The Lady Hermit

This final excursion from Cheng Pei-pei for the Shaw Brothers was a symbolically fitting one. Beginning with her successful run of martial arts films starting in 1965 with the groundbreaking and legend making “Come Drink with Me”, Cheng Pei-pei had become an enormous star in Hong Kong, but she was now planning to retire and marry her Chinese-American sweetheart and move to the United States. The Shaws were looking for a replacement for her and thought they had one in the diminutive and very cute Shih Szu. Thus this film acts almost as an official handoff from Cheng Pei-pei to Shih Szu and the film makes the most of this theme with Shih’s character being mentored by Cheng Pei-pei’s character. I assume the reason that Shih gets more screen time than the established star is because the Shaws were grooming Shih to become one, but in the end it is still Cheng Pei-pei who gives the film its depth and poignancy.
Looking back at much of Cheng Pei-pei’s output over these years, the films may in retrospect seem to range from average to solid with the charismatic actress often being their saving grace and the main point of interest for today’s viewers. At the time though many of her films did quite well at the box office and both this film and her “Shadow Whip” were in the top ten at the box office in 1971. She did follow through on these retirement plans, but within a few years she had returned to Hong Kong and made some more martial arts films but not for the Shaw Brothers. Perhaps they thought her too old by then to take her back?
Cheng Pei-pei goes out with a blast – this is one of her better films that I have seen so far other than of course “Come Drink with Me” (these include “The Thundering Sword”, “That Fiery Girl”, “Whiplash”, “Dragon Swamp”, “Raw Courage”, “Shadow Whip”). “Golden Swallow” is also one of the better films she was in but her diminished role in the favor of Jimmy Wang Yu has always been a sore spot with me. Part of the reason for the success of this film may be a switch from her usual director, Lo Wei, to Ho Meng-hua who paints a more personal and energetic canvass than Wei often did. This film was before Ho fully embraced the rougher elements he introduced in films like “Kiss of Death”, “Oily Maniac” and “Vengeful Beauty”, but certainly the body count is large in this fast paced martial arts escapade though most of it is saved for the final bloody twenty-minutes.
Cui Ping (Shih Sze) arrives in Dungan Town and trouble immediately follows her. She spots a man roughing up an elderly gentleman and attempting to steal his money and steps in with her flashing whip to beat off the attacker and his two henchman. In the midst of fighting, she doesn’t notice that she has some quick-handed help from a female onlooker. Cui is in town with a purpose – to find the legendary “Lady Hermit” who is famous for her martial arts skills but who has disappeared for three years. Cui wants to study under her in order to become number one in the world of martial arts and knows she needs a great teacher to accomplish this. She goes to the Du An Security Service where she finds Master Wang and one of his employees, Chang-chung (Lo Lieh) attentive but unable to assist her. She also meets the maid, Yushuang (per the subs, but most sources have her name as Chung Kuei), who is played by Cheng Pei-pei.
To no one’s surprise, it turns out that of course Yushuang is the Lady Hermit, but after a serious injury that she received three years previously in a fight with the Black Demon (Wang Hsia) she has still not recovered (what do you expect – it was a “Shadow-less Claw” blow!). Over these three years she has been in hiding and biding her time to renew her duel with this villain. Cui has heard rumors that the Lady Hermit is in a nearby town, Biajiang Town, and she goes there to investigate. She comes across a few apparent walking dead who are killing the town’s folks but who turn out to be humans beneath their masks. She soon finds herself surrounded by a multitude of villains and is rescued by a mysterious woman hidden underneath a white veil – The Lady Hermit has returned!
After much pleading and pouting, Yushuang takes on Cui as her student and the two of them begin training. Her injury still limits her ability, so she teaches Cui the “Flying Tiger” that she thinks will defeat the Black Demon’s killing stance. She demonstrates this by tossing some poor cat high in the air and watching it land on its feet. While Cui is away on an errand, Master Wang is killed by the Black Demon’s minions and now its personal for Yushuang. She tracks them down and tells them that one will lose an arm, another a leg and the final one his head – all three body parts are soon rolling on the floor. Almost ready to attack the fortress of the Black Demon, a rift divides the two women – love of course being the culprit – Yushuang and Chang-chung have had an unspoken affection for one another for years (until he tells her “You live, I live, you die, I die”) but Cui takes a fancy to Chang-chung as well and when she realizes where his love lies she decides to show them by taking on the Black Demon on her own.
Yushuang and Chang-chung chase after her and the dead bodies make the trail easy to follow as the film kicks into high gear with a series of terrific set pieces that leaves a swath of dead in its path. Cui knows when she has arrived at the doorstep of the Black Demon – he has a sign that reads “Number One in Martial Arts”! I enjoyed this thoroughly – not just the action, which is nicely done and often quite vicious  - but what makes it all matter is the full development of the three main characters and the friendships that grow between them. When Yushuang shows up at the end to save her student one more time with a taunting challenge to the Black Demon from atop a wall adorned in her veil and broad low hung straw hat you feel like giving up a little cheer. The film also contrasts the two women sharply – one the older wiser almost world-weary warrior and the other naively ready to take on the world. Both are performed well by the two actresses who spill over with personality and graceful moves.

My rating for this film: 7.5