing the nuggets as bystanders remain too scared to intervene.
Miss Leng is just about to interfere when unexpectedly a young swordswoman & bullwhip artist (Shih Szu) disarms the thug with her whip. From out of the crowd step members of his gang, & without drawing her sword, she procedes to defeat the lot of them, with only a moment of assistance form Miss Leng who, unnoticed, tossed a chestnut in the eye of one of the gang members.
The young swordswoman is full of pride & has enjoyed being a show-off. Townspeople gather around her with just the praise that she desires.
This young swordswoman has spent three years seeking the famous Lady Hermit, the only martial artist she believes can be her proper sifu or teacher. She regards herself as already the Lady Hermit's disciple, though they've never met, & she has arrived in this village on the rumor that the Lady Hermit is secretly living somewhere nearby.
Leng Yushuang seems to be only a cook or maid-servant in a wealthy household. But the household well knows she is no mere housekeeper. And strive as she might at her humble job, her employers definitely treat her more like a family member than a servant.
She is, of course, none other than the Lady Hermit who has retired to recuperate after a serious injury that still troubles her three years later. She befriends Cui Ping, who for the longest while doesn't suspect Miss Leng is the Lady Hermit, & quite amusingly suggests to Leng that she should start learning martial arts. "I can teach you," the young woman boasts in her friendly proud manner.
Cui Ping is full of self-importance & pride & wants to increase her martial knowledge so that she can become the number one martial artist of "the martial world." But she is not emptily prideful; she is chivalrous to the core, & wants to bring down Black Demon (Hap Wong), an evil s.o.b. whose palatial fortress is a center for the martial instruction of bullies, scoundrels, thieves & murderers.
It happens that Black Demon is the guy who nearly killed the Lady Hermit with his Shadowless Claw. She spent the next two years all but bedridden, & a third year still recovering, but at the same time studying the problem of how to counter the Shadowless Claw. She believes she has discovered the Tiger Claw style requiring a series of daggers, by which Black Demon might be defeated. Her persisting injury makes it difficult to test her theory.
Cui's search for the Lady Hermit tempts Leng to come out of hiding, though she resists the temptation, & still posing as a housekeeper warns Cui she is not nearly strong enough to defeat Black Demon.
Still following rumors of the Lady Hermit's whereabouts, Cui heads out to a temple that claims to have the Lady Hermit as its chief abbess. The temple is a big scam with gangsters who pretend to be murderous ghosts by night, so that citizens will line up in front of the temple by day to buy protective charms at inflated prices.
The connection between ghosts & the Lady Hermit is that her title associates her with Zhong-kui, a homeless, wandering god of literature & arts, including martial arts, whose image is placed on gate-posts, doors, & windows to keep demons at bay. When Zhong-kui gave up his bodily form in the world, he did so by means of suicide. So in spite of his saintly nature, he became the King of Ghosts in the nether regions. And it would be too subtle a point to be certain, but when Cui Ping makes her final raid on the Black Demon's fortress, there's an element of suicidal rage perhaps identifying her, too, with Zhong-kui.
At the temple, Cui Ping demands to see the Lady Hermit, but is refused audience. She immediately suspects something doesn't add up, as the Lady Hermit is chivalrous by nature, & there's no way Cui's unmet sifu would take such advantage of people. Even if the ghosts were real, Lady Hermit should be helping to get rid of them, not benefiting financially from peasants' fears.
Come night, Cui lurks in the shadowy streets of the village watching the fake ghosts going from house to house. Any that do not have an expensively purchased charm on every door & window, the "ghosts" attack that house. When Cui interferes, another great action sequence unfolds, Cui alone with whip & sword cutting down bad guys in rapid succession, until they nearly get the better of her.
It's then that the Lady Hermit appears to save Cui. She wears an enormous sedge-hat with translucent veil to protect her identity. The calm ferocity of the Lady Hermit's martial expertise is awesome to Cui, as she knew would be the case.
Recognizing Leng Yushuang's voice even behind the veil, Cui sets out the next day to the household where the great swordswoman has been living humbly as a servant. But having revealed herself, Leng has left the village so as not to endanger the family she'd been living with.
Cui continues to pursue her sifu & after much begging & pleading, is accepted as a disciple to be trained specifically to kill Black Demon & put an end to his regional reign of terror.
Together they repair to an abandoned farmhouse on a hilltop & practice martial skills. Leng Yushuang's waist & back injury continues to bother her a great deal, & eventually Cui Ping sets out on a journey to rough & rugged mountains where a healing herb can be found. The quest for the healing herb is a common one in Chinese folklore, epitomized in the legend of Madame White Snake & usually done to save the life of one's mate or father, which conveys the closeness of master & disciple for Yushang Leng & Cui Ping.
However, we don't get to follow Cui on her mountain adventure, but instead follow what unfolds when the Lady Hermit's disciple is not present to assist. Black Demon attacks the Wang family with whom Leng had been living, killing all of the household, except handsome Changchun (Lieh Lo) who is badly wounded but survives.
He seeks out Leng Yushuang who uses her Taoist knowledge to heal him. He has been in love with her these last three long years, a fact greatly complicated by the fact that Cui has fallen in love with him. Miss Leng does in fact reciprocate these feelings, but has sworn never to ponder such things, nor plan for any future, until Black Demon is banished from the world.
With the slaughter of the Wangs, the Lady Hermit must do something even though her injury has flared up. Tracking the Black Demon's minions to a certain teahouse cafe, she's obviously far outnumbered, yet leaps into their midst without hesitation. She points to three men amidst the many & forwarns them, "I want your head! Your leg! Your arm!" What a moment.
Cui returns from her mountain journey & immediately detects something between Yushuang & Changchun.
Hurt & angered, she all but renounces her discipleship, & sets out toward the fortress of the Black Demon, though not nearly advanced enough in her training to defeat him, & surely understanding she has no chance of returning alive.
The Lady Hermit despite her injury has no choice but to herself set out to attack the fortress of Black Demon, or Cui will certainly be killed. The journey is fraught with peril because there are a series of defensive posts with Black Demon's men along the way.
When Cui has her amazing one-against-all sequence on the swinging bridge, she uses her sword to cut the bridge behind her, which slows down Leng Yushuang's progress in catching up to her. Thus Cui arrives alone. Black Demon's enormous flag incorporates the symbol for Number One atop a high pagoda, & Cui can't stand it. She decides to fight her way up the outside of the pagoda, killing enemies at every level, in order to cut down the boastful flag.
The final reel becomes all-out-action, though as always the action is a reflection of characterization, very distinct from the usual interchangeable kung-fu action seen in films of vastly less artistic appeal. An incredible swordfest begins with Cui by herself against many, an explosive bundle of energy, until Black Demon calls his men away from her & faces her alone. He's strong indeed, but the Lady Hermit arrives once more to save her rambunctious protege.
Leng had hoped to train her disciple long enough to take down Black Demon, but as things have developed, she must do it herself, injury notwithstanding. Taking injuries of no small consequence, one after another, each time Black Demon lands some gruesome blow, he steps away with yet another pair of daggers stuck hard & deep in his body, along certain meridians that weaken him each time.
Shih Szu is one of the most beautiful of swordswomen ever to grace the silver screen, but even she cannot out-do Cheng Pei-pei's grace, power, & physical glory. Indeed, of all the wondrously attractive actresses to play swordswomen or anything else in kung fu cinema, there has never been another Cheng Pei-pei.
For Cheng Pei-pei is not merely beautiful beyond compare, but when she acts out a chivalrous & heroic character, the degree of conviction is simply not equalled elsewhere. It's as though deep down inside Cheng Pei-pei, she & not just the characters she plays has a heroic core.
And if this film really was intended as Cheng Pei-pei's farewell performance for fans who would never forget her, what a superb farewell it was. If kung-fu cinema were on average even half this good, it'd be the most artful cinema the world has yet known.
Continue to next Cheng Pei Pei film:
Raw Courage, 1969
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl