I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Lady Bloodfight

“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.

This entry was posted on Monday, December 4th, 2017 at 11:16 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Lady Bloodfight”

  1. It’s great to get your thoughts on this one, Vern. I think your pizza/fight movie analogy is very apt, although for me Lady Bloodfight is a good but not great effort. I really enjoy all of the things you praise but I feel that the editing and framing of the fights is quite poor and detracts from the obvious excellence of the cast (especially Johnston).

    The other thing I found unfortunate is that at least on the UK DVD, Nahon’s name is spelled wrongly on the cover – whoops!

  2. This one has a great balance: lots of excellent action, some sincere emotionality, and a soupçon of utter fucking ridiculousness. I was already onboard but the Obi Wan ghost at the end put it over the top.

    Speaking of which, I’m assuming this was actually written as a spec script for a BLOODSPORT reboot and the ghost was supposed to be Van Damme.

  3. I really enjoyed this one. A nice ‘like the old days’ but willing to push the genre forward as well and make it’s own mark.

  4. I’m genuinely thrilled to see this get a review this glowing, it really deserves it. I don’t decide whether I’m seeing a film or not based on the RT score, but 40% really strikes me as unfair for this one. I think the cast and visuals really really punched well above its paygrade, and its better than a lot of movies out this year sitting at twice that percentage score.

    2017 seems to have been a banner year for action movies that didn’t quite make the multiplexes, or only dropped in cinemas briefly. Didn’t catch Wolf Warrior 2, but Bloodfight, Boyka and Bahubali 2 have all hit the spot for me. The last 2 are definitely top five of the year for me, along with A Quiet Passion and The Love Witch (2017 release in the UK).

    I think its probably only a matter of time until Mayling Ng gets a real breakout vehicle, and the turn she gives here leap out at me like no one else has in DTV really since Adkins in Undisputed 2. She could really carry a franchise if someone cracked the right formula for her.

  5. Thanks for the shoutout Vern.

    Amy Johnston is someone we should all keep an eye out for.

  6. It’s good but I don’t love it. It’s not the best thing I have seen lately but it is better than most tournament fighting movies. It’s not nearly as memorable as Bloodsport nor are most of the characters. The Russian lady was awesome though and a total highlight.

  7. The Russian fighter Svietta was actually a better Final Boss.

    I saw Amy Johnston and Dolph’s FEMALE FIGHT CLUB earlier this year. There’s a fair bit of action (though they’re not up to BLOODFIGHT standards) and Amy Johnston shows a few dramatic chops here.

    Is it good? No. But its worth a look if you’re a Dolph/Amy Johnston fan.

  8. Vern, is Lady Bloodfight really that much better than 24 Hours to Live because usually the best movie I’ve seen in a while indicates it’s because you haven’t seen any real good movies. I would say that 24 Hours to Live is a better movie than Lady Bloodfight.

  9. That’s understandable, Sternshein, but I gotta follow my heart.

  10. Got a real kick (yep) out of this one a couple months back. Glad you did too, Vern.

    Bear with me here, but the locker room scene kind of reminded me of the way Lucky McKee uses music in his excellent The Woman– in that movie, the soundtrack often kinda crudely reflects what the shitbag protagonist has going on in his mind, but it is usually painfully at odds with what’s actually happening on screen. Lady Bloodfight’s locker room scene actually felt a little more subtle, in that it’s still glorifying women’s bodies and has the type of song playing that we’ve all come to expect for a scene like that– but like you said, Vern, the actual images fetishize the characters’/actors’ strength and ability rather than their normative sexual appeal. In fact, maybe the end result is a conflation of physically-powerful women with sex appeal. Which I am gonna come out here as in favor of.

  11. Amy’s first Tournament match with that Tae Kwan Do fighter was well done. You can tell from her opening stance that she’s been well trained (even though she takes a while to get used to first time combat).

  12. Not too surprised by the Bey Logan allegations. Everytime he talked about women it was the typical bro shit. Special highlights: a featurette he produced that was never released on video but was on his Youtube channel on how they make Hong Kong movies he does nothing but make sex jokes to to his female co-host (even using the good ‘ol ‘You know you like it) and he was on a podcast not too long ago and spent a decent bit talking about how he tried to fuck Gong Li this one time. Still very disappointing. I loved his book Hong Kong Action Cinema and I was a massive fan of his audio commentaries for the UK-based Hong Kong Legends label and later US-based Dragon Dynasty. Still remember ordering and eagerly awaiting each R2 disc to come in and even started blind-buying just to get his commentaries. Oh well, fuck ’em.

  13. I´ll still buy the 88 Asia Shaw brother releases and listen to teh commentaries. But boy was this news depressing.

  14. Same here. That Hollywood Reporter article was just crushing.

  15. Look at the bright side, we still have Ric Myers to carry on the torch for HK movies and a westerners thoughts on them.

  16. I’m not defending things but I’m noticing that people are starting to get called out for just being shitty men and not for actual sexual harassment or assault. Asking the actress to touch his penis is absolutely sexual harassment. But take the Dustin Hoffman thing. I wouldn’t act that way but he probably thought he was flirting with her, she was probably doing something that he thought was flirting back, and it finally took her saying something to him to realize he was being a dick. Though I’m coming from this as a 40 year old straight white guy who isn’t “woke” so what the fuck do I know.

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