Shaw Bros. Spotlight
Cop-outs are always to be frowned upon. Regardless of whether the impetus to opting for the easy way out of a story jam comes from the writer, director, or producer, any instance in which a film suddenly employs a thinly veiled deus ex machina or an oversimplified conflict resolution can easily rub the viewer the wrong way. It denotes a lack of creativity after said story has impressively raised the stakes and embroiled its characters in compromising scenarios. Even if everything that came before is of the highest quality, chances are it will attenuate one’s appraisal of the film. That Fiery Girl, directed by Yan Jun, is one such film. Many of the elements are in place for a solid story of love, betrayal, and revenge, and while a silly script decision does not entirely undermine the enterprise, it lessens the impact of the film’s final third.
One of the Mei clan’s few remaining bases of operation is savagely attacked by a small platoon of troops from a vastly more powerful clan settled in the nearby Hulu mountains, with said party on the prowl for a map that will lead their clan to even more riches. The group’s male soldiers (save for their youngest female chief Hot Chili, played by Chang Pei-Pei) proves overly aggressive in their intimidation of the Mei clan’s last remaining elder, butchering him and burning the house down, as well as blatantly disregarding Chili’s authority, much to the latter’s dismay. Shortly thereafter, Mei Fengchung (Chang Leung) and two fellow clan members return to their domain, only to find it lying in ruins, burnt and bloodied. Fengchung concocts a plan to get back at their rivals, infiltrating their ranks under the pretense of seeking refuge whilst his brothers in arms await the signal to send in troops for an ambush. During Fengchung’s stay with the Hulu Mountain clan, he and Chili get to know one another, even grow fondly of each other’s company, behavior that stirs the ire of the clan’s hot-blooded third chief (Cheng Lui), who also has eyes for Chili.
However much the final 20 minutes of Yan Jun’s That Fiery Girl feel like a missed opportunity coupled with a peculiar, tonally ambiguous climaxing of events, the majority of the picture is an amusing romp, featuring some deliciously mannered performances and a love triangle that might not come across as entirely believable, but at least results in some highly entertaining exchanges. More to the point, That Fiery Girl invests a greater amount of energy in developing the complicated love triangle than it does emphasize the protagonist’s quest for vengeance. Apart from the first scenes, which demand that the film set up why Mei Chengfung would want to become a mole within his enemy organization and the final scenes that feature the Mei clan assault, Yan Jun’s picture dabbles more in the romantic drama with a dash of levity than it does in action-adventure.
The love story is even coloured with a dose of intrigue by way of certain characters the viewer roots against correctly assuming that Mei Chengfung may not be the refugee he claims to be all the while Hot Chili, Pearl being her real name, quickly falls under his supposed charms. She is presented as the more levelheaded and decent of the chiefs, unlike the second and third, both of whom are quick to draw swords to resolve whatever problems afflict them. Short-tempered and prone to violence, one may start to wonder how exactly they have earned their coveted status within the clan ranks until it is revealed that the top boss is married to the third chief’s sister! The middle portion of the story, despite being low in action content, is nonetheless quite entertaining for how all the Machiavellian machinations are explained and executed by the players concerned.
These differing, often poorly camouflaged intentions lend some weight to Pearl’s longing for Fengchung. Even though her reputation as a warrior has it that she would never admit to falling for the apple of her eye, the viewer is left with little doubt as to her innermost desires, certainly not with all her obvious pining over him. The reality of the predicament is that her longing clouds her judgment, whereas the more vile, risible characters are correct in fearing that Fengchung withholds ulterior motives. Another reason for seeking out the film, one that may not sit well with certain viewers, is the type of performance the role of Hot Chili asks of Chang Pei-Pei. In films such as Come Drink With Me and The Lady Hermit, Pei-Pei was the epitome of female courage and empowerment. Ironically, in a movie titled That Fiery Girl, Pei-Pei is, well, very girly. Granted, this does feel like a step backward in many ways, yet it does call upon her to show a different set of emotions than is usually the case in her movies; for the record, she pulls them off handsomely. The same cannot be said for her male co-lead, Chang Leung (who would only act in a select few Shaw Brothers pictures before resuming his film career back in South Korea), whose performance is very bland and stiff.
Things take a very bizarre turn in the final third, however. Once Fengchung’s charade is exposed, therefore pinning him as the enemy of Hot Chili’s clan rather than a friend, the script inexplicably eschews the complexity (relatively speaking) of the love triangle by having Hot Chili’s aunt (Ou-Yang Sha-Fei) reveal that they are in fact originally from the Mei clan, Chili’s true parents having been murdered in a raid some 18 years ago by the man she had always believed to be her birth father (Chiu Sam-Yin). From that point onward, all the character motivations shift dramatically, chief among them Chili’s. Suddenly, it becomes perfectly acceptable for the heroine to savagely turn on all those who provided her with shelter, trained her, and even showed her compassion for the previous 18 years of her life. Yes, her parents were murdered, and the plot was covered up. Those are indeed appalling acts, and yet the brutality she demonstrates in the climax (sneaking up behind regular, unsuspecting guards and perforating them in the back being just one of the many acts of bloodlust) is equally shocking. Her adoptive father even claims in defense that despite the death of her birth parents, she received a decent upbringing at his hands, to no avail. Thus, the conclusion to That Fiery Girl is tonally and thematically murky, to say the least.
That Fiery Girl falls in line with a lot of Shaw Brothers pictures in which the ideals of family or clan honour must be respected at all costs. If anything or anyone comes in the way of family, they must immediately be killed, for that is, obviously, the only way to restore face. It is an extremely dogmatic view of the world, one that can easily be a turn-off for some people. Regardless of the questionable climax, the movie, on the whole, does provide for some fun character subplots in addition to featuring star Chang Pei-Pei in a different light. It does not warrant the strongest of recommendations, but there is enough there to make for an enjoyable 90 minutes.
– Edgar Chaput