THE JADE FACED ASSASSIN (1970) is yet another female swordplay adventure from Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio, but one distinguished from so many others by virtue of its eventful, unpredictable plot line, breathtaking location photography, and lead performance by Lily Ho that set a new standard for female-fighters-dressed-as-men-themed martial arts films. Lily plays Siao Lu Er, who was separated from a twin in infancy and raised by the motley crew of villains in Happy Valley, each of whom imparts his or her particular kung fu style to the girl. When she turns 18, she's good enough to beat them all and heads out on her own, dressed in male garb, on a mission of revenge laid out for her by Uncle Lian (Ku Feng), the one who'd rescued her from certain death in the opening scene when an intra-familial dispute left her real parents dead.
A lot happens in the film's running time and a plot summary wouldn't do it justice. Let's just say that Lily winds up mixing it up with just the right crew of characters to ultimately resolve all disputes even though none are initially aware of their real identities. The audience knows (or can figure out) far more than the characters do, which makes for genuine suspense and gives the viewer a real stake in the action. In the course of it, Lily latches onto a fellow called Hero Chang (Cheng Pei-shan) and correctly suspects him of great wrongdoing and then sets out to prove it. In the course of it she clashes with a young swordsman named Hua Yu Chun (Kao Yuen) whose relationship to her becomes obvious to the viewer long before the characters learn of it.
Lily was not one of the Shaw studio's greatest fighting stars. (She was more accustomed to contemporary dramatic roles or period courtesan ones.) However, she displays a great affinity with her character here and understands how to put over the fact that she's a girl masquerading as a guy. She moves in just the right way and addresses others and interacts with them with the easy familiarity of a cocky young man. She gets it right in a way so few of the actresses who played these roles did. We don't automatically think, "But it's obvious she's a girl!" She also gets to do a lot of action here, mostly running around, trailing bad guys, hiding under things, leaping out of windows and up to rooftops and such. There really isn't as much fighting action as there should be in a film like this and what there is isn't the most intricately staged. Still, there is so much movement among the characters and at such a fast pace that we really don't mind.
Another key factor of the film's appeal is the visual spectacle of some of the most unusual and picturesque mountain locations I've yet seen in a Shaw Bros. film. And they clearly took the main actors out on location for this action. The fight finale on a majestic mountain top with incredible views all around is quite amazing. I should add that the studio work is equally good, with an early segment in Happy Valley making excellent use of the Shaw studio's expert interior work, creating a setting of a rundown no-man's town of criminal fugitives that's quite striking and atmospheric.
The scenes of Lily in Happy Valley reminded me of THE PROUD TWINS (1979), in which Fu Sheng played a very similar character raised by unsavory characters. So I checked my notes and realized this one is indeed based on the same Ku Lung story that PROUD TWINS is based on. But there are enough significant plot changes to make the viewing experiences quite different.
Oh, and despite the title, I couldn't spot a single Jade Faced Assassin anywhere.
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