Whatever you do, don't discard The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake [Jian Hu Nu Xia Qiu Jin] as just another martial arts epic. Herman Yau's latest film may be firmly grounded in the martial arts genre, but there is definitely more than meets the eye here. Yau really outdid himself with this film (I'll just refer to it as Woman Knight from here on) and finally delivers a film that's on par with his potential. That alone should be reason enough to give this film the benefit of the doubt.
Yau is a remarkable director. He's been at it for 20 years now and he used that time to build up a commendable selection of memorable films (Ebola Syndrome, Rebellion, The Untold Story), but somehow he never really managed to deliver a properly polished product. While most of his films are definitely worth watching, they either lacks differentiating characteristics or that crucial extra layer of polish to make them truly recommendable. In the end, there was always something that held me back from truly appreciating his work.
With Woman Knight Yau finally reaches his true potential. He obviously benefited from directing the Yip Man (Ip Man, Ip Man 2) prequel, using that experience to create a more immersive historical universe and more entertaining fight sequences. But the real perk of Woman Knight is the hero of Yau's film. While female martial artists aren't exactly novel (think The Heroic Trio), this is the first time I've actually watched a film about Chinese feminism. Coupled with some impressive martial arts follies, it turns Qiu Jin into a real strong and powerful character.
Woman Knight follows the life of Qiu Jin (a real historical figure), who finds herself pondering about her life when she is accused and trialled as a revolutionary. Lengthy flashbacks give a summarized overview of Qui Jin's upbringing (educated to write and defend herself) and the events that led to her inevitable demise. Not so much a political activist as a front-runner for equal rights of women, she is deemed a political threat by the Qing empire and she's dealt with in a fitting manner.
Visually Woman Knight is definitely a step up from Yau's earlier films. The film can't compete with excessive big budget affairs (like Ip Man, Ye Yan or Bodyguards And Assassins) but holds its own pretty well amongst other martial arts epics. Lush sets, strong camera work (especially during the fight sequences) and proper lighting give the film a very polished feel.
Most of the tracks on the soundtrack are rather generic in nature, but there are a few musical pieces that transcend the genre clichés and give the film a more unique and compelling atmosphere. Not enough to praise the soundtrack as something truly special, but definitely worth mentioning as films like these are often very (very!) traditional in their choice and use of music. At least Herman Yau sets a good example for other directors.
Yi Huang is quite the revelation in Woman Knight. She picks up the role of Qiu Jin with deceptive ease and manages to give her a very natural and believable flair, even though the film is clearly a romantization of Qui Jin's real life. Huang enjoys good support from the secondary characters, Anthony Wong (a Yau regular) in particular plays a strong part in Jin's court defense. Lam Suet (another Yau regular) is also perfect as Huang's adversary.
In the end Herman Yau's versatility really benefits Woman Knight. His experience in exploitation cinema increases the effect of certain scenes without making them appear out of place, the fight sequences are actually some of the better ones I've seen in a while and on a dramatic level the film impresses just as much. In the process Yau lost some of his raw power, but he makes up for that with a very compelling and well-balanced film.
While this film could be perfect for Yau's international career, Woman Knight seems to be slipping by international audiences without the proper buzz. A real shame because Yau is clearly still developing himself as a director (and still getting better at it). The result is a film that neatly balances drama and martial arts entertainment and talks about something that usually deserves very little attention in Chinese/Hong Kong (action) films. Fans of Yau should expect a cleaner and less gritty adoption of his trademark style, other people should be aware that Woman Knight can be a bit more direct than other, more typical martial arts epics. Recommended.