Though it’s never more than just a striking variation on a formula, The Lady Hermit proves that the Chinese wuxia film made famous by the Shaw Brothers Studios is, at its best, a distinct, parallel generic answer to the American western. Whereas westerns and even Japanese chanbara and yakuza films often focus on machismo-oriented frontierism and a need to delineate between myths and hard truths concerning interpersonal loyalty, wuxia films are much more about sweeping romance and relatively amorphous emotional fidelity. The Lady Hermit‘s screenwriter, I. Fang Yeh, takes ideas of self-mythologizing and self-imposed exile as its own kind of anti-mystique and incorporates them into an eccentric narrative. It’s unfortunate that Yeh only infrequently develops his script’s more idiosyncratic flourishes.
The Lady Hermit begins with the assumption that a local legend, the eponymous heroine, already exists and that she has inspired a disciple that wants to follow in her footsteps. Shang Yu-Ling (Pei-pei Cheng) is shopping in an outdoor market when she sees the young, whip-cracking Chin Tsui-peng (Szu Shih) quelling a local con artist. We soon find out that Shang is in fact the legendary fighter that scars her opponents’ faces with her blade as if to brand them. In spite of her fearsome reputation, Chin recently has been fleeing from village to village to avoid the Black Demon (Hsieh Wang), an evil despot that tyrannizes helpless peasants. Black Demon is hung up on Shang because, at one point, he wounded her, though he was unable to completely defeat her. Now it’s just a matter of time before Black Demon finds Chin and destroys her peace of mind, which is more of a concern than her death. This looming threat makes Shin, a doggedly loyal pupil, want to protect her master by seeking out and killing Black Demon.
Yeh paradoxically enforces and contradicts that underlying concept of Shang, a living myth in her own right, as being helpless in the face of an impending attack. On the one hand, we see Shang putting physical effort into building her latest isolated cottage, and hence we understand the anguish of it being destroyed later by a thunderstorm. But, true to a formulaic understanding of how a rematch like Shang and Black Demon’s must work, Yeh explains through dialogue in an earlier scene how Shang has trained for years using the “Flying Tiger” technique, proving that she’s still a self-sufficient hero to some point.
Yeh’s refusal to portray Shang either as a more mature badass or a doddering has-been speaks to the romantic logic of The Lady Hermit‘s genre. The film’s story accommodates both interpretations, making Chin an accessory one moment, then the lead heroine the next. Chin is especially intriguing because her need to prove herself transforms from an individual’s need to adopt her idol’s mantle, and with it the reputation of someone she’s never met, to a need to protect her master. On top of that, Chin emulates Shang and teaches her lover the fighting techniques she learns from Shang.
Shang and Chin’s identities are so sympathetic with each other that they don’t need to have distinct identities or be defined by unique individual actions. Their characters are so faithful to each other that delineating their relationship based on their environments, their enemies or even their loved ones becomes unnecessary after a point. This is a film whose major lesson is the necessity of being true to someone else, in this case a comrade that happens to be younger than you, not the maintenance of a singular identity as the film’s title suggests. In that way, it’s an exemplary wuxia and one that deserves to find an audience for the way its quirks affirm its genre’s unique preoccupations.
FUNimation remastered and recolorized the print they used for their new DVD release. Sadly, the film still looks fuzzy and out of focus. Characters in the background often look blurry, as if a squeegee man with a dirty sponge had rubbed the part of the frame where they're standing. Also, while it's nice to see the full-frame of the picture restored to a widescreen presentation, it's often apparent that The Lady Hermit's cinematographer was unclear as to how to move his camera while using the Shaw Brothers Studios's signature "Shawscope" widescreen lens. Pans and tracking shots necessarily warp the image on display. The film's monoaural soundtrack is however pretty sturdy: no noticeable hisses or pops and the film's optional English dub track is actually pretty funny, if you're into that sort of thing.
Apart from a trailer gallery featuring a bunch of cool-looking titles, like the last two Yoichi Sai films, there are no extras on this disc.
The Lady Hermit is an exemplary wuxia and one that deserves to find an audience for the way its quirks affirm its genre's unique preoccupations.