Directed by Wei Lo
Starring Cheng Pei-pei, Hua Yueh, Feng Tien
There’s a scene where the heroine Yun enters a tavern and all the patrons look up from their tea and wine and my heart sank a little. What are they seeing? What are they thinking? There’s no spark, no grin threatening on Yun’s face at the realization she’s the baddest guy in the room. The problem is that Yun is played by Cheng Pei-pei, and this is a woman who doesn’t just walk into a tavern. Her debut character, Golden Swallow in Come Drink with Me, exuded such an aura of mystique, a gravity I’m missing in The Shadow Whip. What we have, then, is a study in functional direction, and how imprecision can be ruinous.
My journey with The Shadow Whip began with something called Zorro’s Black Whip, a Republic serial from 1944 starring Linda Stirling as a masked, whip-wielding gunslinger. After the false start that she’s actually taking up her brother’s mantle as the Black Whip (this having nothing to do with Zorro), soon she’s horse-riding, shooting, and whipping against the bad guys and periodic undercranking, just the same as her predecessor (and likely with the same stunt double). It’s a delightful surprise, as I’ve always felt that the western is one of the most hostile genres toward female characters. Not like kung fu, right? I then remembered there’s a Chinese equivalent to this serial, and that, like Stirling playing a character nicknamed the Black Whip, it’s probably “Cheng Pei-pei as the Shadow Whip,” or “Cheng Pei-pei wields the Shadow Whip.”
Assuming the latter case, I wanted to see how the whip functioned in the great armory of kung fu cinema. I’d already seen great things in the hands of Michelle Yeoh in Magnificent Warriors. More lasso than bullwhip, she was wrapping people up and zinging them into the ceiling. Essentially, her style was “cat’s cradle,” looping another limb with each move. Both the action and the depiction of the action were deliberate and rhythmic, and she fought small groups of people one at a time, until the big war sequences later on. By contrast, The Shadow Whip has brawls with dozens of combatants, which makes for impressive but unspecific spectacle. Yun is spinning and whipping as the great mob is washing in and out. While Yeoh’s choreography with the whip felt narrative, structured logically and toward exclamation points, the action in The Shadow Whip will only occasionally peak with a lashed blade sent flying into an unsuspecting chest, or what seemed to be a cinch chopping off a limb, like in The Bride with White Hair.
In further contrast, Yun is rarely alone in these fight scenes. She’s joined by a possible rival, Wang, and her uncle Feng, a man of possible villainy. This is where all the movie’s problems coalesce. Not only is Feng, over Yun, the titular Shadow Whip, Yun never really feels in control of the fighting, or of anything. The Shadow Whip is kind of a mystery story, with the onset of bandits accusing Feng of being a notorious outlaw suddenly throwing his moral character into question. Yun wonders whether or not he’s the man she knew, and I’m already overstating it. She doesn’t wonder, but rather insists he’s innocent at every opportunity and then some. There is no inner conflict, and because we don’t learn the truth until a late reveal, Feng purposely forgoes exhibiting character altogether. People are fighting and we don’t know why yet, and this is fatal, because when we’re not aware of the stakes, not interested in why the action is happening, our attention drifts to elementary concerns, over pulled punches and the integrity of wirework.
Unfortunately, the reveal is only so interesting, and even sort of baffling. Not for its impact on the plot but in fact for how little it changes things. I’m reminded of the story twist in Death Wish III, that now the vigilante is working for the cops, but Charles Bronson will still shoot several people and nothing is different. As you might imagine, The Shadow Whip ends with the good guys fighting the bad guys, and no amount of twists incumbent upon a detective story could’ve altered that course. Granted, the nature of the climax offers Cheng Pei-pei another notch on her acting belt. She may not be as badass as I’d like, but she does turn in a good performance, breaking down in tears and here, frantically accusing with wild eyes and pointed finger.
It’s the little things, and there’s a lot to appreciate about The Shadow Whip. It’s never boring, and I love the snowy setting, apparently filmed in Japan. While the camerawork is as generous with coverage as a modern Hollywood film, what American cinematography lacks is the intricacy of Chinese architecture ever providing dimension, and even the shapeless battles with simply too many combatants are kept framed by pillars. There are also at least two moments of probably unintentional comedy that had me doubled over: when Wang throws a glass shield at a dodging-averse bandit perched on a wall, and when the villain actually does the shifty eyes thing. It remains a lightweight experience, uncommitted to the legendary setting or the fullness of characters who can be as rich and cool as their fighting prowess suggests. After the villain is defeated, the heroes set out on horseback for their next adventure. Seems to me their lives were defined by that previous business, and if we don’t otherwise know what motivates them or what they do, what could possibly come next?