I’ve never had much opportunity to see much of Angela Mao’s work on screen: her films have never been available on DVD (until now, anyway) and I think that all that I’ve seen of her work is her small role in Enter the Dragon and her part in King Hu’s Fate of Lee Khan, a film that I hope I’ll one day own a decent copy of.
The floodgates have opened, though, and decent DVD versions of many of Angela Mao’s films are starting to trickle into stores, both in Hong Kong and soon here in Oz. The first of these is Broken Oath, her last film for Golden Harvest, directed by Chung Chang Wha and with action choreography by Tyrone Hsu and Yuen Woo Ping. Interestingly, the story is a loose adaptation of Lady Snowblood, the cult Japanese film made four years earlier. Broken Oath follows Lady Snowblood’s story fairly closely for the early scenes, providing the backstory and motivations for Angela Mao’s character, before changing gear and style as we enter more traditional kung fu revenge territory.
Angela Mao plays ‘Pure Lotus’ Liu, born in a prison at the start of the film. Her mother passes away shortly after giving birth, but not before relating her story: she is the wife of General Liu, an honourable servant of the Imperial Court who was brutally slain by four mysterious swordsmen. She herself was then taken home by one of them, and then imprisoned after she stabbed her kidnapper in his bedchamber. She insists that her child be told of the injustices done to her parent, and entrusts her to another prisoner, a talented pickpocket.
Since the child is blameless, she can go out into the world — and so she does, brought up in a monastery by nuns. There she learns kung fu and grows up to be a beautiful but dangerous young lady, with what the abbess of the monastery calls a ‘pugilistic nature’. Eventually, she learns the true story behind her birth and her parents’ mistreatment, and she resolves to wreak her revenge on the four killers… and their boss.
Along the way, she teams up with a young Bruce Leung, playing an imperial agent who seeks to find and bring to justice the very man who ordered her father’s death. Bruce is as measured and unruffled as Angela’s character is driven and angry, and his kung fu is at least the equal of hers. Both actors are given a great deal of fighting to do, and both perform incredibly well: Angela looks very quick and controlled, and Bruce displays some amazing legwork, highlighted by lots of long takes and expert choreography. Among their opponents are veterans Sammo Hung and Han Ying Chieh, in small roles decked out with rather exotic weaponry, and lead villain Michael Chan, who has an impressive fight with Bruce Leung at the end of the film.
Broken Oath is a real triumph of Hong Kong filmmaking, showing off what a cast and crew full of HK’s finest could do in the late 70s. It’s got some fine acting from Angela Mao, some superb kicking from Bruce Leung, and enough plot twists and colourful characters to keep the audience interested. It doesn’t have Lady Snowblood’s stunning visuals and blood-spattered extras, but it more than makes up for it with sheer kinetic ferocity.