The ever-prolific director Herman Yau has been on a cracking run of form recently, whether casting a discerning eye over the plight of sex workers in the city, spinning popular TV characters into bankable summer vehicles or producing modest but consistently entertaining period bio-pics of famed martial artists.
For his latest effort, Yau turns his attentions to revered feminist, revolutionary and poet Qiu Jin, a prominent figure in the early stages of the anti-imperialist revolt that would eventually materialise in 1911 and topple the Qing Dynasty once and for all. Born into a relatively affluent family, Qiu Jin quickly recognised, and was appalled by, the sexist inequality in Chinese society, where girls of a young age had their feet bound - to keep them dainty and immobile - and were wholly at the mercy of their fathers and husbands.
The film follows Qiu Jin (played with remarkable proficiency by Huang Yi) as she marries against her will, to a man (Kevin Cheng) expecting a submissive wife who will provide him with an heir and turn a blind eye to his casual philandering. She studies martial arts as well as calligraphy and poetry, and after siring two children, abandons her entire family for Japan, thanks in large part to her friendship with a rich benefactor (Pat Ha). There she pursues her increasingly politically-inclined interests in relatively more tolerant surroundings, and forms lasting allegiances with, among others, the revolutionary Xu Xilin (Dennis To).
The film gets its title from one of the many romanticised monikers given Qiu Jin by her adoring supporters and using a flashback structure to tell its story. We open as the Imperial Guards, led by Xiong Xin Xin, storm the school where Qiu Jin works and after an intense siege, followed by one of the film's most impressive fights - during which Huang Yi more than holds her own against the veteran Xiong - she is eventually taken into custody and tried for her revolutionary wrongdoings. Lam Suet plays the government official charged with overseeing the trial, while Anthony Wong tries his best to defend the woman in a hearing that seems to only ever have one possible conclusion.
While THE WOMAN KNIGHT OF MIRROR LAKE may sound like yet another stuffy historical drama, Herman Yau never forgets his exploitation roots and ensures that his film never threatens to get preachy when the same point can be made with a bloody thumbscrew or bout of kung fu. While never coming close to emulating the violent excesses of THE UNTOLD STORY or THE EBOLA SYNDROME, Yau includes moments of violence that other, more austere directors may have shied away from.
Huang Yi, who has materialised out of relative obscurity in the last 12 months to appear front and centre in a number of notable productions (THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED, TREASURE INN, OVERHEARD 2 and Johnnie To's upcoming ROMANCING IN THIN AIR), impresses both as a martial artist, but more importantly as a dramatic actress, who has to carry much of the film's forward momentum on her slight yet capable shoulders. She has support in the action scenes from Dennis To, who also gets an excellent showdown with the dastardly Xiong Xin Xin, as well as Pat Ha and Anthony Wong in the calmer, character-centric moments.
For a short while it looked as though THE WOMAN KNIGHT OF MIRROR LAKE might not make it to the screen. Originally scheduled for a late summer release it was delayed after apparent objections from Qiu Jin's relatives. It seems strange that they would have any major objection to the film, however, as Yau and Huang do a great job of portraying a bold, intelligent woman who had ideas ahead of her time but was not afraid to speak out against the authorities who would ultimately silence her forever. The film isn't perhaps the most glamourous portrayal of Qiu Jin's story, but it is certainly an entertaining one that packs more punch - both physically and metaphorically - than any of us had any right to expect.
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