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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

THE LADY HERMIT -- DVD review by porfle

More swordplay and kung fu action, with a little romance thrown in for good measure, should please Shaw Brothers fans in 1971's THE LADY HERMIT, a modest but sincere effort that's pretty entertaining.

Cui-ping (Shih Szu) dreams of taking the martial world by storm and showing off her skills.  She's the usual brash young upstart who's cute and funny but incredibly talented.  Seeking the elusive Lady Hermit to be her master, she meets a humble maid named Miss Leng (Cheng Pei-Pei) and Changchun (Lo Lieh), a handsome security guardsman who is in love with her. 

Cui-ping soon discovers that Miss Leng is actually the Lady Hermit, who has been lying low while healing from a terrible wound inflicted by the evil Black Demon (Wang Hsieh) and his Shadow-less Claw technique.  Lady Hermit has been honing her own Tiger Style skill to combat it and teaches it to Cui-ping, who aims to defeat Black Demon herself.  But when she falls in love with Changchun, a romantic triangle threatens the unity of the good guys before the battle against Black Demon begins.

Without all the tangled plotlines and scads of peripheral characters complicating things, THE LADY HERMIT is much simpler than the usual Shaw Brothers films of the era.  The emphasis is on the three likable main characters and the story moves along at a good pace, with Cui-ping learning Lady Hermit's methods by day and teaching them to Chungchan by night.  The romantic complications that result from this arrangement are engaging without lapsing into overt melodrama.

The frequent battle scenes between the protagonists and the Black Demon's henchmen are lively and surprisingly gory, replete with hacked-off limbs, punctured eyeballs, and lots of blood.  The fight choreography is more piecemeal than usual since none of the leads seem especially adept at martial arts--most of the extended takes feature Cheng Pei-Pei's stunt double.  During the final battle sequence at the Black Demon's lair, however, the shots are longer and more involved, with Shih Szu going through some pretty elaborate moves against scores of opponents. 

Ho Meng Hua's direction seems simple at first but as the action intensifies the camera begins to move impressively, especially during an atmospheric battle within a fog-shrouded bamboo forest.  This small-scale production sometimes has the feel of an old matinee western, even down to some of the loping soundtrack music.  (As usual, a couple of John Barry's "James Bond" cues can also be heard.) 

An exciting sword battle between Cui-ping and several bad guys on a suspended rope bridge has an "Indiana Jones" quality along with some pleasantly hokey miniature effects.  With a number of individual clashes climaxing in a showdown at Black Demon's tower--where we finally get to see him and Lady Hermit fight to the death--the final twenty minutes or so of the film are non-stop action.

Cheng Pei-Pei (of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and BROTHERS FIVE) makes a solid heroine as Lady Hermit, lending a strong presence to her character.  Shih Szu and Lo Lieh are appealing as her young cohorts, with Shih Szu giving an especially energetic performance.  Unfortunately, Wang Hsieh's "Black Demon" isn't much of a villain--we don't see a lot of him and when we do, he does little besides bark that standard forced laugh and order his henchmen to kill Lady Hermit.  Only in their final confrontation does he start to become somewhat more interesting.

The DVD from Funimation is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital Mandarin and English mono soundtracks and English subtitles.  There are no extras besides several trailers for other Funimation releases.  As in a couple of Funimation's other Shaw Brothers DVDs, I noticed some occasional "sputtering" on the soundtrack.  I don't know what causes this and it's not a big problem for me, but I thought I should mention it.

With its lean story, likable characters, and fun action scenes, THE LADY HERMIT should be of interest to more than just wuxia fans.  It's one of the most enjoyable small-scale Shaw Brothers films I've seen.    

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