Ghostly, wailing swordswoman Jade Raksha (Cheng Pei Pei) strides purposefully through the eerie mists. Her intended victims cower inside their cabin while she sings her trademark melody: “For all your ungrateful acts in the past you won’t escape the punishment of heaven.” The next morning, three bloodied severed heads hang from the rafters. It seems the murderous maiden is working her way through the entire Yan family in revenge for the senseless slaughter of her own kin. Dashing swordsman Xu Ying Hao (Tang Ching) discovers this at the local inn where he catches Jade slinging peanuts at some trash-talking locals. Although sympathetic, Xu is aghast when Jade reveals she has no idea which particular Yan sibling killed her family, but intends to wipe them all out anyway. An eye for an eye, and all that.
It transpires Xu is on his own vengeance kick, searching for the man who killed his father. But, after killing the wrong man, he swears to lay down his sword forever. Meanwhile, Jade has her sights set on Master Yan Tian Long (Yeung Chi-Hing), even though he seems to be a generous philanthropist who heals the sick and feeds the poor, including none other than Xu Ying Hao’s dear old ma, Mei Juan (Man Sau). Out of gratitude, Xu volunteers his services as a security guard at Master Yan’s estate where he foils Jade’s assassination attempt, but spares her life. However, Yan’s portly son (Fan Mei-Sheng) is determined to catch the Jade Raksha, though his attempts lead him in the wrong direction with life-changing consequences for Xu Ying Hao.
The huge critical and commercial success of Come Drink With Me (1966) led to an explosion of “heroic swordswomen” movies at Shaw Brothers studios and made Cheng Pei Pei the genre’s definitive star. In fact critics commonly claim the genre fell into decline following her retirement after The Lady Hermit (1971), although in later years she resumed her career and made a spectacular comeback as the villainess in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Before then, Pei Pei was cranking swordplay movies out at a remarkable rate for the studio, some good, some indifferent and, in the case of The Jade Raksha somewhere in-between. It is an engrossing swashbuckler for the most part but overreaches with its half-hearted moralizing about the futility of vengeance. Obviously an anti-violence theme is wholly admirable but in this instance the argument is somewhat undermined given Yan Tian Long turns out to be such a rotter. That’s right, Mister Nice Guy Philanthropist has a lair laden with hi-tech booby traps (that are in all fairness, pretty cool) where he stashes treasure stolen from the government. Additionally, Cheng Pei Pei, though lovely, graceful and commanding as ever, essays a heroine less affable than her usual chivalrous sword maidens. It is hard to warm to someone so unapologetic about slaughtering innocent people.
However, the plot proceeds in a more poignant direction once Xu Ying Hao rescues Ying Fung (Wong Ching-Wan), a poor wandering songstress mistaken for the Jade Raksha when she sings her trademark melody. Xu falls in love with Fung and befriends her father Jiang (Ku Feng), a blind minstrel with closet kung fu skills and a deep dark secret. It is a secret not too hard to guess but proves more persuasive in selling the film’s theme as Xu learns the circumstances behind his father’s death were more complex than he realised. Strangely, little of what unfolds involves the film’s ostensible star. Cheng Pei Pei is almost the supporting act in her own movie. She still swings into action in a lively climax that has her vaulting over a gaping chasm before the poetic payoff partially redeems her somewhat fiery character. There are some memorable action set-pieces including a fight in a bamboo forest with protagonists perched on the treetops plus a scene where Jade runs across a silvery lake. The Jade Raksha also ranks among the gorier martial arts movies of the Sixties including plenty of shrieking deaths with bright spurting blood. Veteran director Ho Meng-hua was truly a jack-of-all-genres, contributing memorable monster movies, horror flicks, children’s films, musicals, thrillers and of course martial arts flicks. That said, his direction here is a little brusque, glossing over the philosophical dimensions a more contemplative filmmaker like King Hu would have explored.