The swaggerful blare of them trumpets as the Shaw Brothers logo fills up the screen, and I'm transported back to old school kung fu theater. The movie of choice, this instance, is THE LADY HERMIT, one of Cheng Pei-Pei's very best, doubt me not. There's a trace of that superhero element in this 1971 wuxia pien classic in that Cheng Pei-Pei's character, Shang Yu-ling, walks amongst the common folks in secret, passing herself off as a lowly servant of the local security firm. Even as whispers of the awe-inspiring swordswoman, the Lady Hermit, circulate from village to village.
Into town strides Miss Cui-ping (Szu Shih), the young and impetuous bullwhip-wielding swordswoman seeking to expand her martial arts thru apprenticeship under the legendary Lady Hermit. Cui-ping has a grievance against the fiendish big bad known as the Black Demon. Except that Shang Yu-ling won't hear that noise. It's been three years of hiding and recuperating since her near fatal encounter with the malevolent Black Demon, and nothing will keep her from exacting bloody vengeance. She'd been politely spurning the advances of Wu Chang-chun, the earnest security escort. No one suspects that her "old" maid act is a disguise. Shang Yu-ling isn't about to allow Miss Cui-ping to ruin her steadfast plotting.
But the Lady Hermit is forced to spring into action when the hot-headed Cui-ping gets into a scrape and is targeted for assassination. Cui-ping's pluck and determination eventually win the Lady Hermit over and off they go, student and sifu, brushing up on their Flying Tiger technique, hoping that it's enough to prevail against the Black Demon's lethal Shadowless Claw maneuver.
The Lady Hermit ranks as one of Cheng Pei-Pei's most memorable heroines, easily on par with Golden Swallow in the landmark COME DRINK WITH ME (which made Cheng Pei-Pei a star in 1966). This is a martial arts film which offers a little bit of everything. For sure, the wushu is plentiful and nicely staged. The Lady Hermit and her protégé, Cui-ping, carve a bloody swath. But the film also introduces doses of comedy (the fun interactions between Cui-ping and Chang-chun, the Lady Hermit's imparting a lesson which involves tossing a cat). But there is also a bittersweet romantic triangle, and those never end well.
Szu Shih, feisty and appealing, does a very good job of fleshing out Cui-ping. And she definitely has her action moments. Her showcase action set piece takes place in the film's final 20 minutes as she rashly storms the Black Demon's imposing pagoda. She takes on legions of henchmen on a suspension bridge and then at the foot of the pagoda, and she acquits herself marvelously. But this is Cheng Pei-Pei's film and so the Lady Hermit arrives to finish what her student couldn't, which is defeat the Black Demon in personal combat. What we get here is a vibrant Cheng Pei-Pei who commands the screen with ease. Her character is made even more sympathetic and vulnerable by a chronic ailment which occasionally devastates her waist, an old injury inflicted by the Black Demon. I can't help but compare the Lady Hermit's old wound with that of John Wayne's in EL DORADO. Both afflictions tend to resurface at the most inopportune moment.
I might've gushed over the violence and sheer mayhem in THE LADY HERMIT, but I'd just seen MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE again. Still, the violence here is pretty intense, what with chop sticks being hurled into a goon's eye sockets and daggers embedding into another baddie's forehead and sundry body parts getting lopped off. THE LADY HERMIT is a must-see for fans of martial arts and martial chivalry. Cheng Pei-Pei started out as a dancer and segued into the mightiest swordswoman in her era. She (and, okay, Polly Shang Kuan) paved the way for buttkicking women like Kara Hui, Michelle Yeoh, and newcomers Thanh Van Ngo and Jeeja Yanin. I wish, though, that this DVD had some bonus features. An interview or audio commentary with Cheng Pei-Pei would've been groovy.