Cynthia Rothrock, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and more feature, as we salute the female stars of martial arts movies…
It’s arguably a rare sight when female characters lead a major genre film, and last year’s online Ghostbusters drama proves it’s still, depressingly, a controversial choice if they do. Too often, female characters are reduced to sidekicks, damsels, sex objects, and caricatures. It sometimes feels like every day there’s a new statistic about women being under-represented in Hollywood and while, to some extent, things are looking brighter and more diverse by the day, it’s an uphill struggle. Still, as we wait for Hollywood to get its act together, I thought I’d celebrate a genre where awesome, strong, multi-faceted female characters have led casts as a regular occurrence for decades – martial arts!
Here are just ten of my favorite high-kicking heroines but I’d love to hear about yours to so do leave a comment. Let’s chat about women doing rad things.
Golden Swallow (played by Cheng Pei Pei in Come Drink With Me, 1966)
There was no way I wasn’t going to start the list with this. Come Drink With Me is a genre-defining film with a seminal female protagonist. Golden Swallow is the daughter of a local governor. In a fun inversion of the classic damsel-in-distress motif, her brother is kidnapped by evil bandits Jade-Face Tiger and Smiling Tiger and it’s up to her to save the day. It’s perhaps as much of a Chinese opera as it is a kung fu film (and there are even a couple of songs in it, courtesy of a mysterious beggar known as Drunken Cat). The dialogue is poetic and the choreography graceful, with Pei Pei (who’d trained as a dancer, not a martial artist) dominating throughout.
Disguised as a man for the first half of the film, when she unveils her true identity and (ultimately) takes revenge on the bandits with a veritable army of other women, it’s a cathartic moment of grace under pressure exploding. Cheng Pei Pei also returned as Golden Swallow two years later in Chang Cheh’s Girl With The Thunderbolt Kick, if you just can’t get enough of her.
Jade (played by Maggie Cheung in New Dragon Gate Inn, 1992)
Tsui Hark’s vibrant new wave re-imagining of this classic wuxia story finds the henchmen of a despotic eunuch (Donnie Yen) and a group of rebels on the run from him trapped together by a storm in a remote inn. This titular establishment is a den of iniquity run by Jade, a woman who’s not averse to murdering her guests, robbing them and serving their flesh up in the pork buns.
Although technically neither a hero nor a villain, Jade’s ever-switching allegiances and outrageously selfish behaviour make her the most intriguing and entertaining character in the piece, as well as being pivotal to how the story plays out. She’s far more than just the blackly comic relief she initially appears to be. Plus, there’s that final fight, one of the most OTT and bloody of all-time, as Donnie Yen takes on everyone left alive. Maggie Cheung, despite having no formal martial arts training, fights up a storm through the magic of intense choreography and even more intense performance. It’s hard not fall in love just a little with Jade, even though you know it’s fatal…
Koda (played by Yuka Mizuno in Heroes Of The East, 1978)
This Lau Kar-Leung classic is almost a martial arts rom-com and a great one to show to genre newcomers (even my mom likes this). Technically, the lead is Gordon Liu who plays Ho Tao, a Chinese martial artist entered into an arranged marriage with a Japanese girl named Yumiko Koda… but it’s Koda who steals the movie. Once married, the newlyweds get into some fairly heated debates about whether Chinese or Japanese martial arts are the best. His “weapons look like garbage.” She “yells like a barbarian.” His eight-stroke style “looks like a young girl’s dancing” etc. The dialogue here is a joy with both actors bouncing off each other with words then graduating to fists, kicks, swords and spears.
Things only get worse as Koda turns out to be an actual ninja (“a disgrace!” according to Ho Tao, who really wouldn’t enjoy my blog…) and then her shadowy childhood sweetheart decides he wants her back. Will Ho Tao put aside his prejudices and save his marriage or will Koda find love in the arms of a fellow ninja adept in the deadly ‘crab style’? You’ll have to watch Heroes Of The East to find out but, be warned, Koda will absolutely steal your heart.
Wolf Woman (played by Pearl Cheung in Wolf Devil Woman, 1981)
Pearl Cheung is perhaps the most unsung of all female auteurs but her body of work is essential viewing to any fan of psychotronic cinema. Although notable for starring in a fair few classic Taiwanese grindhouse films, Cheung also wrote, directed and starred in a handful of low-budget wuxia before vanishing from the public eye in the mid-80s. The wildest of these is Wolf Devil Woman, a see-it-to-believe-it and somewhat loose adaptation of Baifa Monü Zhuan (the same novel that inspired The Bride With White Hair).
Cheung plays an unnamed woman left for dead in the snow as an infant when her parents are killed by an evil tyrant known as the Blue Devil. She is rescued and raised by a pack of magic wolves who treat her like one of their own and, as she grows older, she fashions a bizarre/magnificent pelted outfit to wear, convinced that she is a wolf too. With the help of a nobleman who falls in her love with her (and, Pygmalion-style, tries to teach her the ways of society), they take on the Blue Devil and save the land.
A paragraph can’t begin to describe why Wolf Devil Woman is so amazing and weird but at its heart is Pearl Cheung, whose rabid enthusiasm, boundless imagination and uninhibited clowning make it astounding. She’s not afraid to run around on all fours, growling, barking and whimpering, her physicality evoking classic silent comedians. She is unladylike, violent, savage and yet – ultimately – saves everybody with her pure heart and wolfen magic. Quite frankly, she rocks.
Wu Siu-Wai (played by Elsa Yeung in Challenge Of The Lady Ninja, 1983)
I really wanted to get an Elsa Yeung film in here because she’s played so many ninja characters, often suffered tremendously for her art, and rarely gets the recognition she deserves. Unlike the other films on the list, Challenge Of The Lady Ninja is perhaps problematic for its objectification of women (there’s no actual nudity but there’s an insane amount of Lycra and you’ll feel you know everyone a lot more intimately by the end). Still, Yeung is fantastic in it and her character’s a great one.
It’s the 1940s and Wu Siu-Wai has been away from her native China for 17 years, training to be a ninja. After mastering ninja illusion and magical tri-location, she is given a special ninja badge and anointed as the first ever lady ninja. “Kung fu has no borders,” her master says proudly (mixing his martial arts somewhat), before dropping the bombshell that her father has died. Devastated, Siu-Wai returns to Japanese-occupied Shanghai and finds that not only is her father dead but he’s been killed by Lee Tung, her fiancé (a man so evil that the Imperial March from Star Wars plays every time he enters a shot – no, really). Siu-Wai vows deadly revenge on her former lover and forms a band of lady warriors to take him out. “Anything men can do, women can do also… sometimes, even better!” she declares and the rest is ninja history.
Challenge Of The Lady Ninja is typical of Taiwanese grindhouse fare. It’s a bit silly, a bit sleazy and totally crazy. But Yeung gives her all in the performance and I’d like to think it’s because she knew she was leading the charge for lady ninjas everywhere.
Which brings me onto…
Crazy Like A Bee (played by Lu I-Chan in Ninja 8: The Warriors Of Fire, or, Queen Bee, 1988/1981)
Ninja 8: The Warriors Of Fire is a Filmark ninja film, which regular readers will know means it’s cut together from an existing film’s footage and some new ninja footage, then redubbed with a whole new storyline. The source footage here comes from Chester Wong’s 1981 thriller Queen Bee and it integrates into Filmark’s ninja nuttiness surprisingly well.
In the new story, the customary ninja mob runs around in pursuit of a mysterious ‘confidential blueprint’ with a pair of Vietnam vets – Victor and Robin – at the centre of it all. When Robin’s fiancée gets murdered by the Black Ninja Empire, her sister Jenny gets in on the action. Jenny trains with the White Ninja Empire and is given the ‘ninja name’ of Crazy Like A Bee before going on a rampage. I mean, the original Queen Bee movie may well be a fantastically grimy, neon-drenched revenge classic but let’s face it. No one gets renamed Crazy Like A Bee in that, which makes this arguably the better version.
There are some hysterically funny scenes (including one where a villain howls her name “CRAAAZY LIKE A BEEEEEE!!!” furiously into the night as he dies) but Lu I-Chan is one of the most underrated stars of the era and her smoldering turn here transcends the material and makes Crazy Like A Bee one of the most dangerous and one of the coolest (not-quite) ninja characters on film.
Inspector Cindy (played by Cynthia Rothrock in almost everything 1985 – 1989)
The legendary Cynthia Rothrock hit the screen running in Corey Yuen’s high-octane romp Yes, Madam! (1985) and Hong Kong audiences went mad for her. In that movie, she played Inspector Cindy – a no-nonsense cop, highly trained in martial arts, who’s transferred into the HK police force to stop a trio of inept criminals from getting away with a secret microfilm. It’s a testament to the film and the character’s success that, for about four years later, almost every role Rothrock was cast in had the name Cindy and, more often than not, was a no-nonsense cop, highly trained in martial arts.
From the first class action of Righting Wrongs to the juvenile daftness of City Cops, Inspector Cindy was resurrected time and time again to keep perps in line and audiences delighted. Of course, what made the character work – even if there was little intentional script continuity – was the fact that Rothrock was more or less playing herself. She had a goofball sense of humor (with remarkable comic timing), a distinctive high-pitched voice and a disarming smile that made it all the more exhilarating when she turned into a one-woman kicking machine.
By allowing Rothrock – a martial artist who can hold her own against just about anyone – to just do her thing and be herself, they gave audiences exactly what they wanted and inadvertently created a character for the history books. (Worth also noting China O’Brien as a fantastic actual character that Rothrock played shortly afterwards, but I’ve already written at great length about here…)
Cheng Tai-Nan aka Auntie (played by Kara Hui in My Young Auntie, 1981)
When the elderly patriarch of the Yu family knows he’s close to death, he refuses to relinquish the estate to the corrupt next-in-line Third Uncle. Instead, he marries his young servant Cheng Tai-Nan and instructs her, upon his death, to give all his assets to his estranged son Jing-Chuen (played by director Lau Kar-Leung). However, Cheng (or ‘Auntie’ as she’s now known as) finds not only is Third Uncle pursuing them both to get his hands on the money but also – having led a very sheltered rural life – how hard it is to adjust to a more modern urban lifestyle.
Being a Lau Kar-Leung movie, there’s a lot of amazing kung fu as Auntie shows off her martial training but the film’s also very much a comedy of manners. Perhaps the most iconic moment is a Pretty Woman style scene where Auntie hits the city and gets humiliated by shop assistants for being a bumpkin, only to whip out her cash and purchase the most expensive, most western dress in the store. It’s a fun scene anyway but when she realizes she can’t walk properly in heels and the dress is more revealing than she’s used to, she upsets the locals and gets into a fight, somehow balancing leaping and kicking with protecting her modesty. The result is an astonishing feat of choreography, of comedy and of Hui’s incomparable star power. But whatever Cheng Tai-Nan does, she’s an endearing and powerful character you’ll never forget.
Shu Lin (played by Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000)
It’s hard to choose just one Michelle Yeoh character as she has so many unforgettable roles to her name but, while I had to flip a coin between this and Ming-Ming in Magnificent Warriors, it’s hard to deny Shu Lin her place. As one of the heroes in Ang Lee’s Oscar-baiting wuxia, Shu Lin is a wandering warrior woman, highly trained in the Wudang arts. Not only does she kick a whole bunch of asses with fists, feet and swords (although “I prefer the machete,” she quips at one point), she also represents more than just violence.
The film is a thoughtful exploration of a woman’s role in 19th Century Chinese society. Shu Lin, having cast off the constraints of what’s expected of her by becoming a warrior and devoting herself to a life of ‘freedom’, still finds herself bound by a forbidden desire for her dead lover’s martial brother (Chow Yun Fat). Her emotional battle is as compelling as her physical ones and Yeoh delivers a career-best performance bringing this turmoil to vivid life.
Zen (played by JeeJa Yanin in Chocolate, 2008)
Prachya Pinkaew’s Chocolate has easily one of the strangest premises for a modern martial arts film but somehow it just works. JeeJa Yanin plays Zen, an autistic young woman who, while trying to raise money for her sick mother’s chemotherapy, gets involved in a gang war (it’s a long story)…
Although socially awkward and slight in stature, Zen has learned martial arts by copying what she’s seen in the movies and her uncanny photographic memory has turned her into something of a master. All-out ultraviolence ensues. Zen is a unique character with a mental condition not often explored in genre film, full of comical touches and fascinating tics. JeeJa Yanin’s frankly superhuman Muay Thai skills, however, turn Zen into something even more special. The fighting in Chocolate is some of the most brutal ever committed to film and made all the more astonishing by how creative the set pieces are.
If you want to see a powerful woman beating the shit out of everyone in sight, you’ll get few films that deliver the goods with as much flair and as little nonsense as Chocolate. It’s a stunner.