"If victory favors me, I will protect your child with my life."

"I ask you not to worry about that possibility. Because my son and I live on the Demon Way in Hell, we're prepared to descend into Hell through the Six Realms and Four Lives."

Lady of Steel

I can say I love Shaw Brothers movies, because most of the ones I’ve seen are so good. But there are so many more of them than I’ll ever see. Every once in a while I remember that and I check one out. This one is from 1970 and it stars one of the pioneering female martial arts movie stars, Cheng Pei-pei, perhaps best known for COME DRINK WITH ME.

My dad could beat up your dad with one dagger stabbed into his skull.

It starts with an origin story. Some guys transporting silver taels get ambushed at an inn. The main guy is so badass that he keeps fighting even though he has daggers sticking out of his back and forehead. He dies, but his young daughter Fang Ying Qi is carried into the woods where she’s found and adopted by a kung fu master named Xuan Zhen (Ku Wen-Chung, a prolific actor and director since the ’40s). In her first appearance after the opening credits, the master has been enjoying his tea, when suddenly Cheng Pei-pei as grown up Ying Qi drops in from above the frame – I think she’s been hanging out in the trees.

The master realizes that she’s old enough now that she’s gonna want to go “downhill” to get revenge on her father’s killer Han Shi Xiong (Huang Chung-Hsin, FIST OF FURY, THE WAY OF THE DRAGON) – whose dagger she carries as a reminder – if he’s still alive. “Even if he’s dead I still want to desecrate his corpse,” she notes. Which would be an original topic for a movie, but less cinematic.

The master would be okay with her revenge plot, except for these times we’re living in, you know? He worries that because the Jins are invading and the politicians only care about covering their own asses, “We martial artists should not just stand by and let this happen.”

“I want to serve my country even if it means death,” she says. Some RED DAWN shit. So she agrees to do her patriotic duty to deliver the master’s letter to Lord Xia (Fang Mien, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH) in the Flying Dragon Fortress on Da Kun Mountain.

On her way there though she happens to pick an inn where some shit is going down. Master Yan is also delivering a secret message. And the Beggars’ Clan led by Qin Shang Yi (Yueh Hua, MONKEY GOES WEST) are causing a scene, demanding the room that this Tom Ying guy is already staying in. He tries to fight them off and Yin Qi sees it and, not knowing that Tom Ying was involved in slaughtering her entire family, starts throwing darts at the beggars.

Here we see not only Ying-qi’s fighting prowess, but her stealth. I love when she reveals her hiding place under this roof here.

But she’s spotted by the beggar Shang Yi, and they have a confrontation and duel in the middle of the town, leaping nimbly onto bridges and rooftops, facing off in cool poses like these:

Later she returns to her hotel room and, I mean I haven’t experienced this myself but I think it’s fair to say that if you find something like this in your room you should be careful. I feel comfortable giving that travel advice.

I’m sure some of you are like me, you have a hard time resisting a movie that has a line like “Are you using the Ice Steel Sword?” Well, this is a movie that has that exact line in it. I just love martial artists identifying each other’s specific fighting styles and weapons, especially when they have cool names like that. Another thing that’s very appealing: martial artists just hopping into and out of trees all the time, like human squirrels. It’s a world where people leap up and down the levels instead of taking the stairs, flip off of and onto rooftops, run across water, identify people by their darts and swords. And that’s a world I enjoy visiting.

Ying Qi and Shang Yi later become friends while hanging out on a branch. He confesses that he read her letter, knows about her mission and has been secretly protecting her since then because she’s “a righteous heroine.”

When she arrives to deliver the letter everybody is disappointed that it’s not the master himself coming to help them, among other things. Even though she tells them she’s priest Xuan Zhen’s student, they make her demonstrate her kung fu before they have any faith in her, so she has to leap to the top of a tree, balance on one foot on a thin branch and throw rocks at birds. Which they would never make a guy do. Let’s be honest.

But if you don’t believe me, I have evidence:

But eventually, like Dirty Harry in THE ENFORCER, everybody’s gonna have to catch on that she knows what she’s doing.

Delivering the letter was the goal of her journey, but only the beginning of her adventure. Before long she gets surrounded by like 20 swordsmen and takes them all on, and it’s not the climax yet. They try to frame her as a traitor so she throws a chair, jumps out a window and sword fights a whole mob again before stealing a horse and somehow jumping it over a tall fence.

I don’t know if she’s been trained in this, or she just figures out how to do it, but she good at disguise. She passes for male just by wearing a cool hat. I think it’s kind of like when celebrities are in public and they wear a baseball hat down low to try to make themselves less obvious.

Then she goes the opposite route, using her femininity to lure in this sucker by staking out a tea joint and playing a suggestive song.

She giggles bashfully as he follows her into the woods, then kills him. Then she’s able to pass for him just by wearing his robe – doesn’t even need the hat this time.

She also has an old lady disguise that she uses to cause a scene at a restaurant. That’s my favorite one.

And it’s interesting because many years later we would know Cheng as Jade Fox, the Invincible Jen’s wicked mentor in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and at that point she actually was almost as old as they made her up to be in this movie. So you can see that they weren’t too far off. She took better care of her teeth, though.

Although it answers few of the questions you may have about STEEL or MAN OF STEEL, LADY OF STEEL is another fun romp from those brothers Shaw. I’m not attuned enough to recognize a directorial voice in their productions, but for what it’s worth, director Ho Meng-Hua also did THE CAVE OF THE SILKEN WEB, OILY MANIAC and THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (among dozens of others).

I hope it’s not condescending to say that Cheng is adorable in this. She’s out for blood but she has a childlike joy and mischief still in her. And her style is unique – a little unruly, like she’s in just a little bit over her head, fresh from the mountain in her first adventure, but she pulls it off. Not that she’s messing around. Heads will roll. Or, technically, be delivered on a platter. I really liked this one.

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21 Responses to “Lady of Steel”

  1. Old person make-up is almost always rubbish, but, weirdly, at least to my eyes, Cheng Pei-pei has pretty much grown into that exact look, give or take a tooth or two. I expect we’ll be reminded of that when the live action MULAN arrives next year. MULAN seems to have my idea of a dream cast.

    I always think of LADY OF STEEL as a weak imitation of COME DRINK WITH ME or even GOLDEN SWALLOW, but just looking at those screenshots has put a big smile on my face. As has been mentioned here by others, the Shaw Brothers look was a very special thing.

    Thanks, Vern. If you ever fancy reviewing the ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN movies, I’m in!

  2. Oh yeah this is the good stuff. I haven’t seen this one (is it even possible to see every Shaw Brothers production in a single life?) but it sounds fun.

    This also seems like a good time to encourage everyone to seek out DUEL TO THE DEATH, a 1984 Hong Kong piece a buddy of mine introduced me to years ago due to the fact that it is extremely fuckin’ awesome. It’s the first movie by Ching Siu-tung, who would later do fight choreo for HERO and SHAOLIN SOCCER. It has a pretty boilerplate China vs. Japan story about an annual duel (TO THE DEATH!) between chosen representatives of each nation, but the best stuff is the relationship between the two main fighters (which never grows into a true Fight Brotherhood, but they clearly come to respect and understand each other more than they do any of their respective countrymen, and the ending of their story is legitimately weirdly touching), but mainly the draw is all the absolutely wild ninja shit that happens- you got kites that fly around and then turn into ninjas, you got 15 ninjas that all combine into one 25-foot-tall ninja, you got a naked lady in a ninja mask using her wiles to distract enemies, you got a fuckin’ ninja that gets his head chopped off and his head then gets impaled on a stick and then the decapitated head makes fun of one of the heros before it fuckin’ straight up EXPLODES FOR NO REASON.

    DUEL TO THE DEATH rules, is what I’m trying to let everyone know here.

  3. THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN is awesome, it’s the Shaw Brothers version of KING KONG.

  4. Experts reckon the Shaw Brothers produced over 1000 movies. I’ve seen only a handful, but if you like one you pretty much like them all.

  5. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this one. I love Cheng Pei Pe, and while Meng Hua Ho’s career is spotty, he made a few damn good ones, including the awesome LADY HERMIT (also starring Cheng), which I swear has a scene that they directly ripped off in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.

    I will gladly cosign the DUEL TO THE DEATH recommendation.

  6. THE OILY MANIAC by the same director is probably not even in the top ten best movies with MANIAC in their title, but the title does not lie, it does deliver an OILY MANIAC, and then some. Also I appreciate its brazen daylight highway robbery of the theme from JAWS for a movie called THE OILY MANIAC, which, again, is 100% about an OILY MANIAC.

    And yes, DUEL TO THE DEATH is A+ craziness.

  7. Yes, DUEL TO THE DEATH.

    I’ve seen quite a few Shaw flicks in my time, favorite being THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS but CHINESE SUPER NINJAS is up there. But my most wanted review would be HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD. For further reading, I highly, highly recommend Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. Essential book on HK cinema.

  8. I saw Jackie Chan listed as being in this movie on letterboxd.com so I’m assuming he did some stunt work?

    Adam, I still have Sex and Zen and I’ll never get rid of it.

    Everybody, the one movie I always recommend to people is The Deadliest Art. It’s a Golden Harvest film that’s like That’s Entertainment. It introduced me to a lot of the 80s martial arts movies. The only problem is that they show a lot of fights from movies where I”m not sure I even need to see that particular movie.

  9. I usually lurk and do not comment. All I have to say about this movie is “fuck” and “yes”.

  10. No joke, Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head was a book I bought at a Half-Price and became enamored with at the same time as I had just moved to Austin. Vulcan Video is a thing and I started hitting them up every weekend because their Asian film section is just, just amazing. I ticked off all of my bucket-list flicks from Sex and Zen plus many more.

    Vern, no joke, and it ain’t in the book. I got the recommendation from the guy who ordered and maintained the HK section when we had that awkward fifteen minutes of me browsing every title while he’s shelving cases. We talked and he called out one that…well, if you watch it, you’ll know why it’s perfect for you.

    The film is “Too Many Ways To Be No. 1” and it’s the most most. Even if not, I’d be interested in your analysis.

    The HK market is and has been a far too fertile soil for you to not be uprooting.

  11. And, jeez, bad subject for me to get ranting on but you’ve really got to check out a little HK flick called “The Big Heat” co-directed by an up-and-coming Johnny To and starring Waise Lee as a lethal ass-kicking cop who’s having trouble with his trigger finger freezing up. Phillip Kwok is in there giving it that Shaw Bros. cred and, just, really, it’s a fantastic hard-boiled cop actioneer without tipping too far one way or the other. I hate little “trivia” bits, but, it’s often acknowledged that this is the film that “Speed” took the “shoot the hostage in the leg” scene came from. Maybe. Probably. But it’s still way more awesome in “The Big Heat”. Even with all the options when it comes to pre-1997 HK flicks on this subject, this is such a pure “cop flick”.

    I won’t tell you what to do but if you get a chance to check it out, I think you’ll be pleased.

  12. *commas and quotes, commas and quotes*

  13. SEX AND ZEN AND A BULLET IN THE HEAD is absolutely the book to own. But being a Hong Kong movie fanatic is a dangerous and costly hobby. I had to force myself into rehad in the late 90’s to realize that I can’t own every movie in the book.

  14. I remember seeing SEX & ZEN AND A BULLET IN THE HEAD in the mailorder section of my favourite, German fantasy and horror themed movie magazine back in the days. Kinda weird that 20 years later someone randomly mentions it on a Monday morning.

  15. This is not your ordinary Monday morning bunch!

  16. I also reference SEX & ZEN & A TERRIBLE BOOK TITLE whenever HK film comes up. It’s way more enamoured of costume pageantry and melodrama than I am so I’ve learned to take its praise with a grain of salt, but when it comes to identifying the really weird ones, it’s aces.

  17. But even if it was written 23 years ago, a chapter like «Ten that rip» shows it’s as relevant as ever.

  18. Yeah, the “Ten that Rip” section is as relevant as it ever was. But that book even got me check out some flicks I probably wouldn’t have otherwise; Erotic Ghost Story, Rouge, My Heart is That Eternal Rose, etc.

    Just essential, though I can see Majestyk’s reservation.

  19. Oh, that book made me buy some movies I probably never watch again…

  20. Mr. Grumpy can’t even say something 100% nice about a book. I’m just kidding Mr. M. But seriously, Hong Kong Action Cinema is a good book to if you can overlook the fact that we learned Bey Logan is a creep.

  21. HKAC by Bey Logan is a thing I’m looking at right now because it is propping my PS3 up to alleviate the heat-up. It props up my gaming system is the best thing I can say about that book. (I’m a dick, it has some good bits but it has no interest in fact-checking its info, so…)

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