Judge William Lee needs a blurb.
Her defiance changed a nation.
Director Herman Yau gave Chinese cinema fans the prequel to the martial arts hero in Ip Man: The Legend is Born and he dips into the back-story well again, so to speak, with The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake. This is the story of China's first feminist revolutionary from her childhood to her martyrdom.
Facts of the Case
In 1907, a Chinese governor is assassinated and government officials swiftly try to root out the insurgents. Soldiers force their way into the Datong school for sports teachers where Qiu Jin (Huang Yi) is the principal. After some fierce fighting, Qiu Jin is arrested and tried as a revolutionary. She is subjected to torture in an effort to extract the names of other conspirators. Awaiting the judgment of the court, Qiu Jin remembers her childhood and the events that charted the course of her life.
Jackie Chan's 1911, which told the history of various revolutionary leaders throwing off the shackles of an ineffectual and corrupt dynasty, opened with the execution of a woman whose story was not referenced at all in the rest of the movie. Those who know a little early twentieth century Chinese history may have understood who that character was but I surely did not. The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake isn't really a prequel to 1911—it's merely coincidental that two films this year tell stories about the dawn of modern China. Yau's movie finishes exactly at the point where Chan's movie began.
Qiu Jin (1875-1907) was born to a well-to-do family but she resisted the trappings of traditional culture. Refusing to submit to the practice of foot binding that would make her a desirable female but leave her practically crippled, Qiu Jin insisted on being educated like the boys. She learned to read and write from her father and also practiced martial arts. As an adult, she traveled to Beijing and Japan where she met like-minded men and women. Upon returning to China, Qiu Jin gained fame as a poet and an advocate for women's rights. Believing China's future depended on the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, she secretly trained revolutionaries at the Datong school. Her cover is blown when an assassination plot, headed by her cousin, goes off ahead of schedule.
The story of The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake is fairly straightforward as it centers on the life of one person. There are many characters that will be more noteworthy for viewers with some knowledge of Chinese history but not knowing the unique back-stories of the supporting players isn't a problem here. However, the non-linear technique the filmmakers have employed, regularly calling up flashbacks to the protagonist's earlier years, is used rather clumsily and often spoils the tension of scenes set in the present. Though there isn't a lot of suspense since the heroine's fate is telegraphed right at the start.
There are several very busy and boisterous action sequences to interrupt the drama. They are expertly staged and succeed at exploiting the sense of space in the location as well as convincing us the actors are really engaged in frenetic combat. The action consists of both gunplay and martial arts. Some stunts use wirework but it's done to enhance an effect rather than to make the action fantastical. If camera speed tricks were used, they're quite well hidden. My only quibble with the action scenes is that the violence is mostly bloodless. While the fight choreography is highly energetic, the visceral impact of the body count is negated by the tidiness of the violence.
Huang Yi's performance as the titular Qiu Jin is appropriately detached for the complexity of her character. Qiu Jin is impulsively headstrong but sometimes not entirely confident. She can come off a little cold, like when she decides to leave her children to dedicate herself to the revolution, but here is a woman who is choosing a very unorthodox set of priorities. As for her fighting skills, while it never looks like she's in real danger, Huang Yi convincingly participates in some energetic stunt work.
The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake (Blu-ray) is a handsome if not stellar high definition release. The picture sports brilliant colors that really show off the costumes and art direction. The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC image doesn't reveal fine details to the razor sharp extent of some Blu-ray Discs but the clean transfer and reasonably sharp rendering is a satisfying treatment of the cinematography.
The Blu-ray Disc offers uncompressed Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio in the original Mandarin and a completely disposable English dub. The Mandarin surround mix is substandard. Dialogue emanates solely from the center speaker while the surrounds are engaged only for music and sound effects during the big set pieces. There were a handful of times when I heard some crackling from the surround channels when low-end sound effects were intended. As for the English dub, I couldn't bear to listen to it for more than a few minutes. Funimation does a superb job when they translate their anime titles. They either didn't try for this one or they kept an existing English dub that had been recorded already by another company.
The only extra specific to the movie contained on the disc is a 23-minute making-of featurette. It contains some footage of the crew at work filming the action sequences and I think there are glimpses of scenes and stunts that weren't used in the final cut. Several members of the cast also sit down to say a few words about their characters. This set comes with a DVD copy replicating the contents of the Blu-ray Disc. It's worth noting that the DVD copy is labeled Disc One and the Blu-ray Disc is Disc Two, so perhaps the latter is actually a copy of the former.
A quick search on the Internet informs me that Qiu Jin is considered a hero of China and there is even a museum dedicated to her. This movie tells the most dramatic parts of her life in a concise manner but never allows the viewer to fully warm up to the character. Qiu Jin seems driven by her ideals rather than her humanity. It doesn't help that the movie is content from the start to just wait for the sword to fall on her. Viewers will still gain some historical value from the movie and the action set pieces are exciting spectacles staged for PG sensibilities.
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