During the Song Dynasty, Northern China was routinely invaded by its powerful neighbour, Western Xia. For generations the loyal warriors of the Yang family dedicated their lives towards defending Song’s borders but because the treacherous Prime Minister (Wu Ma) has been withholding reinforcements almost all the male members of the clan have fallen in battle. Word reaches stoic Yang warrior princess Mu Guiying (Cecilia Cheung) that her husband General Yang Zongbao (Richie Ren) is the latest casualty, having been hopelessly outnumbered. An imperial edict orders his impulsive and inexperienced son, Wengguang (Xiao Ming-Yu) to lead a campaign against the ten-times-stronger forces of Western Xia. To assist Wengguang on this dangerous mission, the twelve brave widows of Yang, led by Mu Guiying, take up arms and march against the enemy.
Cecilia Cheung continued her big screen comeback with this sprawling remake of the Shaw Brothers classic, The 14 Amazons (1972), produced by no less than Jackie Chan who no doubt responded to its theme of underdogs triumphing over impossible odds through hard work and sacrifice. Legendary Amazons also marked a return to filmmaking for composer turned actor-director Frankie Chan (no relation) after an absence of ten years. Based on the classical text “The Yang Heroes”, this story of brave women defying a corrupt government remains quite subversive in this day and age, although Chan dials down the politics in favour of all-out action. As choreographed by the multitalented Frankie Chan, the action is routinely spectacular and even transcends some phoney-looking CGI to deliver an array of memorable set-pieces involving wacky weapons and death-dealing gadgets that leave the villains looking increasingly incredulous. Look out for the spring-heeled boots several centuries ahead of Oscar Pistorious.
The film has an exuberance and invention evoking the glory days of Eighties and Nineties Hong Kong cinema, combining vivid characters, lively humour and a frenzied, unrelenting pace quite unlike the more stately Mainland co-productions we have seen lately. Whilst the plot occasionally tips over into caricatured melodrama it remains consistently involving and exciting. Cecilia Cheung delivers the kind of charismatic, multifaceted turn that made her the biggest HK film star of the past decade and the filmmakers surround her with a fittingly feisty all-star cast including Shaw Brothers’ original iconic swordswoman Cheng Pei Pei as Yang clan matriarch Taijun, the enduringly talented Kathy Chow (who actually made her screen debut in a television version of this story 1986), and popular mainland stars Liu Xiao-Qing and Yu Na. Most excitingly, Frankie Chan brings his real-life spouse, legendary fighting diva Yukari Oshima back on the screen for a number of standout action scenes likely to delight her fans.
Chan retains the original film’s famous set-piece wherein the heroines form a human bridge across a canyon yet diverts from the plot with a number of curious curveballs. Although clearly intended to inject a little freshness into a familiar story, these new elements do not always make sense and in some instances undermine its feminist agenda, notably the inexplicable resurrection of a key male character. Whereas the Shaw Brothers version featured beautiful Lily Ho Li in an award-winning role as Wengguang, this wisely avoids asking a contemporary audience to accept a women in male drag yet oddly recasts the role as a hot-tempered idiot who routinely butts heads with his mother, endangers the mission and in his climactic moment of heroism, ineptly stabs the wrong man. Interestingly, while the original film had all but one of the heroines make it through to the fadeout, here they drop like flies. Whether this alteration stems from a desire to accentuate the tragedy or sate a more bloodthirsty contemporary audience is uncertain but Legendary Amazons ranks among several several recent remakes - including A Better Tomorrow (2010) and A Chinese Ghost Story (2011) - putting a downbeat spin on hitherto upbeat stories.