Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dark Lady of Kung Fu (Taiwan, 1981)

Some of you may have noticed that, over the past couple of weeks, Tars Tarkas, Durian Dave and myself have all been literally filling the internet to bursting with Pearl Cheung Ling. Could it be that we have something planned? Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm perhaps.

Still, the fact is that I wouldn’t be writing about Dark Lady of Kung Fu if not for Tars’ recent positive review of it over at his site. You see, I saw the film quite a while ago and, while I have never officially reviewed it, I haven’t made much of a secret of the fact that I didn’t care for it much, either. I am always game to give a movie I’ve maligned a second chance, however. I’m a cantankerous sort, after all, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that unrelated stressors lead me to spew undeserved rancor upon a defenseless Taiwanese kung fu movie. Hey, it’s better than kicking the dog.

And whatever I might think of it, Dark Lady of Kung Fu is worthy of note for being Pearl’s directorial debut, kicking off a trio of auteur efforts that continued with 1981’s Wolf Devil Woman and 1982’s Matching Escort, both of which are films that I love beyond reason. As with Wolf Devil Woman, she also wrote and produced the film, which, while pretty much putting her in the responsibility seat as far as its perceived flaws and merits, was also a pretty rare position for a woman to inhabit in the world of 1980s martial arts cinema. For that and other reasons, I have, over the course of writing about her career, developed a lot of respect and real affection for Pearl that I felt would surely color my response to DLOKF on the second pass.

Or not. Granted, I did recognize this time around that DLOKF indeed contains pretty much all of the elements that made me love those other films of hers that I’ve mentioned, yet I found the film overall to be a bit of hard work. It starts off promisingly, with Pearl portraying the Butterfly Bandit, a Robin Hood figure in an outlandish winged costume who literally flies and crawls along ceilings in the manner of her namesake. This is accomplished by way of the wild wire work and herky jerk editing of which Pearl is so fond, and it is characteristically charming and delightful. Arrayed against the Butterfly is a, well, array of ham handed officials and competing miscreants whom she mocks with bravado. Among these are a character called the Killer Prince and a testy itinerant swordsman called No Name, who, in his brief time onscreen, delivers one of my all time favorite badly dubbed lines of kung fu movie dialog:

  “Piss off! I told you before: My name is No Name. No is my surname, and my name… is Name!”

However, after all the dazzling dimestore derring-do of its opening, the film introduces us to the Butterfly’s alter ego, a Fagin-like figure leading a quartet of arguably adorable urchins whom she calls “Monkeys” in a life of subsistence level petty crime. Pearl has a tendency to at times play the clown in her self-directed films, but that usually serves to establish an unselfconscious vulnerability that makes the heightened melodrama and tragedy that follows all the more potent. Here the escapades of Pearl and her monkey gang come across as pure shtick, a procession of slapstick interludes, laboriously set up gags and, for lack of a better word, “monkeyshines” that calls to mind the Three Stooges or Our Gang comedies as much as anything else. This may constitute Pearl’s rebellion against all those steely eyed, vengeful swordswoman roles she’d had to play up to that point, but it all goes on for so long that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Pearl doesn’t have much of a story to tell beyond it.

But the fact is that she does, and, as it turns out, it’s a quite crowded and convoluted story that Pearl’s character at times feels somewhat peripheral to. Let’s see: there’s a mysterious swordsman called Shadow who provides a kind of love interest for Pearl, a much coveted necklace called the Blue Rose that gets hidden inside a dead body, something about hermaphroditism, a super weapon being built in secret, plus all of the usual baroque clan rivalries that we’ve come to expect in the mythical martial world -- all of which feel like they’ve been crammed uneasily into the half of the film that remains once all of the aggressive zaniness has subsided. Granted, these various plot elements provide for their share of crazy fights and mind-bending set pieces -- this is a Pearl Cheung Ling film, after all -- but I couldn’t help feeling that they were pretty incoherently presented. At the same time, it is very possible that I was just too ground down by the film’s attempts at comedy by the time they came around to be arsed to sort it all out.

And, to be fair, that comedy is not uniformly unfunny, though how much of that is attributable to a particularly chuckleheaded English dub that christens characters “Laurel”, “Hardy” and “Cool Hand Luke” I can’t say. It also should be said that the movie contains a few examples of Pearl’s trademark loopy surrealism at its finest: When hypnotized by a scheming magician (called “Houdini” in the English version), our heroine appears to either levitate or grow to a towering height, her brightly colored robes elongating around her like an enormous pyramid. Then there’s the stone automaton with a giant pestle that Pearl employs both to prepare meals and to bonk her misbehaving minions on the head, and a recurring visual pun that sees Pearl emerging from her hideout’s various shell-shaped appurtenances.

Alongside these, though, there are also moments where the film’s time and budgetary constraints clearly seem to have let Pearl down, in particular a couple of oft seen and quite obviously hastily constructed sets whose color schemes, even to one with a taste for the hyper-real like myself, are downright headsplitting. I mean, I’m all for contrarian aesthetics and championing the underdog and all, but sometimes ugly is just ugly.

Yet, as noisome and tiring as it may become, Dark Lady of Kung Fu, like Wolf Devil Woman and Matching Escort after it, is nothing if not a testament to Pearl’s eccentricity. Even when she fails, she fails weird. As, true to her name, does she shine. For, despite all my complaints, let it be understood that she never fails here to provide a likeable presence at the center of the Necco wafer colored maelstrom she has created. All of Pearl’s films, after all, give the impression of being on the verge of spinning out of control, so we can at least thank her, in the case Dark Lady of Kung Fu, for giving us a good natured glimpse of what it’s like when one of them goes completely off the goddamn rails.


Idrian said...

Hello. I like to ask what has happened to Pearl's career since these movies.

On another subject, are there any upcoming Pinoy movies for review?

Todd said...

Hey, Idrian. I'm afraid I don't know what Pearl has been doing in recent years. I'm not sure if anybody does -- except for Pearl, that is.

As far as upcoming reviews of Pinoy movies, I'm not working with anything as organized as a schedule these day, so I'm not sure when I'll be writing one for 4DK. I did, however, recently write a piece on Silip for the Mondo Macabro blog, though I'm not sure when it will be published.

memsaab said...

Pearl + Brij = ????

I guess we will never know :(

Idrian said...


Thanks for the info


L. Humungous said...

What ever happened to Duriandave/softfilm blog? Looks like all aspects of the guy has completely vanished. Any idea?