My Young Auntie (Zhang bei)

Hong Kong (1981) Dir. Lau Kar-Leung

Respecting a position of authority is hard when that person is younger than you are. In some countries, this sense of hierarchy is attached to members of the family as well as society in general – i.e. respecting your elders, and some people find themselves in these roles regardless of their age.

Elderly land owner Yu Yan-sang is nearing the end and without any children to bequeath his fortune to, his brother Yu Yung-sheng (Wang Lung-Wei) demands the estate goes to him instead. Unhappy with his brother’s greedy attitude, Yan-sang chooses to leave it all to his favourite nephew Yu Cheng-chuan (Lau Kar-Leung) instead, whilst to stop Yung-sheng from interfering with the inheritance, he marries a young woman, Jing Dai-nan (Kara Hui) and entrusts her to execute the will, per his instructions.

After Yan-sang passes away, Dai-nan travels from the country to Guangzhou to hand over the deeds to Cheng-chuan as promised, although they nearly missed each other at the harbour as Chen-chuan wasn’t expecting his new auntie to be so young. Still angry at being snubbed, Yung-sheng has the deeds stolen from Cheng-chuan‘s house then holds Dai-nan hostage until she signs them over to him.

By the 1980s, The Shaw Brothers were still a notable name in martial arts cinema but much of their product was beginning to look dated as the much documented revolution fronted by Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung was in full effect. But there was still life in the old studio yet and this was partly due to directors like Lau Kar-Leung keen to modernise the output, and stars like Kara Hui to draw the punters in.

My Young Auntie is a comedic affair, unusual for Lau whose films were mostly serious, which seems to be an attempt to tap into the same vein of Chan and Sammo’s madcap offerings. It would certainly seem the premise of a sensuous young woman being put in the normally senior position of “auntie” was designed to serve as the foundation for the humour and Lau milks it for all it is worth – this was the 80s after all.

This creates a interesting dichotomy as Dai-nan is not just some naïve country girl Yan-shang duped into doing his bidding – not only did he take Dai-nan in when her father died, but she is also a martial arts expert, which she demonstrates shortly after her first awkward meeting with her much older nephew Cheng-chuan, by beating up a gang of youths for their disrespectful banter.

Much of the film sees Dai-nan kicking butt in a variety of circumstances, fighting styles,  and outfits (more of this later) with élan and vigour, which should posit her as a proto feminist since all her opponents are male, yet the climax is all about the men instead. To add a twist to the age related role assignments, Dai-nan thinks Cheng-chuan is too old therefore too weak to fight, like his brothers – except he is of course a superior fighter in his own right.

We are privy to this secret during the open credits whilst Dai-nan is kept in the dark until the final act, when Cheng-chuan and his three brothers show up to whoop Yung-sheng and his cohorts into the middle of next week. They may be old but they can still go, and Cheng-chuan gets the glory of winning the critical fight over the right to the deeds to Yan-shang’s estate and not Dai-nan, sadly.

Responsible for most of the goofy antics is Cheng-chuan’s son Ah Toa (Hsiao Ho), who just happens to be closer in age to Dai-nan than his father is, and you can guess the rest of this development. Because Dai-nan dresses in traditional Chinese outfits and Ah Toa is a modern kid, just returned from studying in Hong Kong, he mocks his aunt for being an old maid. This doesn’t stop him perving over Dai-nan in a creepy, objectifying skit that really hasn’t aged well at all.

Guangzhou, like Hong Kong, has become more westernised at this point – the setting might be early 20th century given there are cars and gramophones but still looks like ancient China – and Dai-nan is treated like a bumpkin for her conservative attire. Ah Tao takes her shopping and Dai-nan is humiliated into buying a slinky white dress with huge slits down the side and a wild hair do to match, and suddenly she is the centre of attention.

However, it is unwanted attention; Dai-nan isn’t used to men leering at her, or wearing high heels, but she is still able to kick up a storm when required to. Later, Ah Tao takes Dai-nan to a masquerade ball (where Robin Hood is an acceptable outfit of choice) and again she is dressed in cumbersome clothing yet still fights, this time with a sword. It’s hard to know whether to take this as tacky exploitation of Kara Hui when viewed today or a bit of fun since she is awesome in these fight scenes.

Kara Hui was just 21 here, having started her career aged 16, but her star presence was undeniable; she won the first ever Hong Kong Film Awards for Best actress in 1981. Hui not only commands every scene, she handles most of the fight sequences too, and what fights they are! Pure classic Shaw Brothers – tightly choreographed, delicately balanced between fluid balletic movements, and finely tuned fighting strikes and defences, incorporating weapons too, many laced with a touch of comedy.

It’s odd a film like My Young Auntie with dated content issues also gets a lot right, thus is a lot fun –  the 60s beat movie musical number was a little incongruous – and is action packed to boot. The story is redundant for the bulk of the near 2 hour runtime and the strong female lead goodwill is compromised for the damsel in distress climax, yet for prime Kara Hui, this is the film to watch.

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