(director/writer: King Hu; screenwriter: story by Songling Pu; cinematographers: Yeh-hsing Chou/Hui-ying Hua; editors: Jinquan Hu/King Hu; music: Tai Kong Ng/Dajiang Wu; cast: Ying Bai (Shih, blind fortune teller), Shih Chun (Ku Shen Chai), Hsu Feng (Yang Hui-ching), Roy Chiao (Hui Yuan), Tien Peng (Ou-Yang); Runtime: 153; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jung-Feng Sha/Shiqing Yang; Tai Seng Entertainment; 1969-Taiwan-in Mandarin with English subtitles)

“Unique and visually stunning martial arts epic is set in the 14th-century Ming dynasty.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

King Hu’s (“Dragon Inn”) unique and visually stunning martial arts epic is set in the 14th-century Ming dynasty. In contemporary times it’s best known as the film that most influenced Ang Lee for his mega-hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There are shades of Kobayashi’s 1964 Japanese ghost story film Kwaidan in Hu’s work, which is an unclassifiable film built around a martial arts narrative that is not easy to define as just a fighting film as it moves from a ghost story to a political thriller to only conclude with a memorable metaphysical battle scene (the film’s highlight) involving the mysterious monk swordsman Hui Yuan (Roy Chiao) following the principles of Buddhism to overcome his foes.

It opens to a dilapidated town outside of Peking, where the struggling nerdy twentysomething scholar/artist Ku Shen Chai lives with his nagging mother in a supposedly haunted house (an abandoned rundown fort). Alarmed by the presence of otherworldly creatures he comes home in an attack mode, only to be confronted by his mom and his new neighbor, the beautiful Yang Hui-ching, who view him as a madman. His mom tells him Yang’s poor and single, and lives with her bedridden 90-year-old mother who approves of her marriage to him but the daughter doesn’t wish marriage at this time. Ku soon learns that Yang is a wanted fugitive; that her nobleman father in the Tung Lin sect offended the evil Eunich Wei of the rival imperial East Chamber and was arrested and subsequently tortured and killed, and thereby she and the entire family are also wanted on political charges. Ou-Yang Yin is also newly arrived in town and poses as a customer for Ku, wanting his portrait painted. But he turns out to be in the service of the secret police as a swordsman in pursuit of Yang: dead or alive. Yang turns out to be a masterful swords-woman who, with the help of her colleague (Ying Bai), posing as a blind fortune teller, easily repel her would-be captor and fellow policemen. Ku sides with Yang, having fallen in love, and lends his scholarly knowledge to help in the battle strategy (setting traps in the field) as the rival factions prepare for war. It leads to the great sword fight in the bamboo forest, where the good guys, aided by some powerful monks, gracefully swirl through the air in ballet fighting movements to defeat their foe.

Though its history lesson is on shaky ground, Hu’s film defies such lessons to wow the viewer with its magnificent special effect fight scenes, earnest tale of love and beautifully realized battle against tyranny. One of the more thoughtful and mature martial arts pics, well-worth seeking out.

Xia nü (1971)