China, 1907. Revolutionary leader Xu Xilin (Dennis To) is killed whilst assassinating a corrupt imperial official, leaving the redoubtable Qiu Jin (Crystal Huang Yi), so-called Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, to rally the Republican cause. While Qiu Jin leads her fellow revolutionaries in repelling an attack on their headquarters by the Qing army, her mind flashes back to her younger days. As a little girl, Qiu Jin’s refusal to allow her feet to be bound as per Chinese tradition sets her on an iconoclastic path. She grows up well educated and trained in martial arts while her empathy with the downtrodden poor leads her to rescue deaf-mute Fusheng (Rose Chan) from abusive parents and forge an enduring friendship. Nevertheless, Qiu Jin still has to endure an arranged marriage to the self-involved Wang Tingjun (Kevin Cheng) who proves indifferent to her political ideals.
After the events of the Opium War, Qiu Jin, husband and children relocate to Beijing where her indignation over the ill-treatment of poor citizens drives her to scrap with soldiers in the street. Encouraged by her sympathetic neighbour Wu Zhiying (Pat Ha), Qiu Jin leaves her feckless husband and heads to Japan. Whilst studying at a prestigious university she meets like-minded young Chinese progressives including Xu Xilin. Newly galvanized, the young radicals return to China and lay plans to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.
The story of Qiu Jin: feminist, warrior-poet and mother of China’s Republican revolution, was a surprising choice of film project for Herman Yau, hitherto best known for sordid Category III horror and exploitation movies like The Untold Story (1993) and Ebola Syndrome (1996). But Yau’s filmography has grown increasingly ambitious and accomplished since those early, sleazy days. Here he mounts what is arguably the most compelling and polished entry in the recent spate of historical epics commemorating the revolution. Lacking the tub-thumping patriotism of the all-star The Founding of a Republic (2009) and the overwhelming density of Jackie Chan’s concurrent 1911 (2011), Yau narrows his focus onto a single, crucial historical figure whose idealism, compassion and intriguing life prove more persuasive at conveying the politics behind the struggle than the heavy-handed lecturing found in other films.
Romanticised (could the real Qiu Jin actually fight off dozens of armed men single-handed?) but undeniably powerful, The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake takes an endearingly schizophrenic approach to historical truth. Part throwback to the Chang Cheh school of blood and guts history lessons with an emphasis on heroic swordplay, chivalry and self-sacrifice. Yau adopts a non-linear approach, jumping between past and the present day where Qiu Jin endures horrific torture whilst interrogated by imperial official Li Zongyue (Anthony Wong) and Captain Ao Feng (Xiong Xin-Xin). For kung fu kicking Ao Feng, the fact Qiu Jin is an “unruly” woman seems as much an affront as her political beliefs. Whilst Ao Feng argues for her expedient execution, Li Zongyue grows to admire Qiu Jin’s bravery idealism, if not her politics and does his best to prevent her death, eventually concluding the Qing Dynasty have sealed their own doom.
Working from a fine script from writer Erica Li, Herman Yau deftly illustrates how Qiu Jin’s iconoclastic nature in a society of conformists laid the groundwork for not only her own political awakening but that of the generation she inspired and perhaps continues to inspire. Yau and Li also stress how Qiu Jin’s goal was as much a feminist revolution as a Republican one as she repeatedly challenges the inequities against women. Crystal Huang Yi delivers an accomplished performance in the lead, convincing in both dramatic scenes and the breakneck, bone-crunching action scenes choreographed by Leung Siu-Hung, the man behind Ip Man (2008), that while over-the-top are undeniably entertaining. The conclusion draws a poetic parallel between the light of the stars coming from millennia past and the effects of the revolutionaries’ endeavour on history while “A Fighting Song for Women’s Rights”, a song composed by the real Qiu Jin figures hearteningly in the score.