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Plot: Xi Li-Ya vows to wreak havoc on One-Eyed for killing her father.

The Return Of the Shelia (希莉娅归来) is the second part - more of a continuation rather than a true sequel - of Mad Shelia: Virgin Road (瘋狂希莉婭) (2016) from a year before. Since it came from the same eight-month shooting as the original there isn’t much, if any, difference between the two. Instead of having bigger set pieces, wilder chases, and more explosive action The Return Of the Shelia is… well, more of the same. It’s the second half of the story that should have been part of the first, but for some unfathomable reason never was. Mad Shelia (2016) didn’t end on a cliffhanger; it abruptly ended in the middle of the story and called it a day. Fu Xiao finally gets to do something in the movie bearing her name, and Lu Lei at long last manifested that he was not nearly the hack his early work might make him out as. All of which a long way of saying that The Return Of the Shelia is not only the epic conclusion to the not-so-epic Mad Shelia mini-saga, but probably Mainland China’s most enduring webmovie classic of the past several years.

The Far East has always had a rich and storied history in exploitation filmmaking. Once budgets in Hong Kong dwindled a cotton industry sprung up in Taiwan, and Malaysia. Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia themselves all had regional exploitation industries that spawned a veritable slew of classics across genres themselves. Mainland China, with its government-mandated censorship and the restrictive laws enforced by the Film Bureau, lagged behind for a long time for exactly those reasons. As far as we’re aware the wangluo da dianying (网路大电影) or webmovie is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that grew parallel with streaming services and their need for content. The 2010s heralded an exploitation resurgence of sorts as now movies were produced fast and cheap for streaming services and delivered straight to the customer without any middleman. With box office returns no longer a concern this meant that every niche imaginable could be catered to as long as the movies in question were beholden to the law. Where the West relies on DIY and underground filmmaking the East is, once again, ahead of the curve – pioneering a practice that hasn’t caught on in the West yet.

After escaping an all-out assault from roving gangs in the desert Mad Shelia (Fu Xiao), reformed bounty hunter Bo En (Gu Quan), and madly babbling vagrant Shadiang (Li Da) continue their journey to Oil City. Meanwhile, as the smoke clears and the chaos of the assault subsides, it dawns upon Ore City ruler Fei Biao (Tian Jin Xi-Ge) and the Peach Blossom brothers Red Peach (Yue Han) and Spade (Wang Jia-Qiang) from Island Country that Chang Mao (Shi Xiao-Fei) and his Wild One gang have taken to chasing Mad Shelia for their own gain. The two parties decide that perhaps they’re better off working with instead of against each other. All three parties run into One-Eyed (Li Yan) and his armed forces. He suggests that all gangs put their vendettas and territorial disputes aside, and form an alliance in pursuit of their common goal: Mad Shelia. The Wild One gang takes the lead, and the newly forged union runs into an ambush. A clash follows and One-Eyed executes all of his former allies in cold blood. After an extended chase and the inevitable explosive confrontation that follows Mad Shelia, Bo En, and Shadiang emerge victorious. Once arrived in Oil City capital the Duchess (Na Duo) says that the title of Duke should rightly go to Bo En. He, however, passes the title onto virtuous Shadiang believing him to restore justice and order in the city. Shadiang meanwhile is happy he finally gets to enjoy the company of the Duchess, and the two dimwitted but comely court maidens (Wang Yi and Wang Ru) he so long pined after.

As this is just the second half of material shot during the same eight-month period that birthed Mad Shelia (2016) the same critiques apply. A production like this would have benefitted tremendously from live pyrotechnics and old school prosthetic/practical effects. There’s an almost Eurociné and Neil Breen quality to some of the shoot-outs, the wounds, and the props. You don’t truly appreciate the level of care and attention to detail that went into the weapon replicas that Peter Jackson manually produced for his horror comedy debut Bad Taste (1987) until you see what they use here. The rare prosthetic effect used for bodily carnage is uniformly and universally cheap, and thankfully the camera never dwells on them long enough. While the usage of digital effects is understandable from an economic point of view it still doesn’t change that most of them usually have an adverse effect instead. The few explosions that do occur would have been so much better with actual pyrotechnics, and the firefights feel stilted and miss the gravitas, the weight, and the impact they need to impress. Vehicular damage, smoke, fire, and just about everything that cost yuans is done digitally. The slow-motion chases are legendary by this point, and you know a movie is in trouble when Angel Warriors (2013) and Ameera (2014) become the better options.

Not that Lu Lei hasn’t redeemed himself since the Mad Shelia days but it remains a sore point. This could have been so much bigger and better. Everything just looks one or two several paygrades below what it should’ve probably been. Fu Xiao does her best with what little writer Yu Huan-Huan gives her. The action direction from Lei Zhen-Dong is, well, non-existent – and it’s no surprise he has never worked again. Few hand-to-hand sequences occur, and when they do they possess no sense of weight or scale. The “welcome to my private warehouse” scene is a direct abridged re-creation of the corresponding scene in the Mexico segment from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The poster art is misleading in that it makes The Return Of the Shelia looks much larger than it actually is. Not that it’s the first time that an exploitation movie is guilty of that particular offense, the genre is littered with larger-than-life promises, misleading poster art, and deceiving promo trailers across several decades. The thing is that China normally does this kind of thing far better. The HK actioners that are Mad Shelia’s most logical precursors also often were cheap affairs, but they always had that something. Outside of the novelty factor Mad Shelia has very little going for it, except Fu Xiao. And it’s unfortunate that she has so little to do here. This is very much an instance of Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995) and Nemesis 3: Time Lapse / Prey Harder (1996) all over again. Mad Shelia could’ve been something – but apparently that wasn’t in the cards.

And what did Lu Lei do after the excursion into Mongolia that was Mad Shelia? Well, he directed the Fox-Spirit trilogy. First, he did A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) or a budget re-enactment of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and followed it up with the two-part A Fox's Story (2019) mini-saga. While that was a counterfeit version of Tsui Hark’s big budget fantasy wuxia The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) it too was guilty of the same sins as Mad Shelia and its sequel. For hitherto undisclosed reasons A Fox's Story (2019) too was awkwardly cut into two chapters. And just like Mad Shelia (2016) they don’t make a lick of sense if you happen to see them out of order. A constant in Lu Lei’s recent endeavors is Fu Xiao, and his later works give her far more to work with. She’s far better in A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) and A Fox's Story (2019) than she’s here. While The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) has its own problems, A Fox's Story (2019) is an almost scene-per-scene re-enactment of the Tsui Hark production, and it’s admirable in the sense that somebody saw it fit to imitate it on such a minuscule budget. It’s the sign of the times possibly. There’s nothing that Mainland China can’t imitate on a fraction of the budget and with none of the talent. If Mad Shelia and The Return Of the Shelia are testament to anything, it’s that exploitation is alive and kicking in 21st century China. Here’s hoping we get a no-budget Disney Star Wars (2015-2019) imitation soon.

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 Sheliathe 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”.