Lau Kar Leung brings Hung Fist kung-fu to the disco in 1983’s The Lady Is The Boss, one of his most uneven films with the Shaw Brothers studio. The basic premise is excellent: an old-fashioned kung-fu instructor clashes with the young American-educated daughter of the school’s founder, who arrives in Hong Kong to take over the school’s management. Unfortunately, some truly woeful over-acting and cheesy comedy make most of the film fairly difficult to watch, even when interspersed with occasionally superb fight choreography.
Lau Kar Leung plays Hsia-yuan, a very traditional, dedicated kung fu master, teaching Hung Fist in Hong Kong in the early eighties. He has five students, a bunch of “monkeys” who complain a fair bit about their teacher’s rigidly traditional style of instruction, but who are good at kung-fu and proud of their school. The whole group of them is waiting for the return of the school’s founder, who has been in the USA for some time. Unable to travel, he sends his daughter Mei-ling (Kara Hui) to run the school instead — an American-educated, street-smart young lady who isn’t willing to bow to convention and run the school the traditional way.
Unsurprisingly, the two clash immediately, with Hsia-yuan leaving Mei-ling to run the school as she sees fit, with the students doing her bidding. Mei-ling sets out to drum up some business, hawking the school on the street and taking the students to discos to try and raise the school’s profile with the disinterested youth of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, she also winds up confronting a gang of local triads, biting off much more than she can chew.
The Lady Is The Boss touches on many of Lau Kar Leung’s favourite recurring themes: the traditional relationship between master and student, the importance of family and respect, and the involvement of women in kung-fu. He’s done a much better job in other films, though, especially in Heroes of the East and My Young Auntie, the second of which stars Kara Hui as well in a very similar role. Unfortunately, The Lady Is The Boss suffers from the inclusion of so much awkward comedy and streetwise 80s cool, with the first half of the movie spent reminding the audience of the incongruity of teaching traditional kung-fu in the modern era and the cultural gap between the traditional kung-fu students and the pot-smoking, disco-dancing youths that they’re trying to teach.
However, the film has at least two incandescent action sequences near the end of the film, with Lau Kar Leung taking centre stage and giving an incredible performance as he takes on legions of evildoers (much like he does at the end of The Scorpion King, actually). Kara Hui is as agile as always, and Gordon Liu and Hsiao Hou (who play two of the school’s students) are a lot of fun, with both actors making references to earlier films with Lau Kar Leung in one of the fight sequences.
The Lady Is The Boss is much too uneven to be a good introduction to Lau Kar Leung’s generally excellent body of work as a director — if you’ve not seen his films before, see some of his other work first. Veteran fans of Lau sifu, though, will definitely want to catch at least the last third of this film — it’s always a pleasure to see Lau Kar Leung in front of the camera, backed by so many of his regular actors.