Lady Whirlwind (Tie zhang xuan feng tui)
Hong Kong (1972) Dir. Huang Feng
Hell hath no fury etc… In this case it isn’t a woman scorned but the sister of the woman scorned who is full of fury and plans to unleash hell on the perpetrator – except she ends up being his fight partner instead. Welcome to the wacky world of martial arts movies folks.
A group of Japanese mobsters set upon a man Ling Shih-hua (Chang Yi), but despite his best efforts he is badly beaten. Luckily, a young woman Hsuang Hsuang (Oh Kyung-Ah) finds Ling and nurses him back to health. Three years later, Tien Li-Chun (Angela Mao) hits town looking Ling, not letting anybody stand in her way, including the Japanese who she easily defeats, angering their leader Tung Ku (Pai Ying).
Tracking Ling down, Li-Chun explains she is to avenge the death of her sister, who was dumped by Ling and committed suicide out of shame. But Ling is still in trouble with Tung Ku and must avenge his earlier beating. He asks for one day’s grace then he’ll fight Li-Chun, but Ling is again badly beaten, forcing Li-Chun to face Tung Ku so she can get her revenge against Ling.
For too long it has been believed martial arts film stars were all men, propagated by the fact most Kung Fu films did have predominantly male leads. Yes, there were female co-stars, and some did fight, but they were mostly relegated to the role of love interest or damsel in distress, whilst you might get the odd anomaly like Cheng Pei-pei who had the lead in King Hu’s Come Drink With Me.
Enter Angela Mao, a Taiwanese-born apprentice of Peking Opera, ballet, and martial arts, plucked from obscurity and brought to Hong Kong by director Huang Feng. After a couple of small support roles, Feng shoved Mao into the spotlight with Hapkido, and the follow up Lady Whirlwind, which became her nickname along with “Mistress of the Death Blow”, explaining the dodgy US rename of this film of Deep Thrust!
International audiences should recognise Mao as Bruce Lee’s sister in Enter The Dragon; no surprise that Mao was posited as the female Bruce Lee, yet unlike the male Bruce imitators, she enjoyed a successful career. Now 72, Mao lives in the US and owns three restaurants, but in 1972, Mao was a lethal spitfire of a woman kicking male butt to the heavens and back, proving you can’t keep a good woman down.
Scripted by Feng, there is little to the story on first inspection, supported by the first act being almost non-stop action with Ling’s beating quickly followed by Li-Chun kicking the stuffing out of Tung Ku’s men. One is played by none other than Sammo Hung, another of Feng’s discoveries, and action choreographer for this film. To say Sammo takes a battering is an understatement, not once but twice – the second time fatally.
Li-Chun isn’t the best-drawn character it has to be said – single-minded, pugnacious, and short on compassion, though the last trait predictably softens as time goes on, because of Hsuang Hsuang. Li-Chun’s fighting skills are supreme to the point of invincibility; the sight of this tiny woman whooping a group of ten men without breaking a sweat might be ridiculous, but as the nominal heroine, I guess it is contextually acceptable.
Perhaps by design, they is nothing cute about Li-Chun – she never smiles and the cold stare in her eyes could reverse climate change in the polar ice caps – as if Feng wants her to be taken seriously as a fighter and not a sex symbol. That role is sort of assumed by Hsuang Hsuang, though she gets involved a few fights too, but is painted as the softer of the two ladies, by virtue of her love for Ling.
Oh, and there is a third female: Liu Ah-Na plays an evil gang boss working with Tung Ku but only has a small role. Yet, Li-Chun being the major ass-kicker doesn’t out her front and centre of the story – that goes to Ling and his quest for vengeance against Tung Ku. I think the grievance is to do with Ling refusing to help the Japanese with their criminal acts or something; it is not that clear, but significant enough for the dispute to last three years!
Unfortunately, Ling isn’t quite as compelling a protagonist as Li-Chun, and for a man who knows he is on borrowed time should he defeat Tung Ku, doesn’t show signs of this pressure. Ling’s story arc also features special training from a Korean herbalist (Kim Nam-Il) teaching him the Tai Chi Palm Strike to boost his arsenal, yet he still isn’t half the fighter Li-Chun is.
Whilst there are fights aplenty, they are well choreographed but very much of their time, as anyone who is well versed in the Golden Harvest/Shaw Brothers style will recognise. Mao is wholly capable as a fighter and moves with grace and fluidity but the camerawork often exposes when the blows don’t land, which would have been avoided had the action been quicker. Mao is arguably the strongest fighter (Sammo has yet to find his feet, so to speak), with Chang Yi and Pai Ying both looking more like they are play acting.
Director Feng tries to be arty in places, with ill timed out of focus shots that only serve to distract rather than add effect, but keeps things generally on an even keel. The story tends to move forward via exposition rather than development, yet ironically, why the villains are villainous is left to their actions rather than a supplied backstory. But, this is a martial arts flick that only runs for 89-minutes, so functionality is the key.
Courtesy of this new Blu-ray release from Eureka (coupled with Hapkido), this stunning HD transfer of Lady Whirlwind is a solid introduction for modern martial arts fans to the long overlooked trailblazer who paved the way for Kara Hui, Michelle Yeoh, and Cynthia Khan.
2 thoughts on “Movie Review – Lady Whirlwind”
Thanks for sharing this. I am newly interested in Kung-Fu so this seems like a must watch
Thanks for the comment. I think “must watch” is a little over-reaching for this film but it is a good introduction to Angela Moa. “Hapkido” is the better film in my opinion.