The Vengeful Beauty (Xue fu rong)

Hong Kong (1978) Dir. Ho Meng-Hua 

“Hell hath no fury” is usually associated with a woman scorned, but there is no scorning here to drive the eponymous vengeful beauty in this late 70s Shaw Brothers outing. It’s a Martial Arts flick so naturally the stakes are going to be higher, and the revenge balletic, brutal, and gravity defying!

Corrupt emperor Yung Cheng (Wang Lung Wei) is outraged when scholars publish books speaking against him, and sends his skilled assassins, the Flying Guillotines, to kill them all, as well as the proof readers and booksellers. Official Han Tiande (Li Sung Ling) and his men capture one of the assassins after a mission and torture him into naming the Emperor as his master.

To stop this becoming public, the Emperor instructs Guillotines leader Jin Gangfeng (Lo Lieh) to kill all the prison guards, Han Tiande, and his entire family. Han’s pregnant wife Rong Qiuyan (Chen Ping) was away at the time of the raid, returning home to find her family dead. Discovering Gangfeng was responsible, Qiuyan seeks revenge but because of her unborn child, is forced to flee to safety, but Gangfeng is hot on her trail.

If ever the question “When is a sequel not a sequel?” could be ask about a film then The Vengeful Beauty is a sure-fire candidate. Ho Meng-Hua  directed 1975’s Flying Guillotine for Shaw Brothers but they dawdled on the proposed sequel, allowing Jimmy Wang Yu to usurp then and make Master of the Flying Guillotine for another studio, but as a sequel to his 1971 hit One-Armed Boxer.

Also in 1977 a low budget Taiwanese version appeared, Fatal Flying Guillotine, before Shaw Brothers commissioned Cheng Kang to direct 1978’s Flying Guillotine 2 – Palace Carnage, though Kang disappeared half way through filming and Hua Shen took over. It wasn’t until later that year Ho was finally back on board with the franchise, though some familiar characters appearing with a name change

For example, the main male lead of Flying Guillotine was Ma Teng who defected from the assassin group; in this version, a similar character is Ma Shen (Hsu Hsiao-Chiang), still a former guillotine except he is not a married father here. Quiyan meets Ma Shen whilst on the run, having taken a job in his inn, where Gangfeng’s second son Chin Piao (Wang Lung Wei) and his squad track Quiyan down.

Since his own attempt to kill Quiyan failed, Gangfeng enlists his three children – sons Chin Piao, Chin Jen Ting (Lin Hui-Huang) and daughter Chin Hsiao-Chi (Susan Shaw) – to do his bidding, promising his estate to whoever gets the job done. Jen Ting and his band of soldiers track Quiyan down in a bamboo forest where not only do the trees grow tall but also the laws of physics don’t apply!

Needless to say, Jen Ting is unsuccessful as Quiyan is no ordinary housewife – she is trained in Wudang Kung Fu and nicknamed Bloody Hibiscus, and is lethal with a blade as Jen Ting and his now deceased squad soon discover, as indeed do most people who try their luck against her. But, Quiyan has one vulnerability, that being her pregnancy, but she is only two months gone and a long way to go before showing, making her constant clutching of her stomach a little overkill even if she shouldn’t be fighting.

Ma Shen helps pick up the slack when he steps in to foil Piao’s assault on Quiyan at the inn, whilst additional assist comes from Wang Jun (Yueh Hua), a former Wudang student alongside Quiyan harbouring a long-term love for her. Sadly for Wang Jun, Quiyan gets closer to Ma Shen (so soon after her husband’s death?), something Hsiao-Chi tries to exploit during her turn to eliminate Quiyan.

One usually expects Shaw Brothers films to be light on story, and with this one running a sprightly 79-minutes, the action-story ratio is surprisingly balanced despite the flimsy set up. Expedience is admittedly rife throughout, with the initial slew of killings over and done with inside the first ten minutes, yet Sze-To On’s script does allow some room to provide backstories for Ma Shen and Wang Jun betwixt the fight set pieces.

With numerous attempts made on Quiyan’s life, choreographer Tong Kai has his work cut out making each fight look different. Since blades are the uniform weapon there is little variation in the actual combat, Kai relies largely on location and settings (or in the case of Hsiao-chi, having her fight topless) to create this illusion. That said, the action is non-stop, often peppered with ludicrous flying, but never short of energy and bloodshed.

Leading lady Chen Ping might have a stunt double in the wide shots during the fights, but she holds her own in the close-ups, and carries herself like a real bad ass as Quiyan. Often facing up to a dozen men at a time, she proves a formidable fighter but with Ma Shen and Wang Jun also by her side, this isn’t quite the feminist adventure it could have been, but this was 1978, so it’s better than nothing.

Had this film been a bit longer, even by just ten or twenty minutes, we might have seen a more rounded Quiyan, someone more in touch with her emotions and less steely in the wake of her family’s murder. Her grief lasts all of five seconds before launching her revenge campaign, and with a baby on the way, a possibly stronger story would have seen Quiyan falling into survival mode rather than being so readily adaptable to it.

The Vengeful Beauty is vastly entertaining and easy to get caught up in, so the plot twists do catch you unaware. Corny yet impressive fight scenes born from an interesting premise with a kick ass female protagonist, this is one of the better Shaw Brothers films of their later era, and a definite step up from the last Ho Meng-Hua film I saw, The Oily Maniac.