General Invincible (1983)

I’ve been greatly enjoying my time with Gold Ninja Video‘s Pearl Chang boxset Wolf Devil Director over the past year, and I’m a little sad to have now officially run through all four of the Taiwanese martial artist’s feature films as star/director/producer.  Maybe Pearl Chang was sad to see her career winding down in her own time too.  Her final film, General Invincible, is more somber than her previous work.  It boasts all of the gruesome bloodshed, fabulous costume changes, and low-budget psychedelia that make her films so delightful, but it lacks her slapstick humor that usually lightens their tone.  Although it shares no narrative continuity with any of the other films in her modest catalog, it plays like the final episode of a long-running TV show or the third act of a 3-hour epic.  It feels like a heartfelt goodbye to the low-budget wuxia auteur, who indeed did disappear from the public eye in the years following the film’s release.

Because all her work was rapidly produced in the same era & genre, it’s near impossible to discuss General Invincible on its own terms without comparing it to Pearl Chang’s other films.  As with all the titles in the Wolf Devil Director boxset, Chang stars as a reclusive female warrior who reluctantly returns to society to avenge the slaughter of her family, guided by the mystical teachings of a retired kung fu master.  In this particular instance she’s a war general named Sparrow, honor-bound to stop a wannabe emperor’s aspirations for the throne by laying waste to his mercenary assassins one by one.  There are a few distinguishing details in General Invincible you won’t find elsewhere in Pearl Chang’s oeuvre: an uneasy romance with a sensitive warrior who believes himself her equal, a vicious rivalry with the other warrior-woman who pines after that same loverboy, the usurping emperor’s obsession with obtaining magical “crystal knives” as the ultimate weapon, etc.  For the most part, though, this is the exact same rapidfire low-budget wuxia psychedelia Pearl Chang always delivers, just now with a somber tone.

As an unofficial, unintentional send-off for Pearl Chang’s career, you couldn’t ask much more out of General Invincible.  Sparrow’s inner journey in the film is a meditative, self-reflective effort to “reach the state of Infinity and discover Emptiness”.  She cannot become her most powerful warrior self until she “achieves Nothingness,” a state she doesn’t discover until she’s crucified and left for dead in the midday sun, recalling the blinding psychedelia of King Hu’s genre-defining wuxia epic A Touch of Zen.  When watching her filmography in order, it’s as if Pearl Chang doesn’t retire into anonymity, but rather transcends this Earthly plane through total inner enlightenment (after indulging in a few flying-swordsmen beheadings along the way).  It’s kind of sweet & touching, as long as you can distract yourself from the more unfair, practical limitations of her real-life career in an industry gatekept by men.

The Wolf Devil Director box set is a must-own, and Gold Ninja Video put a lot of care into contextualizing what makes the films within so unique to Pearl Chang as an auteur.  Still, it feels like an audition for a much better-funded boutique label to pick up these same films for a proper restoration.  I often found myself squinting through these public domain transfers imagining how much greater these same films would be with an HD clean-up.  It’s easy to see why Wolf Devil Woman is Pearl Chang’s most popular film; it’s her best work.  I believe that General Invincible & Matching Escort are pretty much on its level, though.  The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is her weakest for being a little too goofy, but I dug that one too.  All her films are good-to-great, and all of them deserve a higher genre-nerd profile with better-funded preservation & distribution.  The Wolf Devil Director boxset is a great start, but there’s more work to do.

Pearl Chang’s Filmography, Ranked:

1. Wolf Devil Woman
2. Matching Escort
3. General Invincible
4. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu

-Brandon Ledet

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