Scowling bad guy Chu Tien-Hsing (Lo Lieh) wants to make his Green Dragon Clan top dogs of the Martial World by deposing the Xiude Martial Arts Academy, even though he is engaged to marry one of its star pupils, Han Yu-Mei (Shen Yi). To that end he tries to steal the legendary Han Family Sword, but the masked burglar is caught in the act by the titular trio: Yu-Mei and her sword-swinging sisters Lan Mei (Essie Lin Chia) and Hsiao-Lan (Pan Ying-Tzu). Freeze frame, cue credits!
Hong Kong cinema in the Sixties was the golden era of heroic swordswomen. In fact women were so predominant throughout the industry (something that seems astonishing given Hollywood actresses still struggle to land good parts) the arrival of macho stars like Jimmy Wang Yu and Bruce Lee came as a breath of fresh air. With Swordswomen Three the mighty Shaw Brothers studio tripled audience’s pleasure by teaming a triumvirate of top starlets. Writer-director Shen Chiang laces his compelling adventure yarn with familial themes and sisterly interplay: Lan Mei is stoic and clever, Hsiao-Lan is gutsy but rash, Yu-Mei is dutiful but long-suffering. The latter is betrayed by the man she loves, but bound by strict Chinese customs can’t go against Tien-Hsing even though he’s no good. Tammy Wynette would undoubtedly sympathise.
Yu-Mei makes a sacrifice by sleeping with Tien-Hsing so she can steal back the sword, unaware he has poisoned the blade. Sure enough her master is killed and poor Yu-Mei gets the blame, forced to go on the run. Forged from a magnetic ore, the Han Family Sword need only be drawn from its hilt to disarm opponents, which forces the Han sisters and their master’s son, Xu Jinwu (Chang Yi) to come up with a cunning plan. This involves Lan Mei posing as Tien-Hsiang’s black-hooded acolyte Shadowless who, somewhat conveniently, already speaks with a very feminine voice.
Much of the action unfolds at Tien-Hsing’s mansion, betraying Shen Chiang’s background in theatre. Thankfully he punctuates the occasionally claustrophobic drama with some striking suspense sequences, building to a brilliantly staged (and very gory) showdown in a bamboo forest. Chiang had been a soldier during the Second World War before becoming a successful playwright in his native Taiwan. He had been scriptwriting movies for several years before joining Shaw Brothers in 1965, where he wrote many of their early swordplay pictures including their breakthrough title: Temple of the Red Lotus (1965). He began directing with The Winged Tiger (1969) and after notable epics such as Call to Arms (1972) and Heroes of Sung (1973), returned to Taiwan where he founded the Nan Hai Film Company, then concentrated on television dramas before his retirement in 1981.
Of our three leading ladies: Shen Yi makes the most of a rare leading role and the multitalented Pang Ying-Tzu (who caught the public’s eye in Shaw’s groundbreaking One-Armed Swordsman (1967)) is as feisty as ever, but the star turn comes from Essie Lin Chia. She gets all the best scenes: forced to kill a close friend when he’s about to give away her identity, taunting bad guys whilst being tortured and even writing a coded message in her own blood. Essie Lin Chia was a popular and versatile actress, though her career was comparatively brief. She appeared in several major movies including My Dream Boat (1967), Three Swinging Girls (1968) and Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1968) before retiring in 1971.
Since the heroines' plans have a frustrating tendency to go wrong, with allies prone to idiotic misunderstandings, Sheng Chiang keeps viewers on the edge of their seat. It’s almost redundant to say but the martial arts sequences are superb. This is a Shaw Bros. film after all, with choreography by future directors Tang Chia and Liu Chia-liang. Still, there are not so distracting that viewers won't notice the music was brazenly stolen from Thunderball (1965).