Pearl Chang receives a lot of attention from cult movie sites because her most seen movies – the ones widely circulated with English dubs – are more than a bit crazy. She’s an interesting character: a female director and producer in a segment of Chinese language film where the only other women to play major roles were Mona Fong, Kao Pao Shu, and occasionally Hsu Feng; an actress so uninhibited that she very often goes so far over the top that she leaves the rest of her often wild films well below her.
The Pearl Chang movie that everybody, it seems, sees and reviews on their blogs is Wolf Devil Woman, occasionally asserted to be a very loose adaptation of the Liang Yusheng novel that would eventually inspire Ronny Yu’s classic The Bride with White Hair. If this is true, the film itself provides little evidence to believe it. Everything that has been said about it is true. Pearl does slay an innocent bunny, the villains really do dress like Klan members, and the direction is all kinds of brilliantly awful. And Miss Chang’s direction is rivaled only by her performance, a snarly, foaming at the mouth performance.
Pearl Chang’s other widely seen films – widely seen, I would assume, because they received English dubs – are less wild, although they seem to lie well outside the mainstream of even the more fantastical genre films from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Matching Escort, I believe, is meant to be semi-comedic, but the rubber and foam decorated sets are trippy by any standard. And Miraculous Flower, while nowhere near as bizarre as Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort, contains some of the most audacious wire work seen outside of a Robert Tai film.
But Chang’s oeuvre is hardly one-note. Her television work, serials like Bodyguards and Angry Sword Kang Hua, would hardly give one the impression that this is the same actress who would grab a defenseless crab, break it open and eat its guts as she does in General Invincible (Cheung Pang-Yee, 1983), more or less in one take. Pearl plays somber characters, respectable swordswomen and proud martial artists, just as capably as she goes over the top. This versatility can be seen in her films too, as in China Armed Escort (Chen Ming-Hua, 1975), King of Fists and Dollars (Chen Ming-Hua, 1981), and in the morose, spaghetti-western and chambara influenced The Elimination Pursuit (Cheung Pang-Yee, 1983).
It is this sort of performance that we see in My Blade, My Life, a wuxia picture in the mode of the more action-oriented Gu Long adaptations. Pearl plays Lu Du Shing, a travelling sword-fighter whose only goal is to kill the famous swordsman, Peerless Swallow.
Unfortunately for Lu, Peerless Swallow is in absentia from the martial world. Everybody is looking for him, including his pretty fiancé, the heir to a wealthy manor and nominally the leader of its martial arts clan. Without Peerless Swallow around to police the martial order, the less respectable elements raise no small amount of chaos. Peerless Swallow impersonators attempt to wrest control of rival organizations, an apparently religious “Yin-Yang sect” attempts to forcibly convert the unwilling, and the jealous Cheng Chien-Sheng hatches a bizarre scheme to marry himself to Lu’s fiancé to gain wealth and power.
My Blade, My Life plays out very much like a Gu Long pastiche – its plot is much less baroque than the way it is presented – and would be very much typical except that the Pearl Chang plays the lead. As mentioned, her acting is far more subdued than in her more infamous films, but she still gives a strange and – I can think of no better way to express it – uninhibited performance. Her demeanor here is icy, and the character she plays has given up her identity as a woman in order to take revenge. Pearl walks with an unexplained limp, hobbling around until a fight breaks out. Her character is so quick that her opponents die after a single stroke, but when she fights a skilled swordsman, the limp inexplicably disappears, and she bounces off of out-of-frame trampolines or flies about on wires.
The frigid demeanor recalls roles played by Hsu Feng or Angela Mao, but quiet moments between her and Ling Yun’s Peerless Swallow, the sometimes exaggerated limp, and the occasionally brutal fight scenes (Pearl shoves chopsticks into a random mook’s face, in one of the most memorable), bring her character to a more human level than the sort of idealized woman-fighter-in-drag often seen in wuxia pictures of this vintage. Pearl is such a dynamic presence without the snarling and wild gesticulating seen in her other films that it’s almost hard to believe that those are her best known roles. I honestly like this subdued Pearl Chang quite a lot.
Pearl Chang is not the only actor to play against type. Yueh Hua, Chen Sing, and Tsung Hua get roles as minor villains; Lily Li is a ditzy little girl who can’t fight; Cliff Lok plays a jealous, mendacious swordsman – quite a departure from his goofy sub-Fu Sheng comedic heroes.
If that description does not make it obvious, the makers of My Blade, My Life imbue far more creativity into their product than what is typical in Taiwanese genre-films, and they have a budget to match. Produced by I Film Co., at least a couple of sets will be familiar to fans that have seen the Yueh Hua starring Drunken Swordsman (Cheung Git, 1979). The cinematography from Yip Ching-Biu – who also filmed The Whirlwind Knight (Sek Kin, 1969) and The Dream Sword (Li Chao-Yung, 1979) – is familiar, if less interesting than his previous work.
My Blade, My Life is a really good wuxia picture. That it stars Pearl Chang engenders expectations that differ from its goals, but it is likely more in line with what Miss Chang’s fans expected from her at the time of its release. Those of us who watch these movies as a hobby (and given the effort it often takes to acquire them, it is very much so) often forget that their makers never thought that people on the other side of the world would watch them thirty years later, let alone write about them on a giant information database. Our perspectives become a bit skewed by this distance. My Blade, My Life will serve as a testament to this fact for some, but for others – and I suspect for the audience for whom it was initially made – it is just a really fun little genre excursion.
And boy do I love Pearl’s costume.