Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective.
Note: This review contains many spoilers.
That Fiery Girl is a 1968 Shaw Brothers release directed by Chun Yen. It stars Cheng Pei-pei (Red Chili/Pearl), Chan Leung (Mei Fengchun), Cheng Liu (3rd Chief), Tang Ti (Chief Han Lung-Feng), and Fan Mei-Sheng (2nd Chief).
|Cheng Pei-pei as Red Chili|
This movie was recommended to me by Gareth Skarka when he posted a Cheng Pei-pei meme online. I managed to get a decent copy of it and sat down for a viewing the other night. I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Gareth did mention he tends to prefer the later Shaws Brothers films and after seeing That Fiery Girl, I think I understand what he was getting at. While this is a good movie, it is very much in a style that harkens back to when the choreography had more of a swash-buckly feel. I do enjoy movies in this style (I think a lot of them feature a good deal of athleticism), and many of the ones I like feature Cheng Pei-pei. however, this movie was a lot less focused on the action and more interested in the characters and story. There were plenty of fight scenes, some of them quite entertaining, but I just didn't get the impression that the director was as invested in those as he was in other aspects of the film. So my review will focus more on those elements.
|Tang Ti as Chief |
The premise of That Fiery Girl is fairly straight forward. The Hulu Valley Bandits have been terrorizing the local population and attack the Mei Clan, killing their chief, to obtain a secret treasure map. Surviving brothers of the Mei Clan, led by Mei Fengchun, hatch a plan to infiltrate Hulu Valley and get their revenge. Their aims are complicated when Red Chili (called Pearl by her allies), the daughter of the Hulu chief, falls in love with Fengchun. Most of the film takes place in Hulu Valley after Fengchun convinces them he is a disaffected member of the Mei Clan who wants to join their organization. He becomes their fourth chief when he impressed Chief Han Lung-Feng (the leader of Hulu Valley). This creates tension between him and 3rd chief, who resents his sudden advancement in the ranks and is jealous for Red Chili's affection, establishing a key conflict that drives the film.
Hulu Valley is basically a group of bandits, but it is clear that Red Chili doesn't see them that way. She feels out of place somehow and it becomes clear why by the closing scene. Early in the movie when she leads a group of her father's men to take the treasure map from Mei Clan Ancestral Shrine, she quickly loses control of them as they murder the chief and burn down the building. She reprimands them when they go too far, and demands that they stop, but they ignore her orders.
Tang Ti as the chief of Hulu Valley and the father of Red Chili is perfect. He isn't your typical cruel and evil villain (though he can be cruel when he needs to be). There is more of a comedic, boisterous edge to his character that works. You don't hate him. You want him to be defeated in the end, but there is something a touch sympathetic about his personality and situation that I can't quite put my finger on. He is a bit of a loud buffoon and this is echoed by the demeanor and appearance of his number two, played by Fan Mei-Sheng.
|Red Chili leaning back|
The relationship between Chief Hun Lung-Feng and his daughter, Red Chili, works well. The dynamic is a pretty common one in wuxia, where you have the daughter of the sect dotted on by a generous father. In a brilliant scene, when the clan has arranged for Fengchun to marry another woman, she trades places with the bride and conceals her face in the ceremonial phoenix crown so she can wed him. An endless stream of comedy flows from this absurd situation.
Following the wedding fiasco, Fengchun's identity is revealed and he is imprisoned. Red Chilli starts to question her father's character shortly after. There is a big reveal that gives the film a tremendous pivot and helps it wrap up perfectly in the end (which I won't give away for those who haven't seen the movie).
|The towering phoenix crown,|
a memorable moment
Cheng Pei-pei is great as always. Red Chili is an interesting character. Initially she is presented as hot tempered and violently confrontational but this is balanced out by an underlying goodness and naiveté. I think she has a good range as an actress and you see that here.
The film opens with the attack on Mei Clan Ancestral Shrine and we have a few more big fight scenes throughout the film. As I said in my introduction, this is more on the swashbuckling side of things and I had the impression the director was more focused on other aspects of the movie than fight choreography. This isn't a criticism, I just don't think it is a film where the clash of swords are the most memorable part of the fights. For example I think the costuming and the building tension was one of the most memorable things about the wedding fight. There is a stark moment when Red Chili towers over Fengchun in full bridal regalia that is simply stunning (it reminded me of the wedding scene in Heavenly Sword and Dragon Saber). The blades in That Fiery Girl feel hefty and dense. That was my first impression and it remained every time swords clashed. Sometimes the blades feel light and airy but in this film it felt like they were meant to hack deep. I also liked that there was some emphasis on leaning away to evade sword strikes and spears. With Fengchun we get a fair amount of jumping in and out of melee, which is always fun.
|Cheng Liu as |
Fengchun's rival in love, 3rd Chief
One area where the movie really works is the intrigue and adventure elements. The reason Fengchun and his men can't just storm Hulu Valley and have to infiltrate it first, is the place is heavily forested and filled with traps. Some of these traps are things like nets that snatch the unwary, but there are always dozens and dozens of archers waiting in the trees to fire at intruders. So Fengchun's strategic aim is to map the layout of the headquarters and identify trapped areas. This means he has to send regular messages to his allies which creates a number of opportunities for suspense and clever exchanges of dialogue.
As a gamer it was these setting elements that grabbed my interest the most. Hulu Valley is the kind of place you can port right into a campaign and it would afford hours or days of challenge for the party. It also gives the viewer a clear window into the Hulu Valley hierarchy and command structure, as well as their daily life. There is usually a good deal of this in wuxia, but I found the presentation in That Fiery Girl clicked with me. I think a lot of GMs trying to run martial sects in their campaigns but having trouble wrapping their head around the inner workings, could get some good guidance from a viewing of this movie.
|Chan Leung as|
I definitely recommend That Fiery Girl for wuxia fans and particularly for gamers. It is a bit hard to obtain. If you do want to buy it, I'd recommend going to ebay rather than amazon (on ebay I found it for a reasonable price but amazon was selling it for 100 dollars). Unfortunately it is also only available in region 3 in DVD format from what I've seen.
If you can check this one out.