That madwoman from Taiwan, Pearl Chang Ling returns with the second part of her so-called Wolfen Ninja trilogy. Matching Escort opens as a little girl is made to wear heavy iron shoes by her loving family, and practice her leaping technique. Years later that kid grows up to be Pearl Chang Ling, whose family are horrifically slaughtered by white robed ninjas led by a red-haired swordsman and a sexy witch. These goons want the family’s sacred jade amulet for their mysterious master, who dwells in his subterranean Bond villain lair. When dainty Pearl removes her iron boots, she discovers she can leap tall trees, run and fly at superhuman speed.
Mystery shrouds the lovely Pearl Chang Ling. What little we do know includes the fact she found stardom playing plucky swordswomen on Taiwanese television serials, some of which were spun off into movies such as My Blade, My Life (1977), and the rumour that marriage to a prominent producer gained her unprecedented control over her eccentric output as writer, director and star. In weirdo epics like Dark Lady of Kung Fu (1981) and Wolf Devil Woman (1982), Pearl cast herself as a kung fu Alice traipsing gaily through a self-made Wonderland. Matching Escort, also known as Venus the Ninja and Fury of the Silver Fox, ranks among the oddball auteur’s most ingenious efforts and foregrounds her two most notable talents: an ability to emote wildly like a silent screen comedian on crack and stylize a conventional revenge saga into something trippy and transcendental. Pearl had a knack for strange sets, avant-garde angles and surreal fight choreography to match, along with plots that only grow stranger as they go on.
After years on the run from ninja hit squads, Pearl winds up a bedraggled beggar abused by passing peasants (“Come on, bitch. Kiss my feet!”) Her movies often empathise with people on the lowest rung: downtrodden forest folk, abused street children. Here she uses the arrival of morally upright Crown Prince Kao (Meng Fei) to underline the message of solidarity, as he implores: “You’re all in the same boat. You should help each other.” Naturally, the handsome prince, accompanied by his whiny servant Peanut (Sek Fung) takes a shine to the feral girl whom, in a Cinderella twist, he does not recognise as the comely maiden he once courted years ago. Unfortunately, a sudden ninja strike casts Pearl off a cliff. In a plot twist commonplace in many wu xia (“swordplay”) movies, she falls down a hole into a mystical cave where crazy hermit Silver Fox (Sek Ying) has been growing giant psychedelic mutant flowers as part of some unfathomable scheme for revenge. Turns out the man who ordered the slaughter of Pearl’s parents was none other than Silver Fox’s twin brother. After trapping him in this cave, Bai-Yun now poses as his sibling, waiting to inherit the imperial throne once he gets his hands on the jade amulet entrusted in Pearl’s care.
Under the guidance of Silver Fox, Pearl meditates inside a toxic pool becoming immune to all poisons (don’t try this at home), then consumes some special herbs (wink-wink, now we know why Pearl’s movies are so trippy!) that turn her into a lightning fast, super-duper mistress of kung fu. Able to snap swords in half with her fingers and do all sorts of tricks with her magic sword.
If this were a Shaw Brothers movie made by genre stalwart Chang Cheh such outlandish heroics would be played dead straight. However, Pearl transforms what would otherwise be macho melodrama into absurdist comedy. After leaping out of the cave and up the mountain in a single bound, she lugs her late master around in a giant urn strapped to her back. Victims of her revenge rampage gasp goggle-eyed at this astonishing sight. All except our surprise villain who wields an extendable bionic hand able to rip a man’s head off at twenty paces, and has therefore seen everything.
Such lunacy brings out the show-woman in Pearl Chang Ling: ninjas speed through water like torpedoes; a standoff with the red-haired swordsman becomes an avant-garde collage of acid flashbacks and Sergio Leone style close-ups (a weird tribute, perhaps, to the closing flashback in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)?); characters that don’t just fight but form human pyramids, spin like human yo-yos or explode in plumes of multicoloured fog. Through it all strides Pearl, whose jolly hands-on-hips demeanour is not unlike those stage actresses who once played Peter Pan. The English version is drastically cut, leaving plot holes aplenty, but sadly the Taiwanese original has no English track or subtitles. Watch both and wonder how such a dainty young woman had such crazy imagery knocking around her head.