“Lady of Steel”, originally released back in 1970, was another vehicle for the Shaw Brothers sword queen Cheng Pei Pei, who appeared in countless classics for the studio including “The Flying Dagger” and “The Shadow Whip”, and who younger viewers might recognise from Ang Lee’s worldwide hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. The film was directed by cult favourite Ho Meng Hua, one of the Shaw’s most versatile helmers, who worked on everything from the ‘Journey to the West’ adaptation “The Monkey goes West” through to the bloody “The Flying Guillotine” and gruesome horrors such as the “Black Magic” series. The two had actually collaborated a number of times before “Lady of Steel”, on “The Jade Raksha” and “The Lady Hermit”, and on all occasions they proved to be a good team, turning out action packed and well plotted martial arts thrillers that have remained firm favourites of fans.
Here, Cheng takes on the role of Fang Ying Chi, who as a young girl survives the massacre of her family by a gang of bandits. As is usually the case, she is saved by a wandering hero who takes her in and trains her, before sending her out years later to deliver an important message to a general who is embroiled in a violent struggle protecting the land. Although keen to track down the bandits, she soon becomes involved in the battle herself, trying to flush out a back-stabber who seems to be conspiring with the enemy. Along the way she meets Chen Shan Yi (Ngok Wah, also in the recently released Shaw Brothers horrors “Return of the Dead” and “The Ghost Story”), the roguish though charming head of the beggar clan, who saves her skin on more than one occasion, leading to all manner of yearning stares and hints of chaste romance.
Thankfully, “Lady of Steel” is far more than a simple revenge tale, working in plenty of political intrigue and with the main plot focusing more upon the defence of the country from invaders and traitors than with Ying Chi’s attempts to bring her family’s killer to justice (i.e. death). The film is full of betrayals and skulduggery, with ambushes and tricks a-plenty that somehow the noble, righteous and painfully slow good guys never see coming – despite the fact that the villainous traitor sticks out like a sore thumb, constantly stroking his fine beard and cackling to himself whenever one of his rather obvious schemes comes to fruition. As a result, vengeance is for the most part of the film the least of Ying Chi’s concerns, and this certainly helps to keep things more interesting and less formulaic than they might otherwise have been.
The film mainly succeeds thanks to the fact that Cheng as Ying Chi makes for a good, believable central protagonist, who starts out young, inexperienced and headstrong, and who becomes gradually more capable as things progress. She has to use her cunning as well as her steel, which basically amounts to her hanging around outside conveniently open windows and listening into her enemies’ foolishly revealing conversations. It goes without saying that she also goes for the old classic subterfuge of pretending to be a man, as usual without any real effort at disguise, in this case simply by tying her hair back – though to be fair, she also dresses up as an old woman at one point with slightly more effort, going so far as to blacken out her front teeth.
Ho directs with his usual energy, throwing in lots of acrobatics, rooftop leaping and improbable balancing on branches to give a vague fantasy feel. There is a great deal of bloody swordplay, with Ying Chi bravely taking on hordes of opponents and painting the familiar old Shaw Brothers sets red with day-glow blood. The film is fast paced throughout, building up nicely to the final duel, which is particularly inventive and impressive, ending things on an exciting and intense note.
Certainly, “Lady of Steel” is a pleasingly lively affair, and it stands out from similar, more stoical efforts. Although it essentially doesn’t offer anything different, and as such is unlikely to appeal to non-genre fans, it remains a solid swordplay outing which benefits from a likeable heroine and a good quotient of action, and which entertains in the best style of the genre.
Meng Hua Ho (director) / Meng Hua Ho, Hsiao Sung Liang (screenplay)
CAST: Pei-pei Cheng, Hsiung Chiao, Mien Fang, Chung-Shun Huang, Wen Chung Ku, Peng-fei Li, Kang Liu, Yunzhong Li