23 May 2015 | BrianDanaCamp
Action film set in wartime China, loosely based on real events
LADY KARATE is the title under which this film can be found on YouTube. It is not to be confused with the kung fu film, LADY CONSTABLES, the film that both of the previous reviews on this page (by Blake Matthews and otakugrrl69) are discussing. That film stars Angela Mao and Chia Ling, the two greatest kung fu divas of the 1970s, and has its own IMDb page, where my review of it appears. LADY KARATE, which is also known as SPY RING AT KOKURYUKAI, stars Chia Ling as a real historical figure, a Manchurian princess and member of the Ching dynasty royal family who went by the Japanese name, Yoshiko Kawashima, after being educated in Japan and aligning herself with the Japanese war effort in Manchuria. She was a cousin of the famous "Last Emperor," Pu Yi, and was instrumental in getting him to resume the throne in Manchuria in 1934 as a puppet emperor for the Japanese. Under the name, "Eastern Jewel," she's a character in Bernardo Bertolucci's historical drama, THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), and she's also a significant supporting character in Ian Buruma's novel about actress Shirley Yamaguchi, "The China Lover" (2008). In addition, KAWASHIMA YOSHIKO (1990), a straight biopic, was made in Hong Kong by Golden Harvest and starred Anita Mui, a film I've also reviewed on this site. Finally, there's also a new biography entitled, "Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, The Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army," by Phyllis Birnbaum.
LADY KARATE (1976) focuses on Yoshiko's mission to persuade Pu Yi to leave his comfortable existence in Tientsin and journey back to Manchuria to be the figurehead ruler of Manchukuo under the direction of the Japanese occupiers. She has ten days to finish the job or she'll be obligated to commit hara-kiri at the end of it, since she offered to do as much if she fails. She has enemies among the Japanese military who want to maintain control over Pu Yi themselves, as well as enemies among the Chinese patriots in Tientsin, including a group of students and newspapermen. One of the Chinese, played by Chang Yi, is a rather mysterious figure who has some connection to the royal family but has a public persona as a loser and a wastrel, yet runs around at night as an anti-Japanese masked avenger called the Plum Bandit. I never quite understood exactly who he was or what his goal was regarding the Emperor. At some points he seems to be opposing Yoshiko and at others they seem to be on the same side.
Chia Ling has quite a number of beautiful costume changes and is even dressed up in full geisha mode in a couple of scenes where she is seen managing a brothel in Tientsin. This is quite a welcome change of pace for the actress who usually played kung fu-savvy village girls in more traditional Chinese settings. Curiously, the girls in the brothel all appear to be Japanese, which seems kind of odd for that time and place. Nor is it adequately explained why Yoshiko's been given temporary charge of it when she's supposed to be on a larger mission. She has a couple of love scenes with Japanese military spies. The semi-nudity in these scenes, where we don't see the actress's face, leads me to believe that a body double was employed for Chia Ling.
Several action scenes are added to the mix and my guess is they were all a product of the writer's imagination. Chia Ling fights in only two of them. Early on, still in Japan, she's alone when attacked by Japanese agents for the military and fights them all off with an umbrella. Much later, while dressed as a geisha and working in the brothel, she helps spirit the Emperor away while using a sword and a knife to fight off Japanese swordsmen who have attacked the place. Other agents are involved in this fight as well. It's the more impressive of her two fight scenes and if there are any action highlights in the film, this one is it. There's also a full-scale military battle between Japanese soldiers and Chinese patriots in a forest that's presumably along the route to the university which the soldiers have been ordered to burn down. At the end, there's another gun battle between the Chinese and the Japanese, this time on the Tientsin waterfront, over the fate of Pu Yi.
None of this seems to have much historical accuracy, nor does it make much dramatic sense. For instance, when the Japanese soldiers launch their attack on the university it was all to divert the Chinese patriots so that the Japanese agents could take Pu Yi away in the commotion. Yet the agents make no effort to do so, nor do they explain why they don't. Instead, the chief military agent goes off on a riverside picnic with Yoshiko when they're supposed to be getting Pu Yi out of the city. Confusion reigns in a lot of scenes like this. As for historical details, I noticed cameras, a radio and a 1970s model car that did not belong in this period setting.
The only other major actors I recognized in the cast are Chang Yi as the aforementioned Chinese patriot and Kam Kong as the head of the Japanese military spy unit in China. Some of the other actors are familiar faces from other kung fu films. There are two more beautiful actresses in the cast, in addition to Chia Ling. Sally Chen, aka Sha-Li Chen, plays a guest of the royal family who turns out to be a Chinese patriot working undercover. The other plays Momoko, Yoshiko's Japanese personal assistant, and I'm unable to identify her.
This is not a particularly good film, but it is worth seeking out on YouTube if you're as fascinated by the subject as I am and if, like me, you're a devoted fan of Chia Ling.