“There’s no ancient Chinese secret that’s gonna heal broken bones in a single… night!? Impossible!”
My friends, I have been derelict in my duty of making sure the world knows about LADY BLOODFIGHT. Yeah, I know, it sounds like LADYBLOOD FIGHT, or like an all-female reboot of the obscure Bolo Yeung movie BLOODFIGHT, but think of it as WOMEN’S BLOODSPORT. It’s a great DTV fighting tournament movie starring Black Widow stunt double and future action superstar Amy Johnston. I watched it a few months ago, having been put onto it by my readers (shout out to Felix and whoever else mentioned it in the comments) but the write-up got away from me until I watched it again today and I loved it even more.
Johnston is the daughter of a world kickboxing champion, and has studied martial arts since the age of 6. She mostly works as a stuntwoman, but has roles in RAZE and Scott Adkins’ upcoming ACCIDENT MAN, and she starred in one with Dolph called FEMALE FIGHT SQUAD that I’ve heard isn’t as good. But after LADY BLOODFIGHT we better be seeing more of her.
If there’s another action star to compare her to, I guess it would have to be Cynthia Rothrock. Johnston’s persona is a pretty blond nice girl who at first glance you wouldn’t expect to be tough. Then she flips and spinkicks and keeps getting her block knocked, getting back up, wiping the blood off her mouth, shaking the stars off, and running right back into it.
We first meet her character, Jane Jones, working as a waitress. When she punches a customer for touching her boob she gets fired, then jumped by the same goon in a parking garage. It’s cathartic to watch her beat the shit out of this asshole, and also his friends, even the guy that was trying to hold him back. When there’s only one left standing he runs away like a coward and she chases him and tackles him.
There’s some grounding to the fantasy wish fulfillment, though. She’s a total John McClane. You can practically feel her bruises and scrapes as she limps away, badly hurt…
…but one would hope with some sense of accomplishment.
Eh, maybe not. Too bad. Well, we appreciate what she did.
With no job to hold her down she heads to Hong Kong, where her dad died mysteriously some years ago. As soon as she gets off a bus she’s ganged up on by Street Toughs – what is this, TAKEN? – and gets help from passing kung fu master Shu (Muriel Hofmann, COVERT OPERATION, English dubs of various anime).
As we know from a prologue, Shu was a finalist in the Kumite five years ago, when she fought her ex-friend Wai (Kathy Wu, MOTORWAY) to a draw. Due to some as-yet-unexplained grudge, Wai stubbornly refused to split their winnings, and now each seeks a successor to fight for them in the tournament.
So we have two parallel stories and intercut training montages. At first it seems like Jane is only the hero because we saw her first – otherwise Wai’s student Ling (Jenny Wu, Top of the Lake) would seem like the protagonist. I like the story of this bratty troublemaker with the goth makeup, piercings and LEON sunglasses who is caught trying to steal a sword from Wai’s kung fu school (shades of CROUCHING TIGER), has to swordfight her and is sort of forced into being her student. One of Wai’s tests is having her hit on a burly dude in front of his girlfriend, prompting a fight with the girl, then the dude and his drinking buddies.
But Johnston makes us root for her naive American traveler intent on proving herself. The story does acknowledge her being out of place. She gets called “Vanilla” and “white girl” and (most poetically) “the blue-eyed bullet from the West,” and she’s used as a gimmick to pump up the betting pool. Tournament officials scoff at her American-ness but nod approvingly at her Chinese calligraphy. She’s not trying to be the face of martial arts, she’s just trying to earn a place in the group.
So she’s willing to sweep leaves, live on tea, learn to hit a giant bell to make it ring without hurting her hands (I love cool training shit like that). Shu also counsels her about the loss of her father, whose death is somehow tied to the Kumite.
(NOTE: It’s never discussed that the Kumite we see is all female, or explained if there’s a separate male division that her dad was in.)
As in so many great martial arts stories (and STAR WARS) there’s a yin-yang, Light Side/Dark Side, opposites kind of thing going on between the two teachers. Wai represents Shaolin, she has a modern school, a harsh attitude, a mastery of the stern businesswoman look, watching the fights intensely, without signs of emotion, and she seeks revenge. Shu represents Wudan, she has a humble, dusty old temple, speaks softly and in metaphors, is in mourning and doesn’t believe in vengeance. Wai wears black and teaches her student Dim-Mak, the death touch. Shu wears white, and uses Chi power to heal an injured bird, and then Jane.
To me, fighting tournament movie are like pizza: even a bad one can be pretty good. But this one stands out from the pack. It looks great, good production value, no gloomy fights in chain link cages. The non-final competition fights are all in the same location, but it’s well-designed and open enough for clear action filmatism from a distance and all angles. There’s a pleasing array of fighting styles purported to be Shaolin kung fu, Muay Thai, capoeira, Krav Maga, boxing. Then they add weapons, including nunchaka, halberd, two-handed sword and some kind of long bladed staff.
And the leads are compelling across the board. I like this protagonist, I like her teacher, I like her opponent (although, let’s face it, she’s a bitch) and I like her opponent’s teacher, and I’m invested in all four of their arcs. There’s a colorful batch of supporting fighters, especially the Chong Li/Tong Po/Ivan Drago type exotic monster foe – the muscular, badly scarred Russian convict Svietta (Mayling Ng, who played an Amazon named Orana in WONDER WOMAN). Her bad guy status is confirmed when she does that classic villain move of constantly raising her arms to demand adulation from the crowd. And also when she ground-and-pounds an opponent unconscious, picks her up by her hair, balances her, and kicks her against the metal shipping container wall.
Jane doesn’t have that kind of cruelty in her, but she does beat up some dudes off the clock so Shu dumps her ’cause she’s “Like a fine sword being used to cut down stray dogs.” The abandonment leads to a ringside exchange I liked:
“Where’s your teacher? She leave ya alone?”
“Story of my life.”
Shu’s not giving Jane enough credit for her empathy. The camera knows what she’s all about. It shows her concerned eyes when other women are getting hurt. They also show her looking nervous before fights. After getting cornered in her weapons round and managing to still knock her opponent out in spectacular fashion she immediately tries to rouse her to make sure she’s all right. She’s the only one who tries to intervene when someone else’s fight is going to the death, and to get medics for the victim. She goes into the locker room, her tank covered in a dead woman’s blood, and screams. She looks in a filthy mirror, prays to her dad, cries and says that she’s scared, gets taunted for it.
For male action stars it’s hard to get away with this much emotion and vulnerability without it seeming like softness. But for Jane it just makes her the most sympathetic one, the one who will come out of this thing with values and humanity intact. It earns her place as the protagonist.
Does LADY BLOODFIGHT have the dreaded male gaze? I guess it would have to. It’s a cast of attractive women and they’re gonna fight in tight clothes. But I truly never got that G.L.O.W. hubba-hubba-this-part-is-for-the-fellas type of feeling. In fact I think they deliberately tweak that expectation in the scene where Jane first walks into the locker room. The rock ‘n roll and the slow motion kick in like a T&A movie, but the one butt shot is overshadowed by the camera ogling rippling muscles, back tattoos and arms being wrapped like a RAMBO suiting-up montage. It’s not about “look at these hotties” it’s about “these women will fuck you up.”
I’m not the arbiter of proper gender politics, but I like the way this one does it. There are groups of men who harass or attack her, and who are gamblers at the tournament. Otherwise, all the characters are women: the fighters, the teachers, the bosses, Jane’s mom (Ines Laimins, CHASING THE DRAGON). They don’t have some male character commenting on that or making it a thing. It just is that way.
Though there’s a plentitude of satisfying ass-handings, it’s the humanity of the story that makes it great. It’s sincere about rejecting vengeance and resolving problems in a moral way. And it pulls it off.
The action director is Xiong Xin Xin, former Jet Li stunt double (MARTIAL ARTS OF SHAOLIN, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA I, II & IV) who also choreographed DRAGON INN, DOUBLE TEAM, SIMON SEZ and TIME AND TIDE. Oh, that doesn’t impress you? Well, I do believe he’s also this guy in DOUBLE TEAM:
So I trust you now understand we’re in good hands. Or I guess feet.
The screenplay is by Bey Logan & Judd Bloch. Bloch has no other credits, UPDATE: It has now been reported that Logan is a shitty sexual harasser guy, including (I heard) on this movie, so let’s not bother with his bio.
but Logan is the British-born Asian cinema expert who, as a magazine writer and then producer was an early supporter of Donnie Yen, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Tony Jaa, among others. His scholarship includes the book Hong Kong Action Cinema and many informative commentary tracks on Dragon Dynasty releases. As a screenwriter he was involved in the Gary Daniels movie WHITE TIGER, the Donnie Yen movie BALLISTIC KISS, and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY, which he only got a co-producer credit on, but it’s full of the kind of mythical-philosophical stuff he loves. That doesn’t impress you? Here he is fighting Donnie Yen in the Fist of Fury tv series: And also helping Yen with a fight demonstration on a 1991 talk show while wearing a Batman t-shirt tucked into acid-washed jeans:
Okay, maybe I don’t need to provide fight clips for each person on the credits. I don’t have one for director Chris Nahon, but he’s the French commercial and music video director who did the Besson-produced Jet Li movie KISS OF THE DRAGON and the Ronny Yu-produced manga adaptation BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE. He’s also credited as an editor and camera operator, so he’s literally hands-on, not some passion-less for-hire bore.
I love this movie. I think it’s a new classic of the traditional western-style martial arts movies of Van Damme and friends. There’s nothing original about it, but that’s not the point. It’s a comfort movie – variant of an old recipe, cooked just right. And with fresh ingredients. The novelty of showcasing a new American female martial arts star this appealing is certainly one of its strengths, but I think you can set that aside too. In story, characters and choreography it excels. And it probly has the most life-affirming, joyful ending of any movie of this type (thanks in part to a song called “Wait A Minute” by Eddie Ray – one of two funky soul deep cuts they got from The Numero Group).
There’s a corny ass moment during the final fight when it seems like Jane is done for, but she looks over and sees her dead father watching her like an Obi-Wan Kenobi ghost, and she smiles. For a second I laughed at the goofiness, but then I thought about it on another level when Ling turned around to see what Jane was looking at. Jane is being powered by the love and memory of her father, staying with her and inspiring her just as Shu taught. Ling looks and only sees the people who are physically standing there, a bunch of gamblers, cheats and murderers. That’s all she has. It’s kind of a deep non-denominational spiritual message if you’re willing to take such things from Kumite movies. (I am.)
Bless you, LADY BLOODFIGHT.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.