The Queen Of Kung-Fu gets a pretty nice retrospective from Shout! Factory who, following their double feature release of Lady Whirlwind/Hapkido, have assembled a half dozen of her movies made for Golden Harvest in the 1970s and released them as a 3 DVD edition entitled, appropriately enough, The Angela Mao Ying Collection. Here's what the set contains…
Broken Oath (1977):
A Chinese take on the very Japanese film Lady Snowblood, Chung Chang Wha's Broken Oath puts Angela Mao in Meiko Kaji's part and throws in a few interesting twists. The end result is a movie that was obviously inspired by the Kaji vehicle but which stands out on its own as an interesting take on the movie that it borrows from. In short, sure, it's derivative but it's a whole lot of fun.
A husband and wife are assaulted by a gang of criminals who proceed to chop off the man's head and rape the woman. The woman lands herself in prison where she gives birth to a daughter but she dies in childbirth. One of the inmates, a pickpocket, promises to raise the girl as best she can when she gets out of the big house but in the interim the girl is given over to some female Shaolin monks who name her Pure Lotus Liu (Mao). Lotus doesn't do so well with her studies but she does seem to have a natural talent for the martial arts which she uses to knock off a few local bad guys. This doesn't sit well with the monks, so they kick her out and she winds up back with the pickpocket who knew her mother.
Once reunited with her mother's friend, she learns what really happened to her family and she decides to hunt down the four bad guys who made up the gang of murderers to avenge her family's death. While all of this is going on there are a couple of secret agents running around trying to put a stop to the criminal activities of two of the gang members that Lotus is after.
Once the movie gets over its Lady Snowblood fetish, it's actually really good. The opening murder scene is pretty intense but then it slows down for a good half hour while it tries to build Lotus' back story. While normally this type of character development would help the film, it isn't handled all that well and at times these scenes feel like filler.
When Lotus gets reunited with her mother's former cellmate and decides that it's time for revenge, however, the movie kicks into high gear and Mao gets to really strut her stuff. If she isn't killing off her opponents with some live scorpions (how she manages to keep a bunch of these up her sleeve is never explained… just accept it because it's cool) she's sneaking around and kicking people in the head or using some interesting weapons to take care of business.
While there are some recognizable Hong Kong notables here in supporting roles (Sammo Hung, Bruce Leung and Michael Chan), this is pretty much Mao's show all the way. Leung has a great fight scene with Chan towards the end of the movie but aside from that this is a Mao fan's wet dream as she gets a lot of screen time and is allowed to show off some pretty impressive fighting skills during the last half of the movie. Chung Chang Wha's direction does a good job of capturing her natural intensity and the fight choreography from The Yuen's is second to none.
When Taekwondo Strikes (1973):
Also known as Sting Of The Dragon Master, this film is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea where Angela Mao plays a Chinese Hapkido fighter who teams up with the Korean freedom fighters who oppose the Japanese forces currently running the show in their homeland. She's joined in this group by a few other Koreans (one of whom was played by Carter Wong) and an American who wants to avenge the death of her uncle who was killed by the Japanese. Jhoon Rhee, who plays the leader of the group, has to hustle to keep his rag tag gang alive when the Japanese find out about them, and they spend much of the movie on the run and trying to stay alive.
Sammo Hung plays one of the Japanese soldiers who the group goes up against and he stars in some of the best fight scenes in the film. The first half of the movie is pretty much nonstop action, and it's all handled really well thanks to the skills of the talented cast members. The fight scenes mix a nice blend of different styles in front of the camera which keeps things interesting. Though Mao's role is more of a large supporting part than a 'top billed' part, she really shines in the last fight scene of the film. Anytime Mao or Sammo are on screen, the movie is great.
While the storyline is really nothing to write home or get excited about, this film is completely worthwhile thanks to the plentiful fight scenes and the quality of those fight scenes. The film moves along at a really brisk pace, it's got some great sets (the fights in the church are interesting in the way that they use the locations), and the cast all turn in fine performances.
Probably the best known film in this set to western audiences is Stoner which stars former James Bond star George Lazenby as Joseph Stoner, an Australian cop who is trying to figure out the source of a highly addictive drug that has been making the rounds. This narcotic not only brings on strong hallucinations but it also acts as a powerful aphrodisiac... which explains its near instant popularity!
Stoner takes things personally when his younger sister gets hooked. This is all the impetus he needs to follow a few leads to Hong Kong in hopes of chasing down the man he believes is responsible for the spread of the drug. It just so happens, however, that this man is a ridiculously wealthy and powerful guy named Mr. Chin (Jôji Takagi) and that bringing him to justice will not be as easy as Stoner had hoped. The drug hasn't only caught on in Stoner's homeland, however, it's also become popular in Taiwan where it has caused similar problems for law enforcement. Also hoping to put a stop to the epidemic, the Taiwanese police send Angela Li (Mao), their top cop, to smash Chin's business. Inevitably Stoner and Angela team up and work together to fight their way to Chin and bring him to justice.
Stoner has developed a pretty solid cult over the years and it's easy to see why. Lazenby sort of sleep walks through much of it but Mao is in her prime here, really proving herself in the fight scenes and looking as lovely as ever while doing so. Sammo Hung pops up in this one too, not surprisingly playing on of the bad guys. It's hard to buy Lazenby besting him in a fight, but hey, the guy was top billed so we'll let it slide. The martial arts scenes are solid and frequent enough to keep the pace going and help us to overlook the fact that the story really isn't all that.
The film was originally to have been called The Shrine Of Ultimate Bliss and co-star Lazenby, Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee but Lee died shortly before filming started and Chiba bailed. As such, the budget was slashed and the story switched around at the last minute to accommodate these changes. The version included on this DVD is the longer, uncut Hong Kong version complete with the nudity, extended bits with Mao and longer fight scenes than what was included in the older edited U.S. version.
A Queen's Ransom (1976):
Also known as International Assassin, this one also features Mao and Lazenby and throws in a solid role for none other than the One Armed Swordsman himself, Jimmy Wang Yu, though the film plays out as more of a conspiracy thriller than a straight up martial arts action movie. When the film begins, over a hundred thousand refugees have landed on the shores of Hong Kong in 1975, fleeing the impending communist takeover of their Cambodian homeland. Thousands more have shown up but the authorities have started placing them in internment camps. As luck would have it, all of this political turmoil and unrest occurs just in time for a visit from Queen Elizabeth II and as you'd expect, security is tightened to ensure her visit goes off without a hitch.
Enter George Walsh (Lazenby), an IRA killer who leads a team made up of Jimmy (Wang Yu), Black Rose (Judy Brown) and Ram (Bolo Yeung) intent on assassinating her royal highness. Adding another layer to the plot is the presence of a Cambodian princess (Mao) who, along with a whole lot of loot, is hidden away in a lowly farmhouse. Will the cops catch Walsh and his crew before they can snatch the Queen? Will the Cambodian princess ever live freely again? There are a whole lot of wonky plot twists and double crosses here, all of which lead up to a pretty fun movie despite a slower start to the first half of the picture.
Produced by Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest in one of his many attempts to break into international markets, A Queen's Ransom suffers from pacing problems in its first half but makes up for it in the second. Expect a fair bit of stock footage inserts detailing the actual Queen's visit to Hong Kong and some nice location footage tacked in there too to help with the film's authenticity. Lazenby isn't always convincing as an Irish killer but he's decent enough in the part even if his team is a bit of a hodge podge. Definitely some novelty casting going on there, but hey, it works and who wouldn't want to see Bolo alongside Wang Yu and Roger Corman regular/American exploitation queen Judy Brown?
Mao doesn't get as much screen time here as her most rabid fans might want but her role is pretty decent. There are some solid and occasionally brutal fights in the latter scenes, a bit of nudity… enough here to make for a fun mix of exploitation and adventure if you're not too demanding.
The Himalayan (1976):
Set in Tibet, this film begins when the elder father of the Tseng family (Guan Shen) arranges a marriage for his daughter Tseng Ching-Lan (Mao) to the younger son of a respected local family (Ling Hon). This is decided after a test of his martial arts ability at the hands of his bride to be, much to the amusement of older brother Kao Chu (Chen Sing) who plays a large part in the arrangement himself. Kao Chu's intentions are far from noble, however, as he really only wants to marry off I-Fan to Chen-Lan so that he can get access to her family's money and influence knowing full well that once he has that, he'll be able to basically control the town.
When I-Fan wises up and wants to call off the wedding, his older brother kills him in cold blood and then, in a pretty preposterous plot twist, manages to find a man who looks identical to his now deceased sibling to replace him. Meanwhile, Lan's old friend Hsu Chin-Kang (Delon Tan), admits he's always had a thing for her but knows he can't marry her because his family doesn't have the cash or the clout that I-Fan's does. When I-Fan's double starts to have doubts about how well this plan is going to work, Kao decides to instead frame Hsu Chin-Kang for carrying on an illicit affair with Chen-Lan and in turn he attempts to poison her and frame her for the murder of the I-Fan double. When Hsu frees his beloved, they travel together to learn martial arts from a temple leader that they in turn hope to use to bring Kao Chu to justice.
While the plot is fairly standard stuff (despite the arranged marriage idea, which does help to differentiate it a bit) this one is worth watching not only because Angela Mao is really good in it, if sorely underused in the fight scenes (she does get to do some decant acting here, however), but because Delon Tan really shines too. The fight scenes are strong, featuring great choreography and some pretty interesting moves and the pace is pretty decent too. Chen Sing makes for a good villain, throwing his weight around effectively and completely deserving of our scorn before the film finishes, while the cultural ramifications of the Tibetan and Nepalese shooting locations in the opening scenes (the rest of it looks like it was shot in China) make this one a little more exotic than you might expect it to be. Sammo Hung, Yuen Wah and yes, a young Jackie Chan, all have brief cameos in this movie too, which is fun to see.
The Tournament (1974):
Last but not least, a pretty solid team up of Mao, who plays a woman named Liu Xiao-Feng, and Carter Wong, as her old brother. A group of criminals take their younger sister hostage when their father, who runs a martial arts school, can't pay them the debut he owes. To help with this, dad sends his son and another student off to compete in a martial arts tournament in Thailand where they have their asses handed to them in competition by some Muay Thai students. The son survives, the other does not. As such, Liu and her brother return home to find that their father is now basically considered a joke amongst his peers.
When dad, shamed by the loss and his debt problems, takes his own life the brother and sister duo know that in order to restore honor to the family name they'll have to head back to Thailand and study Muay Thai. While this is going on, a Karate teacher named Ichiro (Hwang In-Shik) is trying to sneak the school away from them, even if he has to resort to violence to do it.
Again, the plot here is fairly simple but it doesn't need to be overly complex to work. The core of the story revolves around Mao's transformation from a nice girl into a whirling dervish of ass-kicking once she completes her training. She and Carter Wong both get to do some decent enough acting here as well, as the script does introduce some effective dramatic elements to make the action mean more, but the emphasis is definitely on the fight scenes and the movie delivers here. It's pretty interesting to see how Mao mixes up her native Chinese style with the Muay Thai style introduced during the competition scenes and the same applies to Carter Wong. Both manage to create something interesting here, making this more than just a mix of the stereotypical revenge and competition elements so common in martial arts movies. Well directed and nicely shot, The Tournament also features Sammo Hung in a small supporting role.
The DVD Set:
All six films in the set are presented in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfers except for The Himalayan which is 1.85.1. There are some mild to moderate print damage issues present in each of the six pictures and sometimes things can get pretty heavy in terms of grain, but otherwise the images look okay, if never truly amazing. There aren't any really heavy problems with mpeg compression artifacts nor is there any overpowering edge enhancement anywhere to be seen. A bit of line shimmering is noticeable but that's really about it. There is, however, some minor ghosting in some scenes and some color fading here and there. Most of these films were released by Fortune Star in the Hong Kong market. The transfer on Broken Oath matches that disc, so it's probably safe to assume that Shout! Factory have used those transfers for this release (the fact that they're not flagged for progressive scan either tends to back this up).
English and Mandarin language tracks are provided for each film as follows:
Broken Oath: English Dolby Digital 5.1, Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0
When Taekwondo Strikes: English Dolby Digital 5.1, Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1
Stoner: English Dolby Digital 2.0, Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0
A Queen's Ransom English Dolby Digital 2.0, Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0
The Himalayan: English Dolby Digital 2.0, Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0
The Tournament: English Dolby Digital 2.0, Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0
Regardless of which options you go for, there's a bit of background hiss present in a few spots but other than that these tracks are fine. The English subs are clean and clear and easy to read and if there's an awkward phrase or two, it's easy to overlook that. The 5.1 tracks get a bit sloppy in terms of effects placement but these are serviceable enough mixes.
Extras are slim, limited to menus and chapter selection and a trailer for each feature (except for The Himalayan and Stoner). The three discs fit inside a clear plastic DVD flipper style case that in turn fits inside a cardboard slipcover featuring identical cover art on one side and credits for each of the six pictures on the flipside.
The Angela Mao Ying Collection isn't going to blow anyone away with amazing audio and video quality but it does offer up all six films in their proper aspect ratios with both the original Chinese language option and the English dubs as well. Extras are light, but the movies themselves are all pretty entertaining. Fans of vintage kung-fu movies should consider this set recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.