Plot: one woman dares stand up against the tyrannical oppressor.
About the last place where you’d expect to see a Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) knock-off would be Mainland China. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. If anything, Mainland China has usurped the throne of Italy, Indonesia, and the Philippines as the prime location where the exploitation filmmaking industry has flourished like no other in the last decade and a half. No other place has been remaking Asian – and American properties for the domestic market in such a reckless and breakneck pace. Mainland China embraced the old adage of doing it better, faster, and cheaper than everyone else. Mad Shelia: Virgin Road (瘋狂希莉婭) (Mad Shelia hereafter), should there still be any lingering doubt, is a cheap imitation of George Miller’s Oscar-winning feature and the Onna Rambo (1991) of the current decade. It’s the sort of thing you’d wish Rene Perez or Neil Johnson would make in America with their usual cast of bosomy belles.
That exactly Mainland China would take to doing what Italy, and the Philippines did thirty plus years earlier is hardly surprising. Like those countries in the Golden Age of exploitation Mainland China too has somewhat of a history in cheap action, and science fiction. That both genres would eventually converge was inevitable, as Mad Shelia so beautifully attests to. And what better way to consolidate China’s reign as the new exploitation Mecca than by imitating the most talked about and celebrated American property of recent memory, George Miller’s Oscar-winning Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and do it less than half as cheap and twice as insane? China has a long history of doing things better, faster and cheaper than everyone else. Not that Mad Shelia was conceived as an epic two-part saga. No, why wring money out of people once if you can rake in the bucks twice? Why did no one think of this before?
We’re not familiar with Lu Lei’s work prior to this, but he seems to have followed the usual trajectory of comedies, romance, and period costume wuxia before arriving here. A constant throughout his work is Fu Xiao (傅筱), apparently his muse. The two started working together on Super Girl (2015) (異能女友) and Fu Xiao was the star of his A Fox’s Story (2017-2019) trilogy. If that little wuxia saga evinced anything it’s that Lu Lei is a versatile enough director who seemingly can tackle any genre. To dispense with the obvious, Super Girl (2015) looked dreadful and Mad Shelia looks cheap (with the occasional beautifully composed scene) but at least semi-professional and competent. Lu Lei was about the last director you’d expect to go on direct something as enchanting looking as the A Fox’s Story (2017-2019) trilogy. Sure, A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) (倩狐傳) at times betrayed its budgetary limitations too, but by the first sequel that was rectified. Mad Shelia, on the other hand, did what Albert Pyun with the first two Nemesis (1992) sequels: cutting a two-hour feature down in the middle and selling both parts as separate chapters.
In an unspecified post-apocalyptic future, excessive pollution and unfettered environmental destruction has ravaged the world and turned it into a desolate desert hellscape. The population number has dwindled, and women are far and few. They are one of the few commodities that are traded in a newly-forged resource-scarce economy. Scavengers scour the arid wastelands and sell their wares on make-shift markets all while staying connected through the Paipai mobile app. Living sequestered away in a Lotus container in a region far away from civilization and the roving gangs that terrorize the highways is Xi Li-Ya (Fu Xiao) with her aging father, who she lovingly refers to as Old Man (Si Qin Chao Ke Tu). As to not arouse any suspicion her father has taught Xi Li-Ya (the jump to Celia or Shelia is easily made) to dress and act as a man, something which she obediently does. One night Xi Li-Ya decides to shower in the pouring rain, and is caught on photo by wandering vagrant Shadiang (Li Da). Shadiang has a run-in with the Wild One gang after he’s taunted by their leader Chang Mao (Shi Xiao-Fei) he sells them information about the alleged virgin he found. At a remote trade post he meets bounty hunter Bo En (Gu Quan) and learns that he’s ordered to find a cache of young virgins. Shadiang accidently lets it slip that he recently met a woman and both interlopers are brought before the court of One-Eyed (Li Yan), the iron-fisted duke of Oil City. Shadiang is promised two court maidens (Wang Yi and Wang Ru) if his information on the woman in the Northwestern region proves to be accurate.
One-Eyed’s overzealous military counselor (Liu Yong-Qi) and the duchess (Na Duo) agree that a virgin could be very profitable for Oil City in the long term. One-Eyed summarily orders Bo En and Ore City ruler Fei Biao (Tian Jin Xi-Ge) to capture said woman and bring her to Oil City for the purpose of breeding before anyone else can claim her as their own. Bo En arrives at the same time as Chang Mao and his numerous goons and in the resulting firefight Old Man is killed forcing the bounty hunter to flee with Xi Li-Ya in tow. The killing of her father pushes Xi Li-Ya over the brink of sanity. She discards her male attire, and transforms into the alluring, gun wielding angel of vengeance Mad Shelia. Bo En plans to take Mad Shelia to Oil City to collect his reward, but he has a change of heart when Chang Mao and his gang follow in hot pursuit and attack them at every turn. The two run into Shadiang again, and Mad Shelia forces him at knife-point to cooperate. Chang Mao has a run-in with the competing the Peach Blossom brothers Red Peach (Yue Han) and Spade (Wang Jia-Qiang) from Island Country. Meanwhile One-Eyed is none too pleased that Bo En has failed the job he was contracted for, and Oil City mercenaries are now hot on their tail. All things seem to point to an explosive clash between the Wild One gang, the Peach Blossom brothers, various Oil City and Ore City mercenaries - with Bo En, Shadiang, and Mad Shelia caught smack dab in the middle… The Virgin Road is littered with broken bodies.
The defining moment in Mad Shelia comes when Xi Li-Ya, enraged by the senseless slaying of her old father, throws caution to the wind and sheds the restricting unisex laborer attire that she had worn up to that point. Away with the long coat, the pants, the farmer’s cap hiding her long hair and that suffocating shawl. She even sports that half-cornrow haircut fashionable among Sino action movie heroines. You have to admire the commitment with which Fu Xiao throws herself into the part. Earlier she went fully nude for her outdoor shower scene (complete with Jesus Christ pose and with her back to the viewer, because this is Mainland China - where modesty is everything) and her Mad Shelia stripping scene is photographed with equal love and care. If you were to pinpoint where on-screen chemistry and sparks flew between Fu Xiao and director Lu Lei – this would be that moment. Up to that point Xi Li-Ya had been a passive spectator to everything happening around her, and it’s here that she’s becomes a participant. At 32 minutes in Xi Li-Ya becomes Mad Shelia.
Mad Shelia didn’t have the benefit of three decades of canon to draw from the way Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) had, and therefore it repurposes much of its plot while switching a few characters and plot points around along the way. It gender-swaps the two leads as to make it a post-apocalyptic retelling of the classic Northern and Southern dynasties period (420–589) folktale of Hua Mulan. Hell, Shadiang even calls Mad Shelia “the modern Mulan” towards the end of the third act. For comparison, Xi Li-Ya is both Mad Max and the five Wives rolled into one, Bo En stands in for Imperator Furiosa, and Shadiang is the closest thing to War Boy Nux. One-Eyed is the resident Immortan Joe, and he calls upon the united forces of the Peach Blossom brothers, the Wild One gang, and various Oil City and Ore City mercenaries – all of which are functional equivalents to The People Eater, The Bullet Farmer, and The Organic Mechanic. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) was a two-hour spectacle of vehicular combat and practical stunts. Mad Shelia has become legendary for its infamous slow-motion vehicular chases, complete absence of any stuntwork worthy of the name, and pyrotechnics that consist almost entirely of digital post-production effects. Those things tend to cost money, and that was one thing that Mad Shelia didn’t have much, or any, of. The Chinese already successfully ripped off Sylvester Stallone’s ongoing The Expendables (he in turn ripped it off from Cirio H. Santiago, but people tend to forget that) series in a parallel all-girl franchise. Just wait until they start ripping off Star Wars again.
Allegedly shot guerrilla-style with an enthusiastic cast and crew in Inner Mongolia over an eight-month period Mad Shelia is trash in the best Italian or Filipino tradition, helmed without interference from pesky things as unions, various regulating bodies, and the like. Once shooting wrapped the first hour, or spare, was released digitally as Mad Shelia: Virgin Road, and the sequel was provisionally dubbed Mad Shelia: By Vengeance and Mad Shelia: Vengeance Road before deciding upon the much simpler The Return Of the Shelia (希莉娅归来) prior to release. Suffice to say it’s clear why Mad Shelia was the biggest wang da – short for wangluo da dianying (网路大电影) – or webmovie sensation of the last couple of years. It’s a no-budget epic clearly intended as a two-hour movie, chopped somewhat crudely in half. As unscrupulous as the Italians and the Filipino were in the halcyon days (the 70s/80s) they never went this far in their imitations. Not only does Lu Lei goes as far as to copy the Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) poster art, he also has the gall to chop his Mad Shelia saga into separate hour-long episodes, just to sell them as stand-alone chapters. It’s one thing to imitate a popular American property, but it takes balls of steel to film a two-hour movie, chop it in two - and sell the second part of the movie as a “sequel”.