Shaw Brothers produced this portmanteau swordplay film uniting three of the studio's leading auteurs with a galaxy of stars. The tone is set with the opening close-up of an inspiring plaque that reads: "Be a worthy successor to ancestral greatness." In the first story, "The Iron Bow", lone hero Kuang (Yueh Hua) rides into a town where locals suffer constant harassment at the hands of Master Shi (Tin Ching), the spoiled son of the local magistrate. Shi has his heart set on wooing the reluctant Ying Ying (Shih Szu), daughter of a lady innkeeper (Go Bo-Shu) on whose wall hangs the titular iron bow. As per the decree set down by the old woman's late husband, the man able to draw this unwieldy weapon may claim Ying Ying as his bride. Sure enough, Shi is shown up by the stoic Kuang, whom he then frames for banditry in revenge. In a refreshing twist it falls to the spear-wielding Ying Ying, along with her scrappy mother and plucky servant boy, to rescue her man.
Directed by Yueh Feng, famed for his Huangmei opera classics such as Madame White Snake (1962) and Lady General Hua Mulan (1964) though he made a fair few martial arts epics too, "The Iron Bow" proves an appealing, if slight send-up of the macho posturing underlining many kung fu films. Chivalric cliches are turned on their head as it turns out the damsel is only faking distress in order to lure a prospective husband. Once Kuang has proven his worth, Ying Ying despatches her assailants with an ease that leaves the hero looking somewhat ineffectual by comparison. It benefits from a light and breezy tone, excellent action choreography and a strong lead in lovely Shih Szu, who later starred in cult Shaw Brothers-Hammer Films co-production Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) a.k.a. Seven Brothers Against Dracula. However, the story is often inconsistent and repetitive with a dull hero who does next to nothing whilst the titular bow ultimately has scant relevance to the unfolding story.
Far more successful is the second episode: "The Tigress" directed by Cheng Kang, the man behind seminal warrior women epic The 14 Amazons (1972) and father of celebrated director and action choreographer Ching Siu Tung. Violent bandit Pang Xun (Lo Lieh) terrorises a town in search of Shih Chung Yu (Lily Ho Li), a beautiful, lute-strumming courtesan with whom he is obsessed. He eventually bullies his way into her boudoir only to be spurned as Chung Yu is in love with General Wang Xing Yu (Chung Wa). However, when General Wang ignores official orders to spend more time with Chung Yu, the enraged Minister Li (Chin Han) orders his death.
Whereupon gutsy, outspoken Chung Yu gatecrashes her lover's impending execution, challenging the self-righteous Li as she reveals most of his courtiers visit her brothel. She and her fellow prostitutes argue they deserve as much respect and courtesy as any high-ranking official, finding a surprisingly receptive ear in Li's venerable mother (Chen Yan-Yan). To save Wang's life, Chung Yu hatches a plan to catch wanted criminal Pang Xun herself, offering her head as recompense to Minister Li should she and her girls fail. "The Tigress" rattles along at a furious pace with barnstorming performances from the ensemble cast and a fascinating subtext. Less about swordplay than reasserting the importance of women in historical China, the plot has a band of outcast women staking their right to dignity. Going against the conservative grain in many martial arts films of the period, it is a riposte to the self-righteous, a heartening yarn with the added bonus of an achingly poignant and ironic final twist.
After that highpoint, the third tale "White Water Strand" handled by genre stalwart Chang Cheh is more or less business as usual. Unjustly incarcerated freedom fighter Xu Shi Ying (Ti Lung) is sprung from a travelling convoy by a band of heroes led by his redoubtable sister Feng Ying (Li Ching). Humble farm hand Mu Yu Ji (David Chiang), a closet kung fu master, stumbles into the midst of this fracas battling brother and sister till he belatedly realises they are the good guys. Having earned their respect, he lets them go but winds up drugged and set-up as the fall guy in some elaborate conspiracy orchestrated by traitorous official Luo Tian Yi (Ku Feng). So the Xu siblings, with Feng Ying by now smitten with the dashing farm boy, ride to his rescue with predictably blood-splattered results.
Far less distinctive than either of the preceding episodes, "White Water Strand" is familiar stuff from Chang Cheh. A one-dimensional exercise in square-jawed superheroics. For what it is though, it's an enjoyable swashbuckler with well-orchestrated set-pieces, stirring self-sacrifice and heroic tragedy. Plus the oddball net-with-bells-on weapon wielded by Ku Feng is pretty cool. All in all, two average episodes wedded to an outstanding one that really ought to be remade into a full-length feature someday.