Monday, December 18, 2023


This is part of a series I started when working on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, reviewing wuxia films and discussing their relevance to tabletop RPGs. This entry is an installment in my Cheng Pei-pei reviews series as well. So far on this blog I have covered Come Drink with me, Brothers Five, Golden Swallow, Dragon Swamp, The Shadow Whip, Lady Hermit, Thundering Sword, The Golden Sword, Raw Courage, That Fiery Girl, Whiplash, and Kung Fu Girl. Today I write about The Jade Raksha. 

I am a little rusty on these written reviews and my last one was a little long winded, so I am going to aim for brevity on this one. 

If you want to bring wuxia to your RPG table, try Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades or Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. 

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.  

This review contains many spoilers.

Released in 1970 and directed by Ho Meng-Hua, Lady of Steel stars Cheng Pei-Pei, Yueh Hua, and Huang Tsung-Hsun. 

Lady of Steel is a satisfying tale of revenge that once again teams up Cheng Pei-Pei and Yueh Hua. As in Come Drink with Me, Yueh Hua plays a beggar named Qin Shang Yi, and Cheng Pei-Pei plays Fang Ying Qi, a woman whose family is slaughtered when she is a child. Raised by Priest Xuan Zhen, she learns martial arts on a reclusive mountain. Priest Juan Zhen sends her to Flying Dragon Fortress when she is old enough to help Master Xia fight against the Jin invasion. Unbeknownst to them her father's killer, Han Shi Xiong, has retired from banditry and serves the Jin in secret as a spy at Flying Dragon Fortress, where he has assumed the new identity of Cai Yi. 

When she first arrives at Flying Dragon Fortress, Ying Qi impresses them with her lightness kung fu and dart skills (which she uses to precision kill a cluster of birds). Recognizing her name, Cai Yi plots to have her killed by sending her to assassinate Wu Chang Sheng of Black Wind Fortress, a wealthy man working with the Jin in order to protect his property. Though they lay a trap for her, she escapes with the assistance of Qin Shang Yi, and manages to nab their flag. 

Back at Flying Dragon Fortress, Cai Yi plots further when he learns about Qin and Ying Qi's relationships, intending to use it against her. She receives a letter from Qin informing her about a shipment of goods to the Jin that he doesn't have the manpower to rob. All of Flying Dragon Fortress ambushes the caravan but suffers heavy losses as the caravan is a counter ambush. Cai Yi then plants incriminating evidence in Ying Qi's room and demands it be searched, forcing her to fight her way out of Flying Dragon Fortress. 

In hiding, she learns of Cai Yi's real identity through his number two, Wei Tong Ming. She also learns that Cai Yi is working with Wu Chang Sheng to stage a surprise attack on Flying Dragon Fortress, using his birthday as a pretext to ensure every member is present. Teaming up with Qin, they intercept the ambush and kill Cai Yi in a spectacular final showdown. 

This is the short synopsis of the film. It leaves out a number of interesting plot beats, including one where Ying Qi assumes the identity of a man named Yan Ji Jiang to infiltrate Black Wind Fortress, but that is the basic story. 

There are a number of things I like about this movie. The first are the visuals. It isn't overwrought but in key moments there are some startling shots and everything feels well composed to me. In particular, I loved the scene where Qing Yi confronts Wei Tong Ming, against the backdrop of the birthday celebration fireworks display. The way it cuts between the flash of the "longevity" firework and her relentless assault on Wei Tong Ming worked.

Something else I enjoyed was the depiction of kung fu, particularly lightness martial arts. This is a film made in 1970 and things are moving in a more stylized direction. There is also a great sense of mood in some of the fights. One example is when Qin faces Wu Chang Sheng in a forest. Not only does he seem to be able to appear and disappear at will to force Wu Chang Sheng into a battle, but the way Qin strides forward with his sword drawn, just pulled me into the moment. 

I very much liked how the film opens, where we see the backstory of Ying Qi's family slaughtered by Cai Yi. The ruthlessness of it, and the valiance of one of her father's men struggling to save her from the carnage, gives the rest of the movie an emotional weight. It is a very dramatic way to start things off that gives a strong lead in to the title card. The physical performances in the opening ambush, which occurs at an inn, are also noticeably good. 

The movie is also set against a political backdrop that gives it setting but doesn't overwhelm the personal story of Qing Yi's revenge. I liked this as early on I was a bit worried it would be a movie with way too many characters and too much intrigue. But it is fairly straight forward and there are only a few key characters. 

Lady of Steel features a solid Cheng Pei-Pei performance. Both her and Yueh Hua work very well together here. And her physical performance and emotional performance both work nicely.

I've said before I think Ho Meng Hua is a good visual storyteller. I find I never have trouble following the plot in his films. And he knows how to be efficient too, so he doesn't over-explain, he just is capable at conveying a lot of information in a small sequence of frames. And his details are all clearly laid out. When Cai Yi recognizes Ying Qi, there is a straight line drawn from early in the film explaining how this is possible. We understand each point this information was transmitted to him and how he put that together upon her arrival at Flying Dragon Fortress. 

Lady of Steel would not be my first recommendation for getting into Ho Mo Meng Hua or Cheng Pei-Pei, but it is definitely worth seeing if you are a fan of either. 

Most of the techniques demonstrated in the movie are ones I already have in WHOG and RBRB, but you will need to make sure you have a sufficient amount of lightness kung fu options (particularly things for leaping, for walking on trees and for appearing seemingly out of nowhere). You will also want a range of sword techniques and darts. For her dart technique, I would use something like Storming Daggers from Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate which matches it pretty well. 
Storming Daggers from WHOG

Another thing that features prominently in the movie are traps. I mention this a lot, but I think it bears repeating because people often seem quite resistant to the idea, but wuxia features many things we associate with classic fantasy adventure RPGs: traps, dungeons, inns and taverns, etc. Here there are ample use of things like spiked pit traps, net traps that capture and lift men from the ground up, and even spikes that shoot out of the wall when a person presses a button. A villain who is well prepared with a number of traps laid out in advance is a good idea. Again, if using Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, the core rulebook has plenty trap descriptions and mechanics in Chapter 12 from pages 525 to 427. 

In terms of the characters and story, I think it is always better to not force that stuff but allow it to be present. So here, where the chief conflict is between a woman and a man in the organization she joins who secretly is the person who killed her family, I think the best option is wait until you have a player who makes a character whose family was killed in their youth (preferably by someone they wouldn't be able to recognize on sight). This comes up all the time in play in my experience (it is a pretty standard backstory to get from players now and then). 

When a player does this, then you can work with them to plant the seed. Here is how I might do it to make it interesting. I would say to that player, I am going to determine who the killer is and maybe during the campaign it will come up. Then I would take all the eligible characters in the setting (anyone who seems likely to have killed a whole family for some reason), put them on a table and roll randomly to see who it is. This last part would just be for my own sense of surprise and as a bit of a creative prompt. 

If it is very important and you really want the plot to come up, you can pick a random member of whatever sect the character belongs to or the member of a sect they join during the campaign.

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