Kind-hearted sword hero Kao Tien-Ying (Yueh Hua) brings crippled girl Shen Ping Hong (Li Ching) back to his family home so she can return a missing martial arts weapon to its rightful owner, his uncle Ge Hung (Wong Chung-Shun). Here Tien-Ying’s father Lord Kao Hung (Tien Feng) celebrates the impending betrothal of his eldest son Tien-Wei (Paul Chang Chung) to Ming Chu (Chiao Chiao), daughter of his closest ally Golden Warrior Tung (Ku Feng). Sweet-faced Ping Hong stuns guests by unveiling unstoppable kung fu skills, her crutches concealing the legendary Jade Phoenix Sword with which she spectacularly impales Ge Hung atop the ceiling.
Turns out years ago Ge Hung, Lord Kao, Tung and Master Xiamen Chong (Lee Kwan) sought the very same sword and slew the original owners: Ping Hong’s parents. Hiding from the killers in an ice pool, Ping Hong contracted the hypothermia that left her crippled though still very lethal. Now she wants revenge. However, regretful Lord Kao is now an honourable man, reluctant to fight. As indeed is his son Tien-Ying who resolves to make peace with the mistrustful Ping Hong by finding a cure for her affliction.
Vengeance of a Snow Girl was the last film Lo Wei made for Shaw Brothers. Although less famous than the two Bruce Lee vehicles he directed at rival studio Golden Harvest, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972), this film is commonly considered to be his masterpiece. Lo started out as an actor, becoming a popular leading man throughout the Fifties before his directorial debut with The Husband’s Diary (1953). He was supposedly the first Hong Kong filmmaker to become a millionaire and between 1964 and 1970 directed a string of hit films for Shaw Brothers. In 1974, Lo formed his own production company but floundered with a half dozen flops starring the struggling young Jackie Chan before their partnership reached its notoriously acrimonious end. Though his output slowed during the Eighties, Lo remained active in film production right up until his death in 1996.
Lo remains a controversial figure for a number of reasons, not least being his alleged reliance on assistant directors and cameramen to handle the real filmmaking while he sat listening to horse races on his radio. At least that was the portrait painted by Jackie Chan in his autobiography I Am Jackie Chan, which actually echoes a scathing parody of Lo featured in the Bruce Lee biopic Dragon Story (1974). Whatever the truth behind these oft-told stories, Vengeance of a Snow Girl remains one of Lo’s most assured outings as director (he also cameos as Ping Hong’s father in a flashback). Adapting the plot of a Chinese opera called Pearl at Rainbow Bridge, Lo substitutes martial arts clans for the original’s heavenly deities and tweaks the theatrical fable into a touching tale of decency and benevolence overcoming enmity.
Beginning as a straightforward martial arts tale of revenge, the film shifts gears midway into a labyrinthine quest narrative. In order to regain the use of her legs, the incredibly convoluted quest requires Ping Hong steal special heat resistant armour (resembling a silver spacesuit from a science fiction movie) from a heavily guarded palace so she can enter a volcano, retrieve a magic pearl and thus enter the mystical heat fountain lying in the legendary Snow Fields. Phew!
Almost all of Lo Wei’s films suffer pacing problems and this is no exception. It is staid and starchy in parts. Nevertheless Lo pulls off some suspenseful sequences, notably Ping Hong’s escape from a collapsed cave, and turns the action into an extended character study wherein the righteous and honourable are slowly unmasked as petty men (and women) bearing childish grievances. Of the supporting cast, Chiao Chiao is especially good as a petulant swordswoman, in stark contrast to the selfless character she famously essayed in Shaw’s One-Armed Swordsman (1967). The always reliable Yueh Hua moves with his touching sincerity and lookout for a young (thin!) Sammo Hung in a bit part as one of Tung’s henchmen. He’s wearing a red shirt.
Of course the star attraction is Li Ching, delivering an impressively intense, hard-edged performance that comes as something of a shock after her many roles in romantic dramas and musicals. Nicknamed Shaw Brothers “Baby Queen” after she won Best Actress at the 12th Asian Film Festival for The Mermaid (1964) when aged seventeen, watching the smiling, baby-faced actress play a gleefully sadistic collector of severed heads is a little like having Kill Bill (2003) headlined by Doris Day! But Li Ching pulls off a multilayered performance, gradually softening her demeanour to convey Ping Hong’s growing self-awareness. Emotive scenes like her heartfelt prayer for redemption and the beguilingly poetic fairytale conclusion deftly show martial arts cinema has more to offer besides hard-hitting action.