It's the centennial year of China's overthrow of its centuries long imperial rule spanning a number of dynasties, and it's no surprise for films coming out of the Chinese territories to be putting out more patriotic, biographical fare of its martyrs and heroes, some more well known like Dr Sun Yat-sen in Jackie Chan's 1911, while others perhaps not so with Qiu Jin, the titular woman knight, known for her progressive thinking and feminism, although my interest was stoked with her character's appearance to kickstart Jackie Chan's film. So having it released post 1911, may be a shrewd move given the trailer for the film had been played for months already before finally being released.
Director Herman Yau may seem like the director to go to if not to latch onto any popularity wave as far as film franchises and genres go. With his The Legend is Born: Ip Man, he took on the character outside of the Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen universe and gave it his own spin with Dennis To in the lead, and had a claim to some legitimacy with the casting and roping in of Ip Man's direct descendent Ip Chun as technical reference as well. It's been a long way since his earlier days of achieving cult status with his iconic Category III films like The Eight Immortals Restaurant and Ebola Syndrome, to being at the helm of a film celebrating the life and times of a Chinese heroine when interest has turned toward biographical stories of historical characters.
Actress Huang Yi, better known for her role in Overheard 2 and the campy Treasure Inn, plays the title character who is born into privilege, but having am inquisitive streak and mind of her own, challenging customs and traditions at a young age. Skilled in both the written word and in martial arts, she's an intellect with an independent mind, but is still constraint by societal rules, which at the time under Manchu Qing rule, had in place rather regressive norms such as bound feet and lack of education for women, in order to keep them docile and submissive due to a physical handicap passing off as beauty. Needless to say her shock jock tactics such as dressing in man's clothes do not gain approval from her government official husband (Kevin Cheng) who sees it as a lost of face amongst his peers, and determined to find her true calling, pack up and left for Japan, where she meets similar minded peers including Xu Xilin (Dennis To) where the seeds of revolution got incepted and cultivated.
Credit has to go to the scriptwriters to produce a well researched into biographical story, having Qiu Jin's multi-faceted life, roles and talent all incorporated into the character, without feeling repetitive. And in doing so you'll marvel at and admire her talent for poetry, martial arts (though for entertainment sake she fights like she can take on Wong Fei-Hong and Ip Mam together) and her rousing speeches on revolution, although with the latter it's more of a fight against an oppressive regime that condones the lack of female rights. And not only that, her uphill battle involves changing mindsets even amongst the educated women themselves, who have already ingrained what the skewed norm is. If anything her involvement in revolution came from the need to overthrow existing mindsets and provide the level of freedom and equality for her gender in China. And surprisingly Huang Yi manged to pull the character off, as she hadn't really had any role quite in the same league, or noteworthy of a challenge to begin with.
This is one film that was absolutely better than the promotional trailer made it out to be, which was quite the bore as it played out just about every aspect of the film and was a tad overlong, so thank goodness the film was way better delivered. We begin at the tail end of Qiu Jin's revolutionary life with the assault of her Dayong school, a front to train civil servants but in fact used as a training ground for revolutionaries, and slowly from flashbacks we get glimpses into milestones of her life, shifting backward and forward through transitions that worked at times, while others quite clumsily executed, though nothing more than to grab your attention to its technicality with limited impact to the plot of course.
The other gripe I had was with its martial arts. Granted the kung fu set action pieces would draw crowds but I've just about had a limit with wire-work stunts executed in physics-defying fashion. It's a historical biography, and the fight choreography could have been more subtly executed rather than to break the laws dictated by science. You can have superhuman throws in fantastical, mythical stories, but for something like this, realism would be much appreciated since so much effort had gone into creating a credible tale only for this niggling aspect to shave off some brownie points.
But on the whole, Herman Yau had assembled a credible piece of work that can serve as a launchpad for anyone remotely interested in researching Qiu Jin, with Anthony Wong and Lam Suet playing Manchu officials on a divided fence with one adamant to get rid of her soon to please the courts, while the other appreciating the fact the execution of a talented individual he admires, is nothing but a loss to society and country even. The final moments of her life is moving and poignant to say the least, a reminder in the world we live in that one's progressive thoughts and actions often puts one ahead of the pack, but all alone, and it takes tremendous gumption to literally make personal sacrifices and fight for what one believes in for the greater good, especially when up against powers that be who enjoy the status quo for obvious benefits. Highly recommended for that sneak peek into a Chinese heroine's life through film.