Films come in cycles. We’re currently overlapping the centenary of momentous events leading to the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in China. This has triggered the release of the dire 1911, as the Hong Kong/Chinese film industry flirts with historical dramas at or about the Xinhai Revolution. The story of The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia reaches its climax in 1907, some four years before the main action. It tells of Qiu Jin who was one of the early martyrs leading up to the Xinhai Revolution and she enjoys a good reputation under the current Chinese regime as a poet, an early feminist and a revolutionary leader. History is one of the more malleable areas of the discourse where each new culture chooses which “facts” it will consider significant in forming the reputation of individuals or past events. Insofar as the successive attempts to overthrow the Manchu government eventually built up enough support to force the abdication of the Qing Dynasty, it’s convenient for the present Government to remember martyrs like Qiu Jin with affection. She was with Sun Yat-sen in Japan, joining the Tongmenghui, and became a pivotal figure when she returned to China, trying to unite the secret societies into a force with sufficient co-ordination to represent a credible threat to the corrupt local governments in the south. She’s a “safe” revolutionary and this has earned her a formal burial site and museum. The theme of this film is rooted in astronomy. Please forgive the mixing of metaphors. Light sets off from a distant star and there’s no telling what life will be like when it arrives at its destination. So this hero’s life is the light setting off. . .
In this film, she’s played by Yi Huang who’s been through an interesting period, appearing in Overheard 2 and dying along with the rest of the cast in Treasure Inn. It’s a considerable relief to see her able to carry the role of Qiu Jin with quiet dignity and some flair when it comes to the fighting.
So, if we take the story in chronological order, our hero is born into a still largely feudal China where women are considered little better than chattels. To satisfy male abstract notions of beauty, women were required to bind the feet of their daughters and to stay indoors to ensure the whitest possible complexion. Qiu Jin persuaded her progressive father to treat her as a son. She therefore learned to read, write, ride and fight. Poetry and martial arts may not seem a good combination but, in this film, she’s shown as devastating with the written word as she was with the sword. Unfortunately, parental permissiveness only goes so far and, when the right family came along, she was married off to Ting-jun (Kevin Cheng). He didn’t exactly get what he was expecting, but they did contrive to produce two children before she tired of his womanising and disappeared off to Japan to improve her education. In this, she was funded by a rich woman sympathiser Pat Ha. There she met her cousin Xu Xilin (Yu-Hang To) and, together, they delved more deeply into revolutionary thinking, joining the Restoration Society or Guangfuhui. On their return to China, they planned successive uprisings at Anqing in Anhui and in Shaoxing.
As an early step, they established the Datong School in Shaoxing. This was a front for training revolutionary troops. Xu Xilin then bought a position as an official in Anqing where he led an uprising of the police recruits, managing to kill En Ming, the Governor of Anhui Province. Unfortunately, he was forced to move early. This prompted the government to send troops to arrest Qiu Jin. Caught unprepared, the school was surrounded and most students were killed. Qiu Jin was arrested and, despite there being only patchy evidence of criminal activity, she was executed. Anthony Wong Chau-Sang is a sympathetic government official in Shaoxing who tries to save Qiu Jin but he’s overruled by senior official Suet Lam. Fearing more unrest and wanting the maximum deterrent effect, she was beheaded, the punishment previously reserved for men. So, even in the manner of her death, she struck a blow for the equality of the sexes.
At every level, this is an inspiring story of a young woman who throws off the shackles of a repressive patriarchy, fights for women’s rights and, as a patriot, fights for her country. Her contribution as a writer, publisher and revolutionary has been matched by few. In general, this film version of her story works reasonably well with director Herman Yau striking a good balance between the history and the need to remain entertaining. But, for me, two problems prevent this from being a really good film. The first is the structure of the narrative. Sadly, I’m old-fashioned and prefer a story to start and the beginning and follow through to a climax at the end. This has an endlessly nested sequence of flashbacks. We start with the battle at the school and then variously move forwards or backwards in time. This is slightly confusing and somewhat annoying. Worse, I think it undermines the emotional power of this hero’s journey from assertive girl to revolutionary leader and martyr to the cause. The second problem involves the fighting. Some of the sequences are brutal and naturalistic. This is as it should be when presenting committed revolutionaries pitched against government troops of questionable morale. But in the sequences involving the Qing military commander Ao Feng (Xiong Xin Xin), naturalism is sacrificed for the modern cinematic version of fighting based on wire work. In any event, there’s some controversy about whether Qiu Jin knew any martial arts. This is not to take anything away from the skill of Yi Huang and Yu-Hang To in their personal martial arts skills. The fights with old pro Xiong Xin Xin are very entertaining in their own right and could take their place with pride in any of the more fantasy-based kung fu films. I simply don’t feel they fit into the tone of this film which, in all other respects, is attempting to be a reasonably accurate historical drama.
So there you have it. The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia is inspirational and entertaining, but short of being very good.