Wow. A Hong Kong martial arts movie which puts a female-female relationship at the heart of the story.
A servant called Leng Yushang observes talented young woman called Cui Ping comes to town. Cui Ping is embarking on a career of helping innocent people and kicking butt. She is searching for “Zhong Kui Niang” (who I will henceforth refer to as “the Lady Hermit”) so she can become her disciple and learn how to kick butt even harder. The catch is that nobody knows where ‘the Lady Hermit’ is. The ‘Lady Hermit’ had been badly injured by the ‘Black Demon’, and hasn’t been seen since. Little does Cui Ping know that Leng Yushang is, in fact, the ‘Lady Hermit’ living incognito.
Of course, while Cui Ping tries to uphold justice, she gets into a lot of trouble (criminals generally are not amused when their activities are discrupted), so Leng Yushang has to interfere, and eventually, break her cover.
Zhong Kui is a figure from Chinese mythology who fights and surppresses demons. “Zhong Kui Niang” means “Lady Zhong Kui,” implying the Leng Yushang, like Zhong Kui, is a mysterious vanquisher of evil.
This film stars the legendary martial arts actress Cheng Peipei as the “Lady Hermit.” You know how I always like to compare martial arts to dancing? Before starring in martial arts movies, Cheng Peipei studied ballet for six years. This is also the first film which casts Shi Szu in a leading role as “Cui Ping,” and thus put her on the map. I’ve read that Shaw Brothers intentionally wanted to make Shi Szu “the next Cheng Peipei,” so the purpose of the film was probably to transfer the aura of Cheng Peipei onto Shi Szu. Not that I’m complaining.
Since this was made during the golden era of the Shaw Brothers, of course all of the fighting is good from a technical standpoint. However, it was a bit difficult for me to get really involved in the action because the Lady Hermit and Cui Ping mow down their opponents too quickly. Instead of making the Lady Hermit and Cui Ping seem awesome, it just makes their opponents look terribly incompetent. The heroes really should struggle a bit more when vanquishing their foes.
Of course, I do like the fight at the suspension bridge, simply because it integrates great scenery and action so beautifully.
Which brings me to the topic of …
I love the scenery in this film!
First of all, it is beautiful scenery, but it’s not just that it’s beautiful – I love the way the characters really seem to live in the scenery.
In some movies, the scenery simply stuns the audience with its beauty. And I like that too. But in this movie, rather than stunning the audience, it naturally blends into the movie as a whole.
I think this might be partially because it is not isolated from the characters/actors. When filmmakers really want to emphasis the scenery, they place the scenery alone, without the characters.
But this film does not do that often, and when it does, it chooses relatively soft scenery which blends smoothly with the preceeding and following shots. Often, the actors are incorporated into the overall visual image presented.
And I like the trick where characters are often introduced by reflections in the water.
And it’s also nice that there is variety in the scenic shots: grassy mountains, bamboo forests, temples at night…
You know how I like to compare martial arts flicks to dance musicals…
Doesn’t this screenshot feel a bit Busby Berkeley?
Female-Female Relationship For the Win
Since almost every wuxia story has a variety of female characters, it is not hard to find stories which pass the letter of the Bechdel test. But wuxia stories which depict deep female-female relationships are rare. The only other wuxia story I know about which puts female-female relationships front and center (rather than as an aside to the Much More Important Male-Female Relationships) is The Celestial Zone.
By the way, when I say male-female relationships tend to get more weight than female-female realtionships, I’m not just talking about the romantic relationships. For some reason, more weight gets put on daughter-father and sister-brother relationships than daughter-mother and sister-sister relationships.
The development of the relationship is what sucked me into the movie, as Cui Ping and Leng Yushang slowly reveal themselves to each other. The moment when Leng Yushang finally accepts Cui Ping as her student is sweet indeed.
Of course, the relationship is so compelling because both Leng Yushang and Cui Ping are individually interesting characters. Leng Yushang is collected, experienced, calm, quiet, grounded … and slowly healing old wounds. However, while she’s very discreet, she is not the least bit cold – she’s quite warm, friendly, and open when she is not being the ‘Lady Hermit’ or trying to hide her identity.
Meanwhile Cui Ping is young, energetic, brash, bold, and naive. She has very strong feelings about almost everything, which is what drives her to try to uphold justice, constantly improve her martial arts, and try so hard to find the “Lady Hermit.”
You might notice that these two are a bit like opposites, and I find their relationship compelling in the same way that good ‘opposites attract’ romances are compelling.
I really have to applaud both Cheng Peipei and Shi Szu’s performances, as I feel that their acting is what made the teacher-student relationship between the Leng Yushang and Cui Ping feel so intense.
… But There’s Something Which Irritated Me
And that is Changchun.
Well, not Changchun himself. As a character, he is so empty that there’s not much about him personally which can irritate me. It’s his position in the story which irritates me.
First of all, I don’t understand why the female characters are so attracted to him. There is nothing in the script which explains this, so the only explanation I can think of is that he is physically handsome, in which case they should have cast a better-looking actor.
Now, I do actually like the scenes between Changchun and Leng Yushang, since they seem genuinely tender without being over-the-top. Okay, maybe I can understand why Leng Yushang likes him.
What really irritates me is that a) Cui Ping gets a crush on Changchun and b) when Cui Ping discovers how sweet and tender Changchun and Leng Yushang are, even though she is not in a committed exclusive relationship with Changchun, she decides to break off her relationship with Leng Yushang.
Cui Ping went to great lengths to become Leng Yushang’s disciple, and her actions indicate that Leng Yushang is the most important person in the world to her. It’s understandable that she would be upset to see Leng Yushang and Changchun touching each other lovingly … but to break up with Leng Yushang over a mere crush seems to indicate that the teacher-student bond was not as important to her as the audience was led to believe.
I will admit that, as an aromantic, I am particularly sensistive to this sort of thing (if you do not know much about aromantic people, here’s a primer). I have nothing against romance – I even like well-written fictional romances – but to me, full-blown romance is like sisterhood – very common, frequently interesting, but something I will probably never personally experience. That’s okay, because sibling relationships and romantic relationships are not the only kinds of relationships which can be psychologically fulfilling.
I do not like being told that romantic relationships are so special that it’s only natural that any other relationships – no matter how deep – can be dumped for romance – regardless of how shallow the romance is. If individual people want to only value romantic relationships, that’s their business (though I think they should inform their friends, families, and colleagues that they do not value non-romantic relationships). But to see such a wonderful teacher-student relationship disrupted over such an empty romance is heartbreaking.
Then again, Chang Yushang herself is hurt by Cui Ping’s actions, and it seems that Cui Ping is so upset not because her feelings for Changchun are so deep, but because her feelings for Leng Yushang are do deep.
And this brings us back to culture.
One of the reasons I enjoy Chinese-language fiction as much as I do is that, compared to mainstream English-language fiction, the value of romantic relationships is more balanced with other kinds of relationships. And ultimately, the movie does vindicate me, and show that the relationship between Leng Yushang and Cui Ping is far more important than anything going on with Changchun. In an American movie … I think that vindication would have been less likely.
Even son … sigh … I wish they had chosen a different plot device to acheive the same effect.
Availability in English
This movie is available on Region 3 DVD with English subtitles.
A beautiful movie about a beautiful relationship between two vivid characters. What more can I say?
This column will go on hiatus for two weeks.
The Dragon Boat Festival is happening on June 12th! Time for Sara to go watch some dragon boat races and eat some rice dumplings. She also finally has an excuse to visit the town of Longtan.