China/Hong Kong, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 107 mins.
Director: Chen Xunqi 陈勋奇 [Frankie Chan].
Old-fashioned, 1980s-style action with a miscast Zhang Bozhi [Cecilia Cheung] setting the shaky tone.
Northwest China, Northern Song dynasty (AD 960-1127). While hopelessly defending the town of Tongmenguan against Liao forces, Yang Zongbao (Ren Xianqi), a general, sends a final message by pigeon to his warrior wife Mu Guiying (Zhang Bozhi). Thinking him dead, Mu Guiying tearfully recalls their first meeting 18 years earlier in Muke village, where he came to ask her help against the Liao and ended up fighting and eventually marrying her. At the home of the patriotic Yang clan, which has devoted several generations to defending the Northern Song dynasty against incursions by the Liao and Western Xia, the only man left is the playful young Yang Wenguang (Xiao Mingyu), son of Mu Guiying. The other members are all widows, trained in the martial arts and presided over by clan matriarch She Taijun (Zheng Peipei). An order arrives from the emperor that Yang Wenguang, supervised by She Taijun, is to command an army of 10,000 soldiers against a Western Xia army numbering 100,000. Realising it amounts to a death sentence for the inexperienced Yang Wenguang, the Yang women decide to form their own army and set out against the enemy. Following a chaotic battle in the desert, in which both Yang Wenguang and Mu Guiying contravene military practice, Mu Guiying is wounded and Yang Wenguang disappears, presumed dead. In fact, he has been rescued by the grand-daughter, Xiaodouzi (Zhao Qianyu), of the leader of an ethnic minority clan with whom his father has been hiding since his defeat. Meanwhile, the Yang women’s army is trapped in Wolf Canyon by Western Xia forces, and only narrowly manages to escape. When everyone reassembles in Huangtu town, they have to face tough disciplinary measures by Song commander Wang Qiang (Lin Wei) before another massive attack by Western Xia forces.
Apart from being funded by Mainland companies and shot in China, Legendary Amazons 杨门女将之军令如山 could have been made in Hong Kong a quarter of a century or more ago. Basically a remake of Shaw Brothers’ The 14 Amazons 十四女英豪 (1972) – and even recalling that studio’s earlier style in captioned vignettes introducing each female warrior – this first film in a decade by veteran composer-actor-director-producer Chen Xunqi 陈勋奇 [Frankie Chan] is campy, trashy fun if taken in the right spirit but on any meaningful film-making scale is a hopelessly old-fashioned and slapdash museum piece.
The collection of writings known as The Yang Family Generals 杨家将, thinly based on real events of a millennium or so ago, has provided regular grist for operas, books, films and TV dramas over the years. (The forthcoming Saving General Yang 忠烈杨家将 [actually not released until over a year later, in Apr 2013] is from the same source.) Those centring on the female warriors of the clan, all supposedly widows, have provided a great showcase for performers of all ages: the 1972 Shaws production teamed Lu Yan 卢燕 [Lisa Lu] and Ling Bo 凌波 [Ivy Ling] with younger contractees like He Lili 何莉莉 [Lily Ho] and Li Jing 李菁. Chen’s version attempts the same cross-generational casting but then wastes his accumulated talent.
Apart from a catastrophic piece of mis-casting in Hong Kong’s Zhang Bozhi 张柏芝 [Cecilia Cheung] as an 11th-century warrior babe, the movie is notable for bringing Japanese action star Oshima Yukari 大岛由加利 – whom Chen directed in both Burning Ambition 龙之争霸 (1989, aka Megaforce) and the classic The Outlaw Brothers 最佳贼拍档 (1990) in better days – out of retirement after 12 years and then giving her almost nothing to do. Now almost 50, Oshima looks as untouched by the passing years as Mainland veteran Liu Xiaoqing 刘晓庆, who’s given slightly more to do but little of dramatic consequence. The cast’s third veteran, onetime Taiwan martial-arts queen Zheng Peipei 郑佩佩, at least gets to wear a matronly white wig, thump a dragon-head staff and occasionally sit on a horse; but she looks as animated as a hall-of-fame dummy.
The rest of the female cast is hardly distinguishable, especially in helmets and armour, and none emerges as an individual. Chen is clearly making an action movie rather than a costume drama; but even an action movie requires characters to root for, and there are none here – making Legendary Amazons a series of battles (staged OK by Chen’s onetime colleague Feng Ke’an 冯克安 with plenty of wire-work, over-sized ordnance and bouncing extras) interrupted by dramatically dull dialogue scenes.
The restless, 1980s-style Hong Kong editing keeps things trotting along but the film is not sufficiently over-the-top to signal whether it’s a deliberate retro parody. Chances are, it’s probably not, though Zhang’s scenes with an equally fish-out-of-water Ren Xianqi 任贤齐 [Richie Ren] as her heroic husband keep the viewer guessing – as well as a scene of Zheng’s matriarch walking across a “human bridge” that looks like becoming a cod classic.
Presented by Shanghai Film Group (CN), China Television Media (CN), Beijing Sihaitengfei Movie & Teleplay Cultural Medium (CN), Dao Culture Investment (CN), TopFun Entertainment Group (CN), Feng Huang Motion Picture (HK).
Script: Chen Xunqi [Frankie Chan], Liu Heng, Ma Honglu. Photography: Wu Rongjie, Chen Youliang, Zhang Wenjie. Music: Chen Kun. Art direction: Zhong Yifeng, Lai Guanlin. Sound: Lv Jiajin. Action: Feng Ke’an, Zhang Hai. Action consultation: Wu Bin.
Cast: Zhang Bozhi [Cecilia Cheung] (Mu Guiying), Ren Xianqi [Richie Ren] (Yang Zongbao, general, Mu Guiying’s husband), Liu Xiaoqing (Sixth Lady Yang/Yang Liuniang/Chai Qinyun/Chai, princess), Zheng Peipei (She Taijun/She Saihua), Zhou Haimei [Kathy Chow] (Fifth Lady Yang/Yang Wuniang/Ma Saiying), Xiao Mingyu (Yang Wenguang, Mu Guiying’s son), Chen Zihan (Eighth Sister Yang/Yang Bajie/Yang Yanqi), Jin Qiaoqiao (Third Lady Yang/Yang Sanniang/Dong Yue’e), Yu Na (Seventh Lady Yang/Yang Qiniang/Du Jin’e), Liu Dong (Ninth Sister Yang/Yang Jiumei/Yang Yanying), Yang Zitong (Fourth Lady Yang/Yang Siniang/Meng Jinbang), Oshima Yukari (Second Lady Yang/Yang Erniang/Zou Lanying), Ge Chunyan (First Lady Yang/Yang Daniang/Zhou Yunjing/Lady Zhou), Li Jing (Second Lady Yang/Yang Erniang/Geng Jinhua), Zhou Xiaofei (Yang Paifeng, god-daughter), Wang Ti (Yang Jinhua, Mu Guiying’s daughter), Zhao Qianyu (Xiaodouzi/Little Bean, granddaughter of ethnic-minority clan leader), Wu Ma (Pan Di, imperial tutor), Lin Wei (Wang Qiang, lord).
Release: China, 18 Nov 2011; Hong Kong, 17 Nov 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 3 Jan 2012.)