[11 August 2014]
Shout! Factory’s The Angela Mao Ying Collection makes important headway in illuminating the career of a martial arts star little remembered today. Too often unavailable except through poor quality bootlegs and cut-rate discs sold at mall kiosks, these movies, while uneven, deserve more notice in studying Mao’s work, the action genre, and the global success it brought to Hong Kong’s film industry.
The kung fu/hand-to-hand combat craze of the ‘70s followed the more fantastic wuxia swordplay films produced by the Shaw Brothers Studio in the ‘60s (the style celebrated in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Hand-to-hand movies, in contrast to wuxia, tended to take place in contemporary settings and relied on the fighting talent of its actors over special effects, making the movies cheaper to produce. This was an ideal format for the fledgling studio Golden Harvest, a company started by former Shaw Brothers production chief Raymond Chow, which established and popularized the genre with Bruce Lee’s movies in the early ‘70s and later launched the careers of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Mao was their female star and one of the few women action stars in Hong Kong at the time, nicknamed Lady Whirlwind after the title of her first starring hit.
As her nickname suggests, Mao is a fast fighter, her style and the characters she play are often defined by their spunky can-do determination. She is wholesome and badass; the personality and crispness she brings to her fight scenes immediately marks her as the star. When she has to stand still, her presence can be awkward; she looks uncomfortable in basic dialogue or group scenes in the manner of an athlete hosting Saturday Night Live (though this could be due to the generally stiff dialogue and staging of these scenes). But she is good with close-ups, perfecting the looks of suspicion, alarm, and petulant fury used to precede any battle.
Golden Harvest’s output as a whole could vary widely in the quality of its technique and craft, united in some way by a spirit of low-budget exploitation; in this way, Golden Harvest was Roger Corman to the Shaw Brothers’s MGM. The Angela Mao Ying Collection is a suitable representation of Golden Harvest’s work in this regard, ranging from clever to nonsensical, often within the same scene. As a whole, the set is also an unfortunate illustration of the studio’s inability to fully visualize a template for Mao as a heroine.
Despite being billed as the lead in the opening credits, Mao often skirts the sidelines of the story, the little seen host flitting about the edges of her own party. Stoner (1974), is an entertaining, completely awful piece of grindhouse trash where George Lazenby plays a detective investigating a syndicate peddling a highly addictive drug that makes people want to have sex. Mao spends most of the film in male drag (a graduate thesis could be written about the number of times her characters do so), hardly doing anything, until some decent fighting at the end. There is also a nice, if brief fight featuring Sammo Hung, who got his start choreographing and playing bit parts in many of these movies.
A Queen’s Ransom (1976), also featuring Lazenby, has a similarly low-grade quality. The film does offer a more interesting plot than Stoner, but it manages to be even more boring in execution. An international cabal of criminals convenes in Hong Kong, either to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II on a visit, or steal a cache of gold being smuggled from Cambodia. Mao is again too often on the sidelines, and the film as a whole too often favors dull gunfights over hand-to-hand combat.
Huang Feng directed most of Mao’s movies, four in this set, including Stoner. It’s hard to get a firm grip on his talent or style given the wide variance in quality here and the undoubtedly rushed and cost-cutting restrictions he was working under. The better movies develop more complex characters that motivate the fight scenes and frame the action under a consistent social setting, often focusing on cross cultural conflicts in East and Southeast Asia.
When Taekwondo Strikes takes place in Japan-occupied Korea during World War II, where a group of Korean, Chinese, and Westerners form a resistance group (“as martial artists we all belong to one family”) to avenge an attack on a Christian church. In The Tournament, Mao’s character combines kung fu with Muay Thai to succeed in a martial arts tournament in Bangkok. The plot, despite being rather confusing and also featuring a villainous Japanese karate school (the Japanese being the go-to villains for non-Japanese East Asian movies), nonetheless makes a great excuse for a cool combination of different fighting styles. The Himalayan, going for a grand, epic style, finds its feet once the blood-thirsty and ludicrously Machiavellian villain Ko Chan comes to the fore and Mao’s character learns the Lamaistic “Esoteric Style” of fighting in the set’s best training sequence.
The revenge structure that is central to many of these movies is too often limiting in the relentless, one-note motivation it gives its protagonists, However, Broken Oath (1977), directed by Cheng Chang-ho, uses more intricate plotting along with the most successful use of Mao as a uniquely female action star, for what is probably the most accomplished movie in this set.
Broken Oath opens in a women’s prison in Imperial China. A woman gives birth to a girl. In a flashback we learn that she was the wife of a general, who was murdered after a roadside attack by his rivals. One of those rivals abducted and attempted to rape the woman, who fought back and was arrested. Before dying, she vows that her daughter avenge her parents’ deaths. That daughter, played by Mao, grows up in a Buddhist monastery. She is skilled in fighting and her lust for aggressive behavior forces her to renounce the monastery’s life of non-violence in order to enact her revenge by systematically tracking down the four men who killed her father and abducted her mother. Although the movie features some gratuitous nudity and Mao eventually needs the help of a man in order to succeed in her plan, the film is otherwise remarkably sensitive to the plight of the women, particularly in the prison sequence, creating a much more compelling drive for Mao’s character and an interesting, layered approach to her revenge.
Unfortunately, this was one of Mao’s last major efforts as an actress and her career trickled out in the early ‘80s. Ultimately, Mao suffered more than her male counterparts from Golden Harvest’s hectic output and of the Hong Kong film industry in general. Had her career started ten or fifteen years later, there probably would have been better movies suited to her strengths that tried to capitalize on her crossover appeal. Though Shout! Factory doesn’t seem to have any aims at elucidation in the set’s no frills presentation (nothing but the movies and original trailers), I would have loved to have learned more about the details of Mao’s career, or to hear from Mao herself about her work.