Director: Herman Yau Lai To
Writer: Erica Li Man
Cast: Betty Huang Yi, Dennis To Yue Hong, Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Kevin Cheng Ga Wing, Rose Chan Ka Wun, Pat Ha Man Jing, Hung Yan Yan, Lam Suet, Lau Siu Ming, Chui Tien You, Wong You Nam, Mia Yam
Running Time: 115 min.
Former b-movie auteur Herman Yau (“Ebola Syndrome,” “Troublesome Night”) has successfully re-invigorated his career as of late, refashioning himself as a director of action-packed historical dramas. His 2010 film “The Legend is Born – Ip Man,” an unofficial “Ip Man” prequel of sorts, could have easily been a tasteless cash-in but the movie ended up entertaining more than it had any right to. Yau follows closely on the heels of that effort with another biopicture, this time turning his attention to the Chinese feminist revolutionary Qiu Jin.
“Woman Knight of Mirror Lake” is an even more successful effort than “The Legend is Born,” as Yau manages to play to his strengths as a filmmaker. Sure, he’s no Wilson Yip, but he knows how to avoid the trappings of many other Chinese historical pictures, which sometimes fail to capture the attention of Western audiences unfamiliar with the surrounding events. Yau keeps his film grounded by focusing on relatable human characters and vintage Hong Kong action.
Herman Yau may play fast and loose with historical fact but it’s clear his intention is to make a movie, not a documentary. Unlike Jackie Chan’s “1911,” with assailed the viewer with countless dates and names throughout its entire runtime, “Woman Knight” takes a look at a related moment in Chinese history – events leading up to the fall of the Qing Dynasty – but maintains a laser focus on the character of Qiu Jin. Actress Huang Yi does an admirable job bringing this woman to life. What’s most interesting about Qiu Jin is her contrast as both a warrior and a poet, as well as her progressive feminist beliefs. Qiu Jin may have been more of an admirer of martial arts than a practitioner, but for the sake of the film – and the audience’s entertainment – Jin is fashioned onscreen as fierce fighter.
At nearly two hours, the film suffers from some uneven pacing – there’s a long stretch without much action as Qiu Jin moves to Japan to study, while the third act is almost overstuffed with fighting as the film depicts the uprising in Anqing. The uprising, while exhilarating to watch, leaves our main character of Qiu Jin entirely off camera for a long stretch of time. The good news is that Dennis To, who was merely adequate as Yip Man in “The Legend is Born,” steps up as a force to be reckoned with in “Woman Knight of Mirror Lake” and carries the third act. In fact, I was more impressed by Dennis’ martial arts moves and screen presence during the ending of “Woman Knight” than I was during the entirety of “The Legend is Born“; I now find myself expecting great things from this actor’s future.
There’s admittedly a certain level of fatigue setting in with the nonstop stream of nationalistic pictures coming out of China lately. “Woman Knight of Mirror Lake” doesn’t exactly erase that feeling but it’s still one of the better examples of the genre and a refreshing change of pace, suffused as it is with almost wuxia-like action. The film is also carried by an able supporting cast, including Milkyway veteran Lam Suet and Anthony Wong, the latter delivering one of his most restrained and on-point performances in some time. Meanwhile, the intense martial arts sequences choreographed by Tony Leung Siu-Hung (“Blood Moon,” “Ip Man“) serve as a nice throwback to classic 90’s Hong Kong cinema.
Herman Yau continues to grow more respectable with each film he makes. Who knows? In a couple of years he might be rubbing elbows with likes of Wilson Yip and Dante Lam.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 6.5/10