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Plot: demi-gods quarrel over dominion, until a semi-devil appears…

Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens Of Heavenly Mountains (or 新天龍八部之天山童姥 back at home, for brevity’s sake Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens hereafter) is a fantasy wuxia from that fertile decade-long period from the early eighties to, give or take, the mid nineties when Hong Kong dominated the genre and seemed to deliver one classic after the other. Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is not necessarily lesser known but certainly one of the lesser celebrated examples of the form. Which is strange because as far as sheer spectacle goes Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is absolute top of the line. What must have held this back from reaching a broader audience must have been the tome of a source novel which, admittedly, is labyrintine and convoluted to say the very least. Regardless, Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is a lavish Golden Harvest special effects extravaganza on an epic scale with ornate production design, massive sets, and hundreds of extras starring not one, not two, but three queens of Hong Kong cinema - one and all elegantly dressed and with impeccable make-up. Allegedly Jin Yong was none too pleased with Cheung Tan’s treatment of his beloved novel. And who can blame him? Even with a basic understanding of what the source material is supposed to be about Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is nigh impossible to follow.

The man most directly responsible for the Hong Kong fantasy wuxia revival was Vietnam-born Hark Tsui. His triptych of Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), and Green Snake (1993) breath new life into an old genre and rejuvenated it for an entire new generation. Hark’s prime works were based on classic Chinese literature and Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is no different. It is very, very loosely based on the 1963 Jin Yong novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Jin Yong was the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung, co-founder of the Hong Kong daily newspaper Ming Pao in 1959 and one of the "Three Legs of the Tripod of Wuxia" together with Gu Long and Liang Yusheng. From 1955 to 1972 Cha wrote 15 of his most celebrated works, earning him the reputation of the greatest and most popular wuxia author of all time. Aside from his wuxia novels Cha worked as an editor of literary works next to writing essays and non-fiction works on Chinese history. Many of his 15 novels were adapted at various points for the big and the small screen. Shaw Bros took the lead in adapting Yong novels resulting in films as The Brave Archer trilogy (1977-1981), The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (1978), A Deadly Secret (1980), Legend of the Fox (1980), The Emperor and His Brother (1981), The Sword Stained with Royal Blood (1982), Ode To Gallantry (1982), and Royal Tramp (1992). It wasn’t the first time the novel had been adapted for the big screen. Shaw Bros first attempted it with The Battle Wizard (1977) and producer Siu Sang tried it a few years later a second time with Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (1982). The adaptations vary in how faithful they are to the source material and in the case of Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens, it follows the general contours of the story chronicling the travails and adventures from two of the novel’s three central protagonists.

China, the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Demi-god Tsiu Yiu Tze is living in seclusion on the Piaomiao Peak of Mount Heaven in Central Asia with acolyte Li Chong Hoi (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia). He has been poisoned by his arch enemy Ting Chun Chou (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung) and is dying. In what will be his final piece of chess Tsiu Yiu Tze is looking for a suitable, virtuous candidate to transfer his divine essence into. The prospect of their master’s imminent demise sets off a fierce power struggle in Lingjiu Palace (靈鷲宮) between aspirants Mo Han Wan (Gong Li) and Li Chau Shui (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), both exiled members of the Sing Suk sect, who are and have been, embroiled in a bitter dispute over who is the rightful heir to the coveted Tin San the Eternally Youthful title. As Mo Han Wan and Li Chau Shui occupy themselves with quarreling over territory and dominion in an increasingly destructive manner in their consecutive confrontations; Ting Chun Chou is allowed the place and freedom to consolidate his power in the realm by annihilating whichever sects and smaller clans stand in his way. Futher complications arise for Mo Han Wan when her deep (and unrequited) platonic love for Li Chong Hoi corrupts her supernatural powers.

Caught up in the mystical power struggle is a young and ambitious underling by the name of Ah-tsi, or Purple (Sharla Cheung), who gets giddy from the idea of presiding over her sect, even though she’s too young to understand exactly what that entails. Purple is initially loyal to Ting Chun Chou, but eventually switches alliances once she realizes his profound malice. Green (Liu Kai-Chi), a second exiled Sing Suk sect underling, has her own aspirations to power. Meanwhile at the Shaolin Monastery in Henan province, China, young Buddhist monk and librarian Hui Chok (Frankie Lam) is instructed by the abbott to guard the sacred Yi-ken sutra scroll from any and all who might seize it for their own purposes. He’s also given a scroll and told to seek out the woman it depicts. Through no choice of his own Hui Chok becomes the recipient of Tsiu Yiu Tze’s mystical powers. When Purple, who had been nothing but a distraction to Ting Chun Chou, comes in possession of both of the Yi-ken sutra and the Buddhist monk that knows how to decipher it, the scales of power have tipped. The only way for Hui Chok to save the world and everybody in it is by uniting the quarreling sisters in one front against their far greater common foe, the warlord Ting Chun Chou.

Taiwanese actress Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia (林青霞) was an experienced veteran from over 100 movies and a Golden Harvest regular. Early on in her career Lin was a staple in Taiwanese dramas and romance, but towards the late 1970s she veered towards historical drama, war, and action productions, becoming a pillar in period wuxia in the eighties and nineties. She was a frequent collaborator with director Chu Yin-Ping in her earlier days before her reinvention under Hark Tsui with Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). She’s most remembered around these parts for the creaky ghost romance Ghost of the Mirror (1974), and Love of the White Snake (1978), as well as her cross-dressing roles in The Dream Of the Red Chamber (1978) and Peking Opera Blues (1986). New Dragon Gate Inn (1992) and Swordman II (1992) heralded her second career nexus. Lin was a multiple Taiwan Golden Horse Award nominee but didn’t win one such award until Red Dust (1990). Arriving at the end of her career Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is so kind to put Lin in a white wig, lest anyone forget that she was The Bride with White Hair (1993), in both the original and its sequel. Like many a silent film actress Lin conveys everything, and frequently much more, with her eyes than other actors do with dialog and gestures. Norman Tsui Siu-Keung was a Shaw Bros veteran who played a variety of roles in offerings as diverse as The Flying Guillotine (1975), The Mighty Peking Man (1977), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), Duel to the Death (1983), and Sea Wolves (1991). He partook in two earlier adaptations of the same Louis Cha novel with The Battle Wizard (1977) and Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (1982). Frankie Lam Man-Lung and Ku Tin-Yi on the other hand both had a completely unremarkable career trajectories.

Sharla Cheung Man (張敏) was a Jing Wong discovery that debuted in the cross-genre gem The Magic Crystal (1986) some eight years prior. As a fixture in fantasy wuxia and period costume martial arts Cheung (often using her Man Cheung alias) made appearances in Swordsman (1990), A Chinese Legend (1991), Legend Of the Liquid Sword (1992), Holy Weapon (1993), and The Buddhist Spell (1993). Prior Cheung had starred in other Louis Cha adaptations Royal Tramp (1992), and The Sword Stained With Royal Blood (1993). As Ah-tsi, or Purple, Cheung plays her usual role of the wily and duplicitous youngling. As the youngest of the cast (not considering the uncredited child actress playing Tin San the Eternally Youthful) Purple’s giddiness and giggliness seems all the more genuine. As the least versed in martial arts it was a sensible decision in casting Cheung in the role of Purple. The dynamic between her and Taoist monk Hui Chok is obviously meant to invoke the coupling of Joey Wong and Leslie Cheung in Hark Tsui’s infinitely superior A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). It never develops into anything substantial beyond an initial meet-cute. That there is no romantic subplot between Purple and Hui Chok is beneficial as it doesn’t add to the already convoluted main plot.

The odd woman out is twice Golden Rooster and the Hundred Flowers Awards winning Gong Li (巩俐), a respectable Singaporean-Chinese actress primarily known for drama and romance. Just the year before Li had starred in Farewell My Concubine (1993), the winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year, that was infamously banned in China. Li used her starpower to lambast the government-sanctioned repression and censorship from the People's Republic of China. Li is renowned for her prominent role in bringing Chinese cinema to Europe and the US. Despite her popularity and good reputation Li never ventured into Hollywood due to her not mastering the English language. Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005) and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (2006) being more of an exception in that regard. Gong Li allegedly savaged Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens on release, and swore to never do wuxia again. In more recent years Gong headlined the 2011 Chinese-Hong Kong remake of the Nancy Myers romcom What Women Want (2000) with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. Li made her long overdue return to fantasy wuxia with The Monkey King 2 (2016).

To say that Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens has a lot of ground to cover to get to its mainplot would be an understatement. The opening 5 to 10 minutes are confusing for anybody not vaguely familiar with the basic plot outline to Louis Cha’s epic novel. Names of sects, locations, characters (both good and bad) and martial arts spells are thrown about at such reckless pace that it takes notes just to differentiate between everyone. Granted, it wasn’t the easiest job for Cheung Tan to condense the Cha novel, or the portion which they chose, into screenplay form. With so many characters, places, allegiances, character relations, and supernatural powers to cover Cheung Tan has done an admirable job under the circumstances. Which doesn’t change the fact that it will be almost completely incomprehensible to anybody not familiar with the plot, especially since all of the novel’s character names have been changed. All principal players are accounted for: Tsiu Yiu Tze (Wuyazi), Li Chong Hoi (Li Qingluo), Li Chau Shui (Li Qiushui), Tianshan Tonglao (Tin Shan the All Powerful and Eternally Youthful, or Tin Shan Kiddy as some translations put it), Azhu (Green), and Azi (Purple) and the story’s central antagonist Ding Chunqiu (Ting Chun Chou). Needless to say exposition isn’t the screenplay’s strong suit and there’s not nearly enough time to properly establish each character, their relation to the others, and their individual objectives. Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is hard to follow when you’re familiar with the novel.

In spite of its labyrinthine screenplay Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens is at least pretty to look at. The production design matches that of a Shaw Brothers wuxia of the day and Golden Harvest obviously spared no expense. There are even a few stylistic nods to Hark Tsui’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Gong Li, Sharla Cheung Man and Ku Tin-Yi all wear colorful robes, gowns, and veils and the movie is bathes in Mario Bava and Dario Argento-esque hues of blue, red, and orange. At points it tends to get a bit too carried away with the blue tints and near-constant fogginess. The choreography by Poon Kin-Kwan is fast-paced with plenty of wirework, acrobatics, and gravity-defying physics and includes regular martial arts, sorcery as well as swordplay. The visual and optical effects are good more often than they’re not and the breakneck pace keeps things exciting. That Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens was afforded Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Gong Li, and Sharla Cheung Man as its three leads is a victory in and of itself. Win's Movie Production Limited - established just 4 year prior - might not have commandeered the kind of budgets that Golden Harvest but that didn’t stop both companies from working together. Both eventually became biggest film companies on the Hong Kong cinematic landscape when Shaw Bros went under. Obviously does Dragon Chronicles – The Maidens at no point approach the artistry and craftmanship of a Hark Tsui production, but maybe it should have.

Plot: They robbed her of her innocence. They will pay.

Thanh Sói - Cúc dại trong đêm (or Thanh Wolf - Wild Daisies in the Night, released internationally simply as Furies) is the long-awaited follow-up to Furie (2019). There always has existed a great synergy between the regional cinematic traditions of the more liberated (and Western inclined) Hong Kong, the isolationist Chinese mainland, the nearby Taiwan, and to a degree even the Philippines. Vietnam remains largely untrodden territory for us (unlike, say, Indonesia and Malaysia) but if Furies is any indication, it can easily compete with its Southasian counterparts. Furies is, for the lack of a better descriptor, a female-centric (and feminist) martial arts action movie on the model of Teresa Woo San’s classic Iron Angels (1987-1989) trilogy. Furies is to Furie (2019) what Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) was to The Terminator (1984). That is to say, it’s a thematic follow-up largely cut from the same cloth as the original that expands just enough upon the established formula to justify the retread. Furies knows its strengths and improves upon them with bigger production values and scope.

Let’s not mince words. Furie (2019) was one of the best martial arts movies that year and forever etched Veronica Ngo in our heart. Lê Văn Kiệt had made a modern classic but curiously he’s nowhere to be found here. You’d imagine that Văn Kiệt went back to the drawingboard as soon as Furie (2019) smashed its way to international fame. No such things seems to have happened. The creative force behind Furies is Ngô Thanh Vân (or Veronica Ngo as us Westerners know her). Ngo is known in the West mostly for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and remains mostly active in Vietnam. Ngo not only stars, but also produced, co-wrote, and directs. Where a good deal of direct sequels fail is that they insist upon not deviating from the established formula or format sometimes forcing beloved characters from previous installments into unlikely scenarios eventhough their story was either self-contained and already told. Furies shows its intelligence by realizing that Furie (2019) told the story of Hai Phượng and needed not to be told again. Instead Furies focuses upon expanding on the backstory of the villain and details the ascension of Thanh Sói to the throne of the Nam Ro cartel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Living on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City Bi (Đồng Ánh Quỳnh) was the victim of both a violent childhood and sexual assault. As a stray she survives by pickpocketing and life on the streets her made her tough. One day she runs into Jacqueline Hoang (Ngô Thanh Vân) who sees potential in Bi’s violent outbursts and penchant for casual destruction. Bi reluctantly agrees to live at her halfway house after hearing they share a common enemy, the Nam Ro cartel that operates every major crime branch in the city. At the house she lives with level-headed rock chick Thanh (Tóc Tiên) and sparkly party girl Hong (Rima Thanh Vy). They too are survivors of sexual assault and victims of a violent childhood. Aunt Lin considers her latest recruit a vital addition to her all-girl vigilante group The Wild Daisies and she teaches all three the ancient art of Vovinam and a regiment of special weapons training and infiltration techniques. Lin’s goal? To dismantle the Nam Ro cartel from the bottom up. The Wild Daisies are ordered to eliminate The Big Four at the New Century club: Long 'bồ đà' or "The Dealer" Long (Song Luân) who controls their narcotics distribution and has caused untold misery to so many, Tèo 'mặt sẹo' or "Scarface" Teo (Phan Thanh Hiền) who runs the cartel’s prostitution ring and their associated brothels, Sơn 'Lai' or "Half-Blood" Son (Gi A Nguyễn), personal bodyguard of "Mad Dog" Hai – and, finally, Hải 'Chó điên' or "Mad Dog" Hai (Thuận Nguyễn), head of the cartel. In the explosive finale the loyalties of The Wild Daisies are tested when it is revealed that not everybody’s motives are pure.

If you couldn’t tell from the plot summary above Furies is part of a decades-old cinematic tradition in Asia, the female-centric martial arts movie. Sure, it’s derivative, but its constituent parts are borrowed from some of the finest vintage 1980s Hong Kong Girls with Guns and wider Asian martial arts movies from back then and now. For starters it has the three-girl wrecking crew from Iron Angels (1987-1989). There’s the semi-mute stray that happens to be a savant martial artist from Chocolate (2008), the mainplot is lifted almost verbatim from Jing Wong’s Naked Weapon (2002) and Naked Soldier (2012) with a dash of Kick Ass Girls (2013) and some Vietnamese flavor. The Hong Kong and John Woo influence of Naked Killer (1992) is almost completely absent. Furies has that feminist undertone of Mistress Killer (2016) and Husband Killers (2017) (but is thankfully less blunt/obtuse about its political affiliation). Just like Extra Service (2017) this one prides itself on its retro 90s aesthetic of bright neon and pastel colors. As before Furies bathes in hues of green, blue, and red (somebody clearly knew their Mario Bava and Dario Argento, or simply continued what Lê Văn Kiệt started) and the 90s throwback is a good excuse to fill it with V-pop from back in the day. Thanh is the obligatory depressed grunge girl, Hong is the crazy rave chick prone to wearing outrageously revealing PG-13 outfits and bouncing off the walls, and Bi wears the expected tracksuits. Any movie that blasts 2 Unlimited’s ‘No Limit’ during a club scene always gets good points in our book. Paradisio’s ‘Bailando’ or the Vengaboys’ ‘Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!’ would’ve probably been too cheery for something this dark.

As always, less is usually more in these type of movies. Furie (2019) was minimal, calculated, and efficient and its story served largely as a preamble to get in as much high-octane action scenes as possible. Back once again is Arab-Frenchman Kefi Abrikh and his choreography and action direction continue to echo The Raid (2011) in sheer brutality and stark utilitarianism and the girls’ routines are in the Angela Mao tradition in that they are hard-hitting, versatile, and athletic. Đồng Ánh Quỳnh, Tóc Tiên, and Rima Thanh Vy underwent a year of rigorous martial arts training in preparation for their roles and it shows. Perhaps the best thing Veronica Ngo did was casting herself in the role of Aunt Lin in a twist straight out of the Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) playbook. It also changes the location from rickety shacks in backwater villages in the Vietnamese jungles to the neon-lit sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh City (Sài Gòn or Saigon as we know it). As a throwback to the Category III genre of old Furies has enough sex to please anyone yet Đồng Ánh Quỳnh, Tóc Tiên, and Rima Thanh Vy are never really sexualized or objectified. To her everlasting credit, Ngo herself takes more of a backseat here acting as a mentor both in front as well as behind the camera. Tóc Tiên is probably the best known of the three (or the most easily marketable) as she’s a former teen idol that turned to modeling and singing before becoming a television personality as a judge on The Voice of Vietnam and Vietnam Idol Kids. Rima Thanh Vy is the most conventionally beautiful of the three and in Western hands she would’ve been the central character. Some of the visual effects are a bit iffy, the bike chase is the most egregious and downright videogamey in part, especially in HD and 4k resolution. Other than that Furies looks and sounds spectacular and the increased budget clearly helped.

In the day and age of franchises, spin-offs, and series Furies is that rarest of sequels. It’s not so much a retread of an established formula but an expansion upon concepts of the original. Furie (2019) was a strong stand-alone feature and any sequels were not really expected (or even necessary). Regardless, Furies defies expectations by doing the same but doing it different enough to justify its existence. The retro 90s aesthetic is better realized than most of these throwbacks but it is, and remains, a gimmick. If Netflix decides to greenlight another sequel it’s time to look at how the events of Furie (2019) shaped Mai and the relation with her mother. In an ideal world mother and daughter would bundle forces to defeat a common enemy or a larger threat looming over them. Preferably without any aesthetic gimmicks. Let’s hope Maria (2019) and BuyBust (2018) eventually receive a similar treatment. Furie (2019) killed and Furies, simply put, effortlessly and elegantly kills again.