By the time we reach Clan of Amazons, prolific Shaw Brothers auteur Chu Yuan is clearly struggling to make his swordplay/mystery movies seem less formulaic. As always adapted from a novel by Gu Long, the film opens with a series of robberies committed by the mysterious… Embroidery Bandit! That’s right, he stitches while he steals and blinds victims with his knitting needles. The Ping Nan Security House hire unflappable kung fu hero Lu Xiaofeng (Liu Yung) who partners with plucky martial arts maiden Xue Bing (Ching Li) to solve this mystery. Their only clue is a piece of silk torn from a pair of red shoes. It leads them on numerous adventures through the criminal underworld where no-one is who they seem, till they finally discover the Red Shoes Society, an all-female clan who steal from the corrupt to aid the poor.
Despite a complex plot this one often feels like Chu Yuan was making things up as he went along. Characters duck in and out of the narrative that veers off on tangents as often as the villain’s elaborate death-traps spring from nowhere. It’s incredibly convoluted, which may be nothing new by Chu Yuan’s standards, but where his best movies draw viewers into their labyrinthine plots this one grinds by even at a slim eighty-eight minutes.
Nevertheless, connoisseurs will still find moments to savour: e.g. a slam poetry duel, a fight scene where the heroes strip opponents to make sure they’re not women (Xue Bing shields her eyes while punching their lights out), and of course Ching Li who gives the most ingratiating performance. As always she is cast as the epitome of feminine grace, albeit a lady able to kill dozens bare-handed and who relishes a slap-up meal. Watch for the moment she subdues one villain by stuffing a roast chicken leg in his mouth. Li was launched to superstardom by Shaw Brothers’ romantic drama When The Clouds Roll By (1967). Her father was good friends with Shaw’s top martial arts director Chang Cheh, who recognised Li’s talent and cast her in several of his best films. She was also Chu Yuan’s favourite leading lady, appearing in his swordplay fantasies including Killer Clans (1976), Web of Death (1976), Swordsman and Enchantress (1978) and many more.
Leading man Liu Yung is a fair actor but plays an insufferable hero. The titular seven amazons are wholly admirable but Lu Xiaofeng sneers off their altruistic activities as the work of interfering busybodies who ought to know their place. Our heroines are played by a veritable who’s who of Shaw starlets: good girl Shih Szu - of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) - is cast against type; achingly beautiful Dik Boh-Laai - star of Hong Kong Emmanuelle (1977) - plays legendary courtesan (okay, prostitute) Ouyang Ching; veteran character actress Teresa Ha Ping plays the senior sister; kung fu diva Kara Hui Ying-Hung takes an early role; and Chan Man-Na plays their leader Madame Gong Sung-Lang, who at one point actually pees her pants to fool villains into thinking she’s a helpless female.
Celestial DVD’s digital re-mastering allows us to savour Shaw’s typically sumptuous production values, though purists will lament the layering of all-new synthesiser music over the original soundtrack. While the ending is drawn out, after watching Lu Xiaofeng do all the work it is kind of funny to see special guest star Yueh Hua pop out of nowhere and despatch the glowering villain.