Matching Escort (1982)

Taiwanese martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (aka Ling Chang) is mostly remembered in genre nerd circles for one accomplishment: the Bargain Bin Wuxia epic Wolf Devil Woman, in which she stars and directs. Chang had an expansive, regionally popular career in both film & television for years, but much of her output as an actor has been lost to archival rot, while half of her directorial efforts were miscredited to male pseudonyms. However, you only need to look to her uncredited directorial debut for it to become immediately apparent that Wolf Devil Woman was not some fluke in Chang’s career where she accidentally stumbled into Midnight Movie greatness. 1982’s Matching Escort telegraphs enough of the exact wuxia-on-the-cheap surrealism she’d soon expand on in Wolf Devil Woman to position Chang as a full-blown auteur. It’s shameful that so much of her output was allowed to slip through the archival cracks (especially her TV series The Protectors & Armed Escort) and that only one of her four public-domain feature films has been canonized as cult-worthy schlock. As soon as she debuted her filmmaking talents in Matching Escort, it was clear that Chang had a specific, highly stylized POV even while remaining limited to the parameters of low-budget wuxia. Credited as the producer, writer (alongside ninjasploitation shclockteur Godfrey Ho), and “planning director”, Chang was in total control of the film’s bizarro look & tone, and its overlap with her more widely celebrated accomplishments in Wolf Devil Woman suggests that she knew exactly what she was doing in that position.

Story-wise, there’s nothing especially innovative about Matching Escort. It follows a very familiar tragedy→training→revenge template, in which Chang’s tread-upon protagonist overthrows the evil emperor who slaughters her village & family in the first act. It’s purely the film’s stylization that makes it wonderfully distinct to Chang’s sensibilities. Her broad humor, rapid-fire editing, dramatic costume changes, and D.I.Y. psychedelia are all consistent to the exact tones & tropes of Wolf Devil Woman, just with a few of the details scrambled for variety. Instead of the evil emperor wearing a rubber Halloween mask, he operates a lethal prototype of the Nintendo Power Glove. Instead of training for revenge among wolves in an ice cave, Chang’s hero incubates in a Hellish underground cavern under the tutelage of a kung fu master known as The Silver Fox (whom she sometimes teasingly refers to as “Uncle Strange”). She doesn’t wear anything as outrageous as the plushie doll “pelt” that tops off her signature look in Wolf Devil Woman, but her transformations from victim to trainee to warrior are all marked by similarly exaggerated costume changes. Although Matching Escort was produced & initially released a year before Wolf Devil Woman, it’s sometimes marketed as “Wolf Devil Woman 2,” as if it were a direct sequel (among other alternate public-domain titles like Venus the Ninja Wolf and Fury of the Silver Fox). That shameless post-mortem marketing somehow actually feels legitimate since there’s so much overlap in the two films’ DNA.

Noting the tonal & stylistic consistencies between Chang’s first two films is worthwhile for a couple reasons. Most importantly, it establishes that the broad slapstick humor, rapidfire edits, elaborate costume changes, and Spirit Halloween Store psychedelia of Wolf Devil Woman were not happenstances that Chang blindly stumbled into in her one cult-classic success; they were the distinguishing touches of a low-budget martial arts auteur. Additionally, I think comparing the two films is beneficial in counteracting the idea that Wolf Devil Woman is a “so-bad-it’s-good” novelty, or that Chang was somehow unaware of how over-the-top her tone could be. Matching Escort is just as cartoonishly stylized as Wolf Devil Woman (I particularly love the hand-made psychedelic flowers & plastic skeletons that decorate her training cave here), but it’s largely a more respectable, grounded picture in its minor variations. Without the rubber masks, plushie doll pelts, and Ed Woodian nature footage of Wolf Devil Woman, there’s much less room for irony-minded viewers to point and laugh at the film’s idiosyncrasies. You then have to take the geysers of stage blood, primary color gel lighting, aggressively choppy editing, and high-flying wire work at face value as delirious entertainments. I personally didn’t need the goofier details of Wolf Devil Woman to be stripped away to respect Pearl Chang as a martial arts performer & visual stylist, but Matching Escort is a valuable counterargument against naysayers who do. Now only if her work could be rescued from the hazy voids of archival rot & public domain transfers; it feels like her films are wasting away in a distant cave, impatient for their time to strike.

-Brandon Ledet

Wolf Devil Woman (1983)

Martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (also credited as Ling Chang) was once the biggest TV star in Taiwan. She has since effectively disappeared. Chang has dozens of credits to her name as an actor at the fringes of the wuxia genre in the 70s & 80s, many of which are seemingly lost forever in the distribution & archival voids that vaporize most cheap-o schlock. Impressively, she even leveraged that notoriety into directing four martial arts films herself in the 1980s, a career path that proved much more turbulent & misogynistically policed than her initial designation as a television actress. When Chang tried her hand at being an auteur, she found her reputation shifting from “beloved TV star” to “difficult to work with,” a bullshit designation that’s routinely leveled at female creatives to protect the industry-control enjoyed by their male “colleagues.” Of her four completed features, only half were even credited to her name, the other two being filed under a male pseudonym. Despite how common this disgraceful undercutting of Pearl Chang’s potential as a genre auteur feels in the history of women in the film industry, it still stings harshly when you watch her work. She was exploding with creativity in her directorial period, limited only by her lack of funding and her lack of Industry support. She deserved so much better, and it’s hard not to get hung up on the potential art we lost because of that dismissal.

Wolf Devil Woman is the best-known of Pearl Chang’s directorial efforts, and even it’s mostly notorious as a “so-bad-it’s-good” exercise in high camp. Chang stars in the film herself as a feral woman who was raised by wolves after her parents were executed by a demonic Emperor. Narratively, it’s a straightforward revenge story in which the wolfen orphan exacts revenge on the Demon who ruined her life by using her animalistic hunting skills (and the supernatural abilities afforded to her by ingesting mystical “white ginseng”) in battle. Tonally, the movie is much harder to pinpoint. It can be absolutely brutal, as in the opening sequence where the wolf-girl’s parents bury their baby in snow and douse her with their own blood to keep the infant warm. It can be adorably cheap, especially in its costuming, which dresses Chang in a wolf plushie doll as if it were a pelt and achieves her Demon foe’s look with a rubber Party City mask. Overwhelmingly, though, I think of Wolf Devil Woman as being outright psychedelic – a disorienting Pure Cinema indulgence that makes for some very loopy late-night viewing despite its limited means as a cheap-o production. It can’t pretend to be as controlled or as accomplished in its far-out psychedelia as triumphs like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, but its bootleg quality as a VHS-era indie knockoff from the fringes of the genre only make it feel stranger, like a found object that tumbled far outside the boundaries of a proper wuxia canon.

Some of the ways Chang achieves this Bootleg Psychedelia effect are recognizably rooted in tradition: 2D animation visuals bolstering the effects budget; vibrantly colored gel lights affording the Demon’s lair a Suspiria vibe; wire work uplifting the martial arts sequences with the fantasy of flight (a wuxia mainstay), etc. Where Chang really goes off the rails is in her deployment of quick, recurrent cuts that repeat the same action over & over again in rapid-fire delirium. It’s a deliberately dissociative effect, best evidenced by the insanely omnipresent imagery of the titular wolfwoman ripping a live rabbit in half with her bare hands to illustrate her animalistic nature. As a revenge tale, Wolf Devil Woman is too predictable & languidly paced to merit much enthusiasm. As a stylistic exercise, however, it’s overflowing with delirious creative choices that dazzle the eye after hypnotizing you into that false calm. I believe the instinct to laugh the entire movie off as a joke because of a few goofy (budgetary-based) costume choices is selling these artistic merits short, but I’m still glad that at least one of Chang’s few feature film earned some kind of cultural notoriety. I wonder what she might have been able to achieve with bigger & better chances to express her vision onscreen, but like with so many female auteurs in the history of the Industry, her opportunities were frustratingly limited.

We don’t get to know what a better-supported Pearl Chang career might have yielded, but at least we got one cult gem out of the limited resources she was afforded.

-Brandon Ledet

A Touch of Zen (1971)

I’m not the most patient of audiences; while I may be impressed by the technical achievements of a three-hour epic from a David Lean or Stanley Kubrick or Andrei Tarkovsky, it’s unlikely that type of grand-scale exhibition of auteurist hubris will ever fully steal my heart. My favorite films are often low-budget, D.I.Y. outsider art projects that could comfortably fit on a drive-in double bill, less than half the length of what anyone would considered an epic. That impatience keeps me at a fearsome distance from the wuxia genre, a subset of martial arts cinema that adapts action movie payoffs to Chinese historical epic narratives. Until recently, I’d only ever seen the Hollywood bastardizations of the wuxia aesthetic that arrived in the early 2000s: Hero & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Crouching Tiger was the more transcendently beautiful of the pair, but Hero was much closer to a speed I could easily keep up with in my hyperactive, cheap thrills-craving mind. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the goofier, trashier genre payoffs of Hero were not at all uncommon with the classic Chinese wuxia epics that preceded it. Wuxia films can be long, reflective, and overly patient, but they can also be wildly goofy in their isolated genre thrills. I recently took a rare opportunity to see one of the defining films of the genre, King Hu’s 200min epic A Touch of Zen, in digital restoration on the big screen and was surprised to discover how much over-the-top, delirious fun it was willing to have with its martial arts payoffs, as patiently as they arrived. A Touch of Zen was basically the goofiness of Hero at the austere pace of Crouching Tiger, giving me a much better understanding of what the wuxia genre can offer, as long as you’re willing to afford it over three hours’ running time.

Oddly, my impatience with A Touch of Zen mostly manifested in its first hour, which is largely expository & action-free. The opening beats of the film are a slow-motion sinking into Nature, patiently observing the mountainside greenery & nighttime spiderwebs of Japanese provinces in an establishment of the film’s upcoming dichotomy in settings. This Nature photography serves as the film’s overture (there would be no intermission, unfortunately), the exact kind of mood-setter you’d typically expect from an overlong epic. The story it serves is an episodic journey that begins with a small-town artist living frugally with his overbearing mother in an abandoned temple. With no ambitions outside painting portraits & surviving the ghosts he’s superstitious of in their spooky squat, he dodges all pressures from his mother to marry & to become a respectable government bureaucrat. This changes with the arrival of a mysterious woman who takes residence in a neighboring squat, whom he initially mistakes for a ghost before taking her as a lover. The woman proves to be a fugitive from the Empire who, while in hiding, builds a small militia of martial arts masters to challenge the tyranny of encroaching government goons. In a gender-reversal of the typical damsel in distress dichotomy, she protects the artist from Empirical harm as their affair puts him at risk, fighting off entire armies with her physics-defying fighting skills while he cowers in awe. The affair eventually drags the artist away from the comfort of his “haunted” squat into a treacherous, spiritual journey in the wild mountainside terrain. The resulting battles are shockingly violent, spiritually transcendent, and often unashamedly silly, but require a patience with a quiet, darkly lit exposition that nearly constitutes the typical runtime of the smaller-scale genre gems I’m more used to watching. It’s the kind of slow-moving pleasure that’s greatly benefited by being experienced in the distraction-free environment of a theatrical screening; I just didn’t expect that its first act would be the most difficult to remain awake for.

A Touch of Zen is most impressive for its extravagant set pieces. Like the two most recent American action films to receive near-unanimous critical praise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout & Mad Max: Fury Road, the film is for the most part an episodic sequence of successive set pieces; it just happens to start with an hour of pre-action exposition that affords it the shape of a historical epic. The same gravity-defying, physics-transcending martial arts spectacle that’s become synonymous with the wuxia genre because of Crouching Tiger (at least in America) is on full display in A Touch of Zen. Warriors hop over roofs & take their swordfights to the impossible heights of treetops, lightly traveling across flimsy branches that could not support their weight short of an act of magic. The two most remarkable set pieces are an elaborate haunted house-themed prank involving mannequins & a cliffside confrontation with monks who can trigger forced enlightenment in their opponents with a strike to the skull. In isolation, they’re beautiful, admirably humorous achievements in pure cinema bliss. The question is whether they fully serve the needs of a larger epic when considered in sequence, of which I’m not so convinced. I’m always going to be on the hook for a story about a badass female warrior who takes on an entire empirical government, as ACAB. When considered as a whole, however, the sequencing of A Touch of Zen’s set pieces doesn’t appear to achieve a clear, fully satisfied narrative arc, but rather feels like a couple isolated pages torn from a much longer book. That’s a lot to ask for a film with a 200min runtime, no matter how occasionally transcendent. Maybe a greater familiarity with Chinese history referenced in the film would reshape how I think about how the episodic set pieces come together as a whole. As a trash-gobbling genre film enthusiast with an embarrassingly short attention span, however, I found the film’s payoffs to be a little too spread out & mired in mood-setting Nature photography to full convince me that I need to sink further into the niche cinema of wuxia epics. The film did initiate me to the full beauty & unashamed goofiness that the genre is capable of in a way I wasn’t previously aware, which is almost enough to convince me to push through my childish impatience to pursue this subject further.

-Brandon Ledet