"The 14 Amazons:" When Effort Trumps Skill
I am a child of the 70′s who grew up in the New York metro area, which means I have many fond memories of misspent Saturday afternoons watching Hong Kong kung-fu action movies on Channel 5. I didn’t realize it at the time, but most of those vintage chop-socky films were the work of the Shaw Brothers studio, a prolific Hong Kong cinematic institution whose output has become a kind of litmus test for the truly hip film aficionado, mostly due to their influence on the likes of Quentin Tarantino. I was quite unreasonably happy to learn that FUNimation had licensed several Shaw Brothers films for their Hong Kong Connection label. The product line will make it much easier for American audiences to discover the works of the Shaw Brothers Studio, for which a movie like The 14 Amazons was pretty standard fare.
The 14 Amazons is set in Chinese history during in the period of war between the Northern Song Dynasty and the Western Xia. General Yang Tsung Pao (Tsung Hua) is killed at the border by the bloodthirsty Xia barbarian king (Tien Feng). When the Emperor of China seems unwilling or unable to send reinforcements, General Yang’s household forms an army to defend the nation. This army, mostly composed of the women of the household, are led by General Yang’s grandmother Tai Chun (Lisa Lu), his widow Mu Kuei Ying (Ivy Ling Po), and twelve more assorted female relatives. Tagging along is General Yang’s young son, Yang Wen Kuang (played quite unconvincingly by the very feminine Lily Ho), the last male heir of the Yang family. Mu Kuei Ying soon proves to be a wily, fast-thinking general, outwitting and outfighting the Xia king and his five bloodthirsty sons despite a severe numerical disadvantage.
By any number of objective measures, The 14 Amazons is not a good movie. The story is simplistic and drawn in black-and-white terms so absolute they’re laughable. The characters are thinly sketched, the acting is limited at best, the special effects are ludicrously bad, and many of the battle sequences are choppy and incoherent. The movie also suffers from a too-large cast, spending a significant amount of time at the start introducing them only to leave most of them mostly unused. I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind the casting of Lily Ho in a prominent male part, but without knowing what it is, it just seems like an absolutely bizarre casting choice, especially since it’s fairly obvious that the “only male heir” of the Yang family has breasts.
And yet, like many Shaw Brothers movies, its obvious shortcomings are balanced out by a colossal amount of energy, enthusiasm, and an infectious sense of earnestness. This movie is meant as complete and total crowd-pleasing entertainment, and it succeeds admirably at that. The story of the Yang family widows would have been fairly well known to the target audience, since it has been adapted into several different film versions and a Peking Opera, and The 14 Amazons doesn’t bother to hide its obvious nationalistic attitude. Even so, it’s not hard for a foreign audience to get caught up in the movie’s comic-book heroics, cheering for the valiant heroines and hissing at the dastardly barbarian bad guys.
The size of the cast and the battlefront setting of the story means that the trademark over-the-top kung-fu fighting scenes of a Shaw Brothers movie are mostly replaced by larger cast-of-thousands (or at least dozens) battle sequences instead. It says something not too positive about modern moviemaking that I kept thinking, “Wow, real people,” as opposed to CGI crowd effects, since these battles have the authentic chaos that only comes from a horde of human extras battling on camera. Most of these scenes are a bit too chaotic for their own good, making the battles more difficult to follow than they needed to be, although this might also serve to cover the martial shortcomings of several of the movie’s title characters. The most memorable over-the-top sequence is the “human bridge” formed about two-thirds of the way through the movie, where the Yang family army makes a daring escape by forming a bridge made of people over a deep chasm. The scene is so preposterous it’s funny, but oddly enough its sheer audacity is also why it works. The same thing might be said for the entire movie, if not the bulk of the Shaw Brothers catalog. To be fair, there are also a few surprisingly effective special effects shots at the end of the film, convincingly depicting a torrent of flood waters threatening to drown out an army.
The audio and video quality of The 14 Amazons DVD is not spectacular, although odds are that this is due to limitations in the source material. I can’t imagine that the Shaw studio spent a lot of money on the movie in the first place, or spent much time or resources in film preservation for what they no doubt regarded as throwaway entertainment. Still, the visual quality of the movie is pretty good, showing its age but not so much as to be distracting. Honestly, the movies looked like this when they were relatively new when I was watching them in the 70′s. The DVD comes with an English stereo soundtrack for the complete American 70′s viewing experience, bad dubbing and all, as well as one in Mandarin mono if you ever wondered if these movies were any better in their native language (answer: not really). The subtitled translation of the Mandarin track is pretty accurate, at least to my extremely limited ear, although it does understandably stumble over some of the more esoteric idioms and some of the chengyu (popular maxims that pack a lot of meaning in very short Chinese phrases). There are no extras other than trailers for some of FUNimation’s other live-action offerings.
Some of the better known Shaw Brothers movies have been licensed by other media companies, but FUNimation is to be commended for importing some of their lesser-known works as well. My reaction to something like The 14 Amazons as an adult is comparable to re-discovering the G.I. Joe cartoon. As a child, I’d watch these things religiously even though I’d point at the screen quite often to exclaim, “But that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen!” As an adult, I point at the screen quite often to exclaim, “But that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen!” and I mean something completely different. Despite its extreme lack of technical prowess (or perhaps because of it), there is something purely entertaining about The 14 Amazons, and I’m definitely looking forward to rediscovering more of the works of the Shaw Brothers through FUNimation’s future releases.
Check out toonzone’s Kung Fu Week:
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Review: “The 14 Amazons:” When Effort Trumps Skill
Review: “Shaolin Hand Lock”: The Joyless Lock Club
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