An unsung element of ’70s kung-fu fare is its propensity for high melodrama. Between the punches, the kicking and the spattering blood, these films often worked in a plotline that had as much angst, forbidden love and tormented emotions as a season of your average soap opera. At its best, this dramatic approach could create a heightened reality that supported the unearthly displays of acrobatics and bone-crunching violence in these films. Chang Cheh at the Shaw Brothers studio was a master of this one-two combo but it could be found in all corners of the martial arts film world.
An interesting example is Lady Whirlwind, an Angela Mao Ying vehicle with a surprisingly ambitious plot. She plays Tien, a woman who wants revenge on Ling (Yi Chang) for reasons that aren’t revealed up front. She travels to his town only to discover he is supposed to have been killed by the criminals who run the town. However, she learns that he is alive and in hiding. She tracks him down, only to discover that he wishes to square off with his enemies who tried to kill him. She realizes they deserve to die, thus putting her in the unusual position of keeping her foe alive so he can take his revenge before she gets her revenge(!).
The results are no less fight-driven than the average martial arts flick from this era but Lady Whirlwind gets an added charge from all the melodrama that it stuffs into every nook and cranny between the fights. Sometimes, the plotting gets too ambitious for its own good, leading to some abrupt transitions that are a little hard to follow, but the results are never dull. The over-the-top characterizations (like a villainess who wields a whip) and the shamelessly manipulative bursts of emotionalism might seem too much in a different context but they’re part of the fun here, pumping up the action to operatic extremes.
Lady Whirlwind benefits from sturdy direction by Mao Ying flick regular Huang Feng, whose steady craftsmanship keeps the fights and the drama moving along at a steady clip. He stages plenty of energetic brawls in places as diverse as a casino, a restaurant and by a river bed. Mao Ying brings an effective, quiet intensity to a character caught between vengeance and compassion and Yi Chang makes an appropriately solemn man-with-a-past character. There is also spirited work from June Wu as the brave woman who has fallen for Ling. Elsewhere, Sammo Hung pops up as one of Mao Ying’s early opponents (he also supplied the effective fight choreography for the film).
In short, Lady Whirlwind is a solid kung-fu programmer and plenty of fun for fans of Angela Mao Ying, who are likely to enjoy its one-two punch of melodrama and bloodshed.