Friday, December 17, 2010

Lady of the Law (1975), starring Shih Szu, Lo Lieh and Chang Pei-shan. Directed by Shen Chiang and Hsiao Yung.

Behind the scenes with Shih Szu.

DID an incident occur during the making of this film, prompting those at Shaw Brothers to bar their wuxia star Shih Szu from doing any more action-oriented leads not long after? It's a question yet to be answered satisfactorily in my mind.

The fansite Shaw Brothers Reloaded relates that sometime during '73-'74, "she heavily injured her right arm during a movie shoot", resulting in her being restricted "to play 'damsel-in-distress' roles only." Lady of the Law was put out in '75, but it's possible it was completed in '74 and its release temporarily delayed; this happened with Shaw pictures once in a while, so this fits into SBR's scenario. However, once I saw her in The Proud Youth, a '78 "sleeper" from Sun Chung, she was back doing a physical part, albeit a limited one in contrast to years past; based on this, any imposed ban wasn't a permanent one.

Regardless of how it came about, the notion is Szu was not happy with being treated like fragile china, as a result. Partly on advice from Ti Lung, she would find action on some independent productions (like the '79 Massacre Survivor) until her Shaw contract expired in '80; from there, she did TV work in Taiwan until she left the entertainment industry in '87. Considering how Fu Sheng's Shaw career got mucked up with his "Black September" on-set accidents, Szu was wise to get out while she was still in one piece. This fact alone makes Brother Fang relish all her movies now out on DVD that much more, including LotL, her "swansong" to Shaw wuxia films.

Aside from an interesting detour, the story is involved but fairly straightforward. Jiao Yaner (Lo Lieh) is out to avenge the death of his father, the chief of Yungtong Escorts after Chief Chen (Yang Chi-ching) of rival Wacheng Escorts had him killed in an elaborate scheme to become the main escort service (the ancestor to armored bank trucks) in the region, Chen skimming the coffers often while maintaining the facade of being an upright citizen. The younger Yaner only escaped death at the hands of Chen thanks to the intervention of sifu Madam White Brows (Ou-Yang Sha Fei) and her student, a little girl named Leng Rushuang. Chen was even brazen enough to go so far as to pledge to White Brows he'd raise the orphaned Jiao to manhood. Because he felt the boy was traumatized by his father's fate, he didn't think there would be any retaliation from him; he thought he was getting a servant who constantly feared for his life: a plum arrangement, in Chen's eyes.

In reality, several years after the passing of his father, Yaner has been only biding his time, learning the "Flaming Daggers" technique from a manual of his father's while he awaits the return of Rushuang, who promised to come see him again someday. One night, Chen's son (Dean Shek Tien) watches him practice in secret; he tells his father, and he's upset that despite deliberately not training Yaner in kung fu, he wound up doing it on his own. (White Brow suggested he shouldn't train the boy if he showed any bad temper; of course, Chen sneakily agreed to this.) Yaner is not as dumb as he looks, after all; moreover, he's dangerous in relation to all of Chen's illicit interests. Still, at the moment, he's more worried about someone else.

Rushuang (Shih Szu) is now known in the martial arts world as the "Lady of the Law", a vigilante who's partnered with the local authorities in the dispensing of justice. She is there in Ji County to help in the capture of a murdering rapist; as it turns out, the perpetrator is Chen's son. As they begin to feel the pressure of the investigation, Chen and his offspring (in an act that's so much "killing two birds with one stone") frame Yaner for the crimes, the son planting the body of his latest victim (the concubine of Valley Head, played by Chang Pei-shan) in Yaner's room.

Alas, once she sees where the corpse of the victim is, Rushuang is disappointed in Yaner, regretting she helped to save his life so long ago. Knowing she's not on his side (yet) and how he has no chance as long as Chen tries to orchestrate a speedy execution for him, Yaner is compelled to escape. Rushuang and some constables begin the pursuit, with Chen and his "demonseed" not far behind, hoping they can get to Yaner first. Now, the last hope for Yaner being exonerated is in his finding Officer Yan Bixian (Chan Shen), a witness who's being kept in protective custody at a nearby prison. Though the rapist blinded him with rocks and dirt in a desperate ploy to avoid capture (the night Rushuang arrived), he can still identify the culprit by his voice....

Writer and director Shen Chiang is reunited with his three stars from Heroes of Sung (1973), and he delivers a quirky but strong screenplay that suits them better than his haphazard one for the earlier film (save for the freaky "splitting" finale that would be equally at home in a "Venoms" movie). He and his co-director Hsiao Yung do a marvelous job with the direction; Yung's parti-cipation may be the reason this picture is better structually, compared to Chiang's solo effort on HoS. They put a lot stuff of into the running time of 86 minutes but not so much the result is like an overpacked can of sardines. Beyond the inevitable formula elements found in most Shaw wuxia films (trampolines, high leaps, and erratic wirework), LotL has so much going for it, I don't even mind the abrupt ending!

One of the more mindboggling performances I have ever seen from a Shaw actor is found here, courtesy of Lo Lieh. His work in King Boxer and Clan of the White Lotus doesn't compare to his interpetation of this strangest of heroes. Yaner continually pretends he is "shell-shocked", even a little mentally slow, as he prepares to deal with Chen. At the same time, the story hints he has been literally waiting years for Rushuang to come back to the point he (apparently) spent much of his spare time each day out on the street watching for her arrival in town. Not all this behavior feels like a charade; has he become obsessed over her riding to his rescue? Is she the "trigger" to his proceeding with revenge? Lieh's acting job here is such that you find yourself wondering if he has maintained his sanity all these years as a lowly helper for Chen; there's no doubt Chen and the people who work for him (also his son) have treated him like crap, so if Yaner has kept his wits intact all these years, then he's the equivalent of a John McCain among indentured servants. Fighting or acting, Lieh managed to impress me in LotL like he never has before.

Cheng Piang-shan is back to being a bad guy after being good in HoS. (To look at the cover for the IVL DVD, you're inclined to think he's fighting crime with Szu and Lieh.) He plays an associate of Chen who happens to have many wives, and when he loses his newest woman to the rapist, he wants Rushuang to replace her. He figures into the "detour" subplot where she has to deal with his sword-wielding "harem" as she tries to track down Yaner. I'm more used to him as a villain, so he didn't fail to disappoint me (trademark "cookie-eating grin" and all) as the secondary heavy.

Shih Szu does the "Lady of the Law" reasonably straight. If she's not playing a supercop in this, then she's a very persistant, savvy person who gives Chen or other troublemakers a reason to fear the wrath of her blades. Again, she breezes easily through portraying another wuxia heroine, which includes doing what stunts she did (which appears to be the majority of them). Then again, she always did a great job in her movies for Shaw, whether she did fighting or not.


In the end, LotL is your typical above-average Shaw production that looks and plays better than some HK "A" pictures of the '70s. The remastered film and audio on this DVD complement the original presentation; it's a movie that anyone who loves Lo Lieh or Shih Szu absolutely needs to add to their collection.

Given a choice, I'll take Lady of the Law over She's the Sheriff any day!

Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - Purchase it from PlayAsia by clicking on here.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the behind the scenes info. Your screencaps are freakin' excellent!!

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  2. I wondered why Shih Szu drastically went from playing "tomboys" to "ladies" (more or less); locating the SBR bio on her was a random bit of luck!

    They have solved only part of the mystery, though, and I'm curious about where they got their information in the first place. Was it from an interview with her?

    Thank you for the screencaps compliments, achillesgirl! To me, these are a fun challenge through so much trial and error. In order to try to reflect the overall tone of a given film, I've become more inclined to getting "custom" images from the DVDs because studio stills aren't always available for some movies.

    It can be a headache to do, but when chosen properly, the results can enhance any review, but you already knew that! ;o)

    My copy often dictates what pictures I seek, such as the above shot of Chan Shen's ear! (My favorite one of them all!)

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  3. This is a really good dissertation on a movie I can't remember a single thing about, Fang! I must say, the quirky Lo Lieh performance made me recall a Shaw movie where he seemed to play this weakling character only to erupt late in the movie. Maybe this is the one? I don't recall why I remember little from this one, but it will definitely be rewatched again very soon. Some other movies got shuffled around, too, with release dates such as Ho Meng Hua's THE GOLDEN LION. It started production in '71 or '72 and didn't come out till 1975. Ditto for Pao Hsueh Li's THE PROTECTORS. ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS was another one. It was started during the production of THE WATER MARGIN, but apparently didn't get released till 1975 in a drastically truncated version. I suspect the latter was due in whole, or in part to the incredible amount of gore presented. The censors were really on CC around this time, just prior to his handful of movies where he used red tints and red flashes to cover up violence to get films passed without much fuss.

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  4. Enjoy re-experiencing it again, venoms5! What Lo Lieh did in LotL wound up stunning me the first time I saw it!

    Of course, once I first saw him on the screen, I figured it wouldn't be long before he got roused into kicking some butt; then, I found myself waiting...and waiting.... He does get down to business in (practically) the last third of the film!

    The flavor of his part was so unlike that of the heroic one Shih Szu played, I had to watch the whole thing all over again to figure him out, and this was about 1AM! I eventually came to understand his character, losing sleep in the process! (Thank goodness for naps!)

    Movie delays (for an array of reasons) affected so many Shaws, didn't they?

    Until now, I never knew All Men are Brothers began filming while The Water Margin was still in production. I wonder if Cheh's "director's cut" would've been longer than that for The Water Margin had it not been censored?

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  5. It would seem a lot of footage was trimmed from WATER MARGIN. Chen Kuan Tai is featured in the credits, but he's hardly in the movie at all. In ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS, there's a flashback scene showing a fight with Chen from the first picture, yet these scenes are nowhere to be found in the first movie. Whenever they'd re-introduce a character, they'd follow it up with a fight scene from the first film, but Chen's fight isn't in there.

    I'd say it's safe to assume that there's tons of discarded footage for all, or most of these films. It would be an equally amazing experience to be able to see some of it, restored, or not.

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  6. I think you've clearly explained why Chen Kuan-tai is barely in TWM, venoms5!

    I'd say the same thing for Ti Lung, except he got the "spin-off" The Delightful Forest not long after; maybe his short screentime was to whet the audience's appetite for the later film!

    Maybe Cheh had envisioned TWM as a two-part epic (like Richard Donner did for Superman)? If so, it could've been the movie he wanted to leave behind as his legacy!

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  7. Amazingly, THE DELIGHTFUL FOREST was also in production with WATER MARGIN, ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS and I believe one other movie. As you alluded, Fang, that may explain why Ti Lung has limited screen time in ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS.

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  8. That's right, Cheh (at his creative peak) often had a few or so productions going at the same time! He kept it up for the better part of the '70s until he began doing the "Venoms" films. I wonder if all that activity took its toll on his health? (I keep thinking about those later photos of him all stooped over.)

    It seems like he's the only Shaw director to have spread himself out so thin in this fashion; is this close to accurate, or am I overlooking some other director whose work I haven't seen extensively yet?

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  9. Cheh was still working on multiple productions even during the venom period but those were not as extravagant, nor were the budgets as big as earlier in the 70s.

    Chu Yuan was also incredibly prolific, too. Ho Meng Hua wasn't far behind them.

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  10. Thanks for clarifying those two points for me, venoms5!

    It's been a while since I've delved into movies by Ho Meng Hua and Chu Yuan; I need to see more of their films in the new year!

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  11. I plan on posting some old photos from this movie, Fang, hopefully later tonight. Shi Szu started this movie right after LADY HERMIT in 1971 and was working on some five other movies, too. I'll try and have it all together later. If I don't get it posted tonight, hopefully tomorrow, then.

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  12. Good work on finding some more info about LotL, venoms5! Extensive details about the making of Shih Szu's movies are hard to come by, as is!

    I look forward to your upcoming post, whenever it shows up!

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