Few people have left a more lasting impression on the world of martial arts films as Lau Kar-Leung. As an actor, director, fight choreographer, instructor and stunt coordinator, he has been involved in some of the best films to ever come out of Shaw Brothers Studios or Hong Kong. As a director he really hit his stride with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which is still considered to be one of his best films. He also worked a little bit of magic with this film from 1981.
Blending action, comedy, musical dance numbers and just a bit or romance--to mixed results, I assure you--My Young Auntie has Lau pulling extra duties as director, fight choreographer and actor. The film starts off with the nubile Cheng Tai-Nan (Kara Hui), the faithful servant of a dying patriarch who wants to protect his riches from his nefarious nephew, Yung-Sheng. Even though Tai-Nan is young enough to be his granddaughter, she marries her master so that when he dies, all of his riches will go to her, and she can then give them to Ching-Chuen (Lau Kar-Leung), her husband/master's favorite nephew. This doesn't sit well with Yung-Sheng, who dispatches his goons after Tai-Nan, but luckily she knows kung fu, and has no problems beating the crap out of anyone who gets in her way. Things become complicated when Ching-Chuen's son, Yu Tao (Hou Hsiao), returns from studying in Hong Kong, only to discover Tai-Nan in the family home and gets in a fight with her, not realizing she is actually his great aunt. Complicating things even more is the attraction between Yu Tao and Tai-Nan, which thankfully does not get in the way of the story, which takes a somewhat predictable turn when Yung-Sheng manages to steal all the titles and deeds to Ching-Chuen's riches. Confused? With no choice but to lead an attack against Yung-Sheng, Tai-Nan decides to train Ching-Chuen and his older brothers (who are actually all her great nephews, even though she is old enough to be their daughter), for an all-out kung fu assault against the enemy.
Surprisingly, despite what seems to be a complicated plot, My Young Auntie manages to never get that confusing. That would be because the film takes its own sweet time setting up the plot and introducing the characters. So much time, in fact, that the film really drags in the first hour. Sure, coherent plots in kung fu epics can be a plus, but not at the expense of pacing. And that is where the biggest flaw in My Young Auntie can be found--it simply takes too long to really get going. Yes, there are some decent action sequences in the first half, but the film doesn't really come together until some time during the second hour.
During the second hour of My Young Auntie is where it comes closest to earning its reputation as a classic (although it never quite sells me). Lau packs a majority of the action into the backend, delivering a series of fight sequences that demonstrates why he is considered one of the greatest action filmmakers of all time. Here he mixes in the same sort of comedic elements to the action that would come to later define some of his other classic films like Drunken Master II.
My Young Auntie was a huge hit, helping launch the career of Kara Hui, who was only 20 at the time the film was made, and Lau Kar-Leung's lover, even though he was over twice her age at the time. Hong Kong cinema already a long tradition of leading women in action roles--due in part to the fact that in the early days of film it was not considered respectable work for male actors--but few films ever achieved the kind of popularity enjoyed by My Young Auntie, which was essential remade a few years later as The Lady is Boss. Not only did the film help usher in a new era of women in leading action roles, it was also instrumental in the push toward incorporating more comedy into the martial arts genre.
My Young Auntie is a good film, but not a great film, die-hard fans will see in the film the many influences it has, but casual fans may not enjoy it that much. The script and story are weak, even by the somewhat diminished standards by which many films of this nature are measured, and even though it is supposed to be a comedy, much of it comes across being just plain silly. At the same time the film is redeemed by Hui, who is more than easy on the eyes, and a series of fight sequences, including a showdown at the end that features Lau Kar-Leung serving up a serious asskicking.
My Young Auntie is presented widescreen and has been enhanced for 16 x 9 television. Like the other Shaw Brothers' films recently released domestically on DVD by The Weinstein Company, My Young Auntie is part of Celestial Pictures painstaking efforts to restore the Shaw library. The results are picture transfers that are amazing. Fans of martial arts cinema have grown used to inferior picture quality to the point that it is a given. But these releases are finally presenting these films in their original glory, making it even more difficult to put up with inferior picture quality.
My Young Auntie is presented in Dolby Digital mono with a Mandarin language track and dubbed English track. There are both English and Spanish subtitles.
Like the other recent Shaw Brothers releases, My Young Auntie comes with a decent selection of bonus material, although the offerings on this disc are not quite as fun as the others. Star Kara Hui is featured in a brief interview, as are film critics David Chute and Andy Klein. Klein and fellow critic Elvis Mitchell provide an audio commentary that is solid, but does not compare Klein's commentary with The RZA on The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
I like My Young Auntie, but I don't love it--it's not the sort of film that I yearn to watch over and over again. It is entertaining enough that kung fu fans who haven't seen it should check it out, but I can't recommend buying it.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]