China Armed Escort turned out to be a test of my dedication to Pearl Cheung Ling. Not that the movie was all that bad -- or, at least, not as far as I could tell. It's just that the DVD-R I watched appeared to have been made from a very old, nth generation VHS tape made from a TV broadcast, and as a result the picture had all the clarity of one of those night vision sequences on Ghost Hunters. I can't even verify for certain whether I actually saw Pearl Cheung Ling. But I'm pretty sure I saw the face of Jesus a couple of times. (Vatican, I'll be calling shortly.)
One thing I definitely could not see were the film's tiny, burned-in English subtitles, and so, much of China Armed Escort's plot remains as mysterious to me as Cheung Ling herself. (Seriously, specific information about the woman -- beyond the fact that she is the personification of raw, face-rocking awesomeness -- is very hard to come by on yon internets, at least for English-speaking types like yours truly.) However, I can tell you that this low budget wuxia film, one of Pearl's earliest starring vehicles, occupies a much lower tier on the insanity scale than those that the star would later direct herself. In fact, compared to Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort, it's actually sedate and, by all appearances, coherent -- a fact which kind of surprised me, given it was written by Wai San, who also scripted that broken-in-all-the-right-places, celluloid home lobotomy kit that is Fantasy Mission Force (which, of course, also stars Pearl Cheung Ling).
The film finds Pearl working for an escort service, which sounds promising, until you realize that it's an armed escort service. (Ohhhh.) Pearl's Dad run the service, and the first act is taken up with intrigues that result in him being murdered by a clan of cackling evildoers who count among their number, not one, but two guys with eyepatches. Pearl becomes head of the escort service as a result, and must take on the task of escorting a beardy white missionary across some dangerous territory that is full of those anonymous looking fields and quarries that low budget Taiwanese kung fu movies so love to stage their fights in. Of course, while undertaking this mission, Pearl must also fend off repeated attacks by the eyepatch gang, and, of course, exact bloody revenge for her father's murder.
In keeping with the film's tone, Cheung Ling's performance is a much more sober one than what we're used to from her, lacking the goofiness and mugging seen in her auteur efforts. Her character is basically one of those steely-eyed swordswoman with a bordering-supernatural skill level, and it's a role she excels at, making her all-too-few fight scenes a delight to behold. There's a great effect used to suggest her preternatural swiftness, by which her every leap or flip leaves a trail of multiple images fanning out behind her. Such are Pearl's skills that she is able to decapitate a guy without him even knowing it (though his facial expression reflects the dawning realization that things are perhaps not quite as they should be head-body wise). At another point, she spikes her sword through the top of another opponent's head like it was a cocktail olive. So, in short, while we may be seeing a Pearl Cheung Ling that is in some ways different from the one we came to know and love by way of her own psychedelic cinematic creations, the old Pearl Cheung Ling = Gore equation is still fully in play.
China Armed Escort was directed by Chan Ming-Wa, whose efforts throughout his career as a writer, director and producer appear to have been dedicated exclusively to films in which Pearl Cheung Ling was the star -- the last of these collaborations being 1982's My Blade, My Life. I've read in some places that Cheung Ling was married to a powerful Taiwanese producer, which was how she gained the access that allowed her to become that rarest of creatures, a woman producing, directing and starring in her own films in the male dominated world of 1970s kung fu cinema. Whether this story is true, or just some sort of sexist mythology that has risen up to fill the vacuum of information around her, I have no idea. But, if it's true, was Chan that guy? Reader, help me out, if you know. Hell, maybe Chan Ming-Wa was just an alias for Pearl Cheung Ling. (Now that's a juicy rumour. Remember, folks, you heard that totally groundless bit of ill-informed speculation here first.)
Anyway, China Armed Escort: While it's hard to make a call, given the condition of the version I watched, I'd hazard that the film is interesting, but not essential for fans of Pearl Cheung Ling. Interesting because, for those familiar with her only through her more psychotronic efforts, it shows a serious side of the actress that may be a mild revelation. Not essential because... well, because it didn't make me feel like I'd coughed up my brain, which is basically what I'm looking for from the Cheung Ling brand. But you knew that about me already.
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