Among the most acclaimed Shaw Brothers movies made by eccentric genius Lu Chin Ku, The Lady Assassin is a true classic. First-time viewers may be wondering about that title since the first half centres on all-male intrigue at the Forbidden City where the ailing Manchu Emperor is poised to name the 14th Prince (Max Mok) his successor. This snub irks the scheming 4th Prince Yong Zheng (Liu Yung) whose assassination attempts on his younger brother are foiled by master swordsman Tsang Jing (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung). The villainous prince soon discovers Tsang can be neither bribed nor killed since he is protected by two beautiful kung fu students Jade (Yeung Jing-Jing) and Pearl (Cheung King-Yu). While fishing by the river, Tsang is smitten with an even lovelier and deadlier swordswoman called Liu Si Niang (Leanne Lau Suet-Wa), who enigmatically disappears.
Following a friendly kung fu bout, Prince Zheng finds his own invincible ally in the form of ambitious swordsman Nin Geng Giu (Jason Pai Pao), then offers to assist Han Chinese rebel Liu Niang (Ku Feng), who turns out to be Si Niang’s father. In return for the prince promising an end to Han persecution, Si Niang agrees to steal the Imperial decree and alter the document to rename Zheng as successor. Sure enough, Zheng is crowned emperor and predictably does not keep his word as bloody recriminations ensue.
More sober and philosophically inclined than most of Lu Chin Ku’s madcap fantasy efforts, The Lady Assassin weaves a compellingly labyrinthine story musing on the nature of power, fate and the high cost of ambition. History is painted in shades of grey as good characters do despicable things with the noblest of motives. Tsang Jing stays steadfastly loyal to the 4th Prince who is really no better than his evil brother and happy to sacrifice his friend if it means regaining the throne. The Liu family only engage in skulduggery in the hope that the Han Chinese will benefit and subsequently refuse Prince Zheng’s offer of a rich reward. Even Nin Geng Giu starts out as a decent sort but grows enamoured of power and becomes a thorn in Prince Zheng’s side.
Lu’s productions are among the most sumptuous of this late period in Shaw Brothers’ filmmaking history, whilst away from the eye-catching historical detail the action choreography remains dazzlingly inventive, breathlessly paced, a non-stop acrobatic onslaught. Things grow more fantastical when Lu Chin Ku himself arrives onscreen as a Dracula-caped Japanese ninja master (he even reverts from aged zombie to revitalized youth) who kills Si Niang’s sister, beheads her father and sets a trap for Tsang Jing. Thereafter acclaimed actress Leanne Lau Suet-Wa seizes the spotlight and drives the movie with her fiery performance. She was a popular star in Mainland China before joining Shaw Brothers for a string of martial arts movies often directed by Lu Chin Ku. A great actress, renowned for her versatility, Lau Suet-Wa won huge acclaim for her television portrayal of the Empress Dowager and subsequent run of period dramas by renowned novelist Qiong Yao. Her energetic presence makes this a martial arts movie with added appeal for women since it’s the ladies who save the day in a spellbindingly staged finale involving gold lame ninjas and more splatter than an Italian zombie movie. You’ve just got to admire any girl who can catch a shuriken in her teeth and split bodies gorily in half.