1981 | Taiwan
Director: Pearl Cheung Ling
AKA: 狼女白魔 (Lang nu bai mo)
To the martial arts cinema purist, the phrase “made in Taiwan” doesn’t exactly stand as a guarantee of quality. It was Hong Kong, after all, that played home to the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest brands, as well as the galaxy of first-rate talent that they attracted. Taiwan, on the other hand, appeared to have a lot of anonymous fields and quarries in which fights could be staged without any risk of expensive props or set elements being damaged. But what Taiwan’s martial arts cinema lacked in terms of budgets and top-notch performers, it made up for in crazy. In other words, while the fighters in an old-school Taiwanese kung fu movie were less likely to be as skillful as those in, say, a Liu Chia-Lang film, they were also much more likely to be wearing mangy gorilla suits.
There are certain performers who serve as a kind of signpost, indicating whether or not a Taiwanese martial arts film is likely to deliver on those elements I’m looking for. In fact, there are three actresses in particular, each of whose presence in a movie exponentially increases its likelihood of being head-scratchingly bizarre. You could refer to them as the high priestesses of Taiwanese weird fu. One of these priestesses is Polly Shang Kwan, who, despite tony beginnings as a discovery of King Hu, would, by the late 1970s, be fighting giant rubber octopuses and projectile sharks with endearing verve in movies like Little Hero and Zodiac Fighters. Another is Lam Siu-Lau, who played young boy heroes in a series of kiddie-oriented fantasy wuxia films rich with animal costumes, heavy metal coiffure, and insanely profligate wire-assisted flying effects. And then there is “Pearl” Cheung Ling.
Cheung Ling came to fame as a star of the popular Taiwanese television serial Bodyguard, which had 256 episodes that aired almost nightly between 1974 and 1975. When that show ended, series producer Chen Ming-Hua set out to bring a feature version of Bodyguard to the big screen. The result was the 1976 film China Armed Escort, which marked Cheung Ling’s debut as a cinematic leading lady. Unfortunately, the film failed to meet expectations at the box office. Cheung Ling and Chen Ming-Hua soldiered on, making six more features together over the next several years, all of which featured Cheung Ling as their star.
During this time, Cheung Ling proved her merits sufficiently to go on to star as the heroine of films not produced and directed by Chen Ming-Hua. Many of these built upon the image of her that China Armed Escort established, that of a swordswoman with supernaturally assisted abilities. This served Cheung Ling well, for, unlike some of her female contemporaries in kung fu cinema, like Shang Kwan or Angela Mao, she apparently lacked the martial arts training that would make her convincingly formidable as a fighter without the aid of wires, cartoon hand rays, and other special effects.
But it was not until the early ’80s that Cheung Ling would write herself indelibly into the history of martial arts cinema — albeit in, perhaps, very tiny writing, and maybe just as a footnote, if undeservedly so. It was at this time that she took it upon herself to produce, write, direct, and star in a pair of films that would make her that rarest of rarities in the male-dominated kung fu genre: not only a female director, but a female auteur. One of those films, Dark Lady of Kung Fu, was a remake of the Shaw Brothers’ Mandarin language film The Black Butterfly (itself a period remake of Chor Yuen’s The Black Rose) that was rendered so claustrophobic by its tiny and repetitively used sets that it is barely watchable.
But the other film was one that would cement Cheung Ling’s place as, not just a hero of her gender within the limited world of martial arts, but also as the creator of a true landmark in weird wuxia. Cheung Ling’s Wolf Devil Woman is an adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s popular 1958 wuxia novel Baifa Monu Zhuan, which has served as the basis for numerous films over the years, likely the most famous being Ronny Yu’s The Bride With White Hair. But, shared source material aside, Wolf Devil Woman is worlds away from Yu’s masterpiece, being every bit as crude as Bride is elegant. However, it’s in its combination of poverty-driven minimalism and lysergic surrealism that Wolf Devil Woman carves out its own unique niche.
From its opening moments, Wolf Devil Woman gives you a vivid taste of what’s in store, with a brief, hyperactively edited sequence filled with barely glanced shock visuals, stock footage of thunder and lightning, and weird rudimentary special effects. When it’s over, what your brain decides it has seen is a scene of ritual sacrifice in which a guy in a sparkly, skull-and-crossbones emblazoned KKK hood’s stabbing of a wax voodoo doll results in gouts of cell-animated blood spouting out of the torso of a crucified man. We’ve also, we realize after the fact, caught a glimpse of one of the hooded guy’s monstrous minions, whose monstrousness is accomplished by the wearing of a store-bought rubber fright mask.
Also among the spectators of this, um, spectacle is a young couple with baby, who look very much like they’ve walked into the wrong party and are none too happy about it. These are the parents of our protagonist-to-be, and the wife is, in fact, played by Cheung Ling herself. The hooded fellow is obviously the villain of the piece, Red Devil, and this couple is a pair of disciples who are only just now realizing that being a follower of the Red Devil entails quite a bit more than the new age healing rituals and spa days promised in the brochure. And so they flee, making their way across the snowy mountain terrain that will provide most of Wolf Devil Woman’s most opulent visuals, as well as most of what scant relief there is from its overall cramped and set-bound look.
Unfortunately, the fright mask guy and a team of high-flying, red-clad ninjas are close on the heels of the fleeing family. Cornered, the parents decide to sacrifice themselves for the life of their child, and so stab themselves with their swords, drenching the baby with their blood — the stated purpose for this being that the blood will hopefully keep warm and “preserve” her. And note that this is clearly an actual baby that we’re seeing showered with gore here, meaning that some parent signed off on having crew members of Wolf Devil Woman spray stage blood in their infant child’s face.
This accomplished, the parents fall to their knees and begin to repeatedly and in unison slam their heads into a snow bank, eventually setting off an avalanche. Once the bodies of parents and child alike have disappeared under the snow, a pack of wolves, played by dogs running in slow motion, appear over the horizon to chase off fright mask and his ninjas. The “wolves” then proceed to dig up the bodies of the young couple, after which, in a nice introductory example of Wolf Devil Woman’s tendency to gleefully indulge in wanton extra-narrative gore, they tear hungrily at and feast upon the limbs of the corpses. Elsewhere, a lighter-colored dog/wolf digs up the still breathing infant and spirits her away to an expressionistically artificial-looking indoor ice cave set that is complete with its own natural ice bridge crossing an unfrozen interior stream.
As with everything else in Wolf Devil Woman, quick work is made of the rearing of this young girl into an adult wolf devil woman. We get a brief scene of the toddler sloppily shoving bloody raw meat into her mouth as the members of the pack sit around barking encouragement, and then another one in which, after being injured in a fall, she is revived by the “White Wolf” after being fed something that looks like a red Christmas ornament. This results in her having a kind of seizure that makes her hair momentarily turn pure white, which sets the stage for those later scenes in which our heroine will be seen, in Hulk-like fashion, going from Brunette to Edgar Winter whenever agitated.
Finally, we get our first glimpse of the Wolf Devil Woman in full bloom, as well as at the first of Pearl Cheung Ling’s astonishing outfits, which, in the early parts of the film, encompass the full range of pelt-based high fashion. This first get-up is without a doubt the film’s most iconic, topped off as it is with a plush dog toy worn as headwear. It should also be noted that our star sees being raised by wolves in a snowy wilderness as no excuse for foregoing glamour, as, despite all of her feral trappings, Pearl’s face remains heavily made up throughout, foundation, rouge, lipstick, and all.
Throughout Wolf Devil Woman, Cheung Ling does things that, in most circumstances, would cause me to pity the poor, debased actor doing them. That is, until I remember that Cheung Ling wrote, produced, and directed Wolf Devil Woman, and thus has no one but herself to blame. That said, she seems to take to scrambling around on all fours, stuffing her mouth with raw meat, and spouting bursts of animalistic gibberish with a lot of gusto, and actually seems to be quite enjoying herself most of the time. Perhaps, then, she saw the film as her opportunity to prove herself as being more than just an ornamental leading lady, instead immersing herself in a down and dirty, glamour-free character. In any case, what Cheung Ling chooses to do with that opportunity is deliver a performance that, while far from gritty, is undeniably eccentric, consisting of lots of twitching and scratching, accompanied by gestures and facial expressions so cartoonishly over-telegraphed that they would seem excessive even in a film from the early silent era.
Such is the case from even her earliest scenes in the film, during which we watch Wolf Woman struggle with trying to catch a rabbit. This involves a lot of trials, and even more error, as well as a lot of comical furrowing of the brow and bouts of enraged grunting. The leaping and lunging required also provides the theater for some pretty haphazard wire work, which occasionally makes Cheung Ling look like she’s being dragged through the air by the seat of her pants. Finally, Wolf Woman learns to burrow into the snow and surprise the rabbit in its hole from underneath, after which she is shown lustily tearing the little beast’s body in half.
And this might be a good time for me to discuss the one element of Wolf Devil Woman that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly: its animal cruelty. Like a lot of my otherwise hardened cult film reviewing brethren, real animal death and suffering is one of the few insurmountable obstacles to the enjoyment of a film that I can encounter. As much as I love movies, there could never be any justification for any living thing sacrificing its life for one. I have, however, calloused myself somewhat toward the practice in old Hong Kong and Taiwanese films, due to what I perceive as a cultural tendency to sentimentalize animals to a comparatively much lesser degree than we Yanks do, coupled with the cold-eyed pragmatism of those country’s commercial film industries. If you ever find yourself wondering whether an animal death in an old Hong Kong movie is real or faked, consider which of those options would have been the cheapest and most expedient at the time and you’ll have your answer.
The incidents of animal violence in Wolf Devil Woman, however, are especially mean-spirited and graphic. The movie, in particular, seems to have a real hatred for bunnies. And even if you might choose to defend those scenes as being at least an attempt at a realistic portrayal of how a woman raised as a wolf might actually fill her days — i.e. with the killing and devouring of prey — that doesn’t excuse the way the camera lingers on the carnage, reveling in the mayhem for its own sake. It says a lot for Wolf Devil Woman as a whole that I have amped up my capacity for denial accordingly in order that I might savor its other, legitimately entertaining aspects. But it nonetheless makes it another one of those films that I, despite however much I find within it to love, can only recommend on an extremely conditional basis.
Anyway, as it inevitably must, Wolf Woman’s primitive idyll is eventually intruded upon by the arrival in her snowy environs of emissaries from the so-called civilized world. In this case, it’s a young knight (Sek Fung) and his servant (Pa Gwoh), who, in the English dub of the film, are confusingly referred to as “Young Rudolph” and “Rudy”, respectively. As we will learn from a later scene that might have been intended as a flashback, but which really seems like it was simply inserted into the movie out of sequence, Rudolph has been sent into the mountains by his father in order to retrieve the “thousand-year-old ginseng” that is the only antidote to the Red Devil’s weapon of choice, a deadly freezing spell.
By the way, the thousand-year-old ginseng turns up a lot in these movies. In the Lam Siu-Lau fantasy Magic of Spell, it’s portrayed as a little boy in an adorable, full-body ginseng root costume. And, in Legend of the Mother Goddess, it’s a creepy, root-shaped little flying baby. In Wolf Devil Woman, however, it turns out to have been that red Christmas ornament-looking thing that the White Wolf fed to the young Wolf Woman at the beginning of the movie, which means that Young Rudolph and Rudy will have to go home empty-handed.
Before that can happen, though, the story takes a momentary turn that could be described as “Pygmalion in pelts”, with Rudolph and Rudy, in very short order, teaching Wolf Woman to speak and behave like a comparatively civilized young lady. I think that this portion of the film is intended as comedy, with Rudy — him being a comic relief character and all — frequently calling Wolf Woman a “Stupid wolf guhl” in that affected British accent that so many characters in English dubbed 1980s kung fu films seem to have. Wolf Woman also bites Young Rudolph on a couple different occasions. Finally, Rudolph forcefully straightens Wolf Woman’s hunched spine in a bizarrely visualized scene that sees shots of Sek Fung wrestling with a frantically mugging Cheung Ling intercut with shots of what looks like a metal model of a human spine being violently twisted around.
Things take a somber turn when the boys have to inform Wolf Woman that, in the course of their entry into her domain, they killed the White Wolf. This provokes Wolf Woman to Hulk-out and go all white-haired, after which the knight and his aid skulk off back home, leaving Pearl behind to mournfully howl at the moon. Of course, the seeds of love have been planted, and when Young Rudolph and his father are captured by the Red Devil and his minions, Wolf Woman, hidden away in her faraway lair, senses trouble. At this, and without explanation, Pearl abruptly takes on the next of her many Wolf Devil Woman iterations, the one I like to call “Robin Tarzan”. (She also has a nice “Lawrence of Arabia” phase, where she travels through the desert in fashionable Bedouin attire while doing battle with sand ninjas.) This involves her wearing rough-cut peasant clothes and swinging from tree to tree by a fur-covered rope. By this means she makes her way to a small town, where a drunken Hulk-out in a tavern leads to her being thrown into a well by the angry villagers.
After being washed out to sea, Wolf Woman conveniently ends up beached right at the feet of the very bearded sage (Sek Ying) who can fill her in on the Red Devil’s role as, not only her beloved’s captor, but also her real parents’ killer, and who informs her that it’s her destiny to bring the villain down. This provokes Pearl’s final, jump cut-assisted and wholly unexplained transformation, this time into a resplendently coiffed, white-clad wuxia heroine right out of a Chor Yuen movie. Her weapon of choice now — again unexplained to the point where we might as well be in a totally different movie altogether — is a furry rope with giant chicken claws on either end, which she uses to disembowel and decapitate her opponents with complete abandon. Gone is her swinging rope, now replaced by a charging white steed upon which she rides toward her destiny. What that destiny entails, I will, for the sake of those interested in seeing this film for themselves, not divulge. But suffice it to say that there will be zombies, cartoon fire, and lots of Pearl Cheung Ling being haphazardly slung around on wires.
I realize that, if you’re reading this, it is likely nowhere near the first review of this type of film that you’ve read, and that, as a result, you’ve read endless claims –- some of them, most likely, from me –- about how this or that movie is the most “insane” or “WTF” thing ever. And while I’ll make no claims to it being the “most” of anything, I do ask that you grant me some authority when I say that, as far as strange movies go, Wolf Devil Woman is definitely the real deal. It is indeed the type of deeply strange film that can only result from a person who is themselves deeply strange attempting to make what his or her addled mind considers to be a perfectly straightforward and rousing piece of entertainment. It is furthermore that oddest of birds, a vanity project whose subject’s “vanity” seems to be best served by making her look as completely and relentlessly ludicrous as is humanly possible. Oh, and lest I forget, it is also one of those many 1980s kung fu films that is made exponentially weirder by its English dubbing job, which involves choices such as having the monstrous Red Devil talk like Yosemite Sam.
This is all not to say that Wolf Devil Woman is a lone blip of strangeness on Pearl Cheung Ling’s long resume. In fact, it would seem that her Wolf Woman character would become an indelible part of her screen persona from this point on, and that, as a result, she would embody a number of similar “kung fu bag lady” types in subsequent films. She would also, in 1982, return to the director’s chair for what might be her true masterpiece, Matching Escort (released stateside as Fury of the Silver Fox), in which she is taken as a disciple by a kung fu master who lives in an underground fairyland, whose training methods involve rubbing caustic substances in Pearl’s eyes and forcing her to eat disgusting things, but no actual fight training. And then, of course, she would appear alongside Jackie Chan –- a high priestess of weird once again — in 1983’s Fantasy Mission Force, a film of near legendary bizarreness.
And then, after that — perhaps feeling that, by starring in a film that featured Abraham Lincoln fighting World War II with the aid of 1970s muscle cars, she had finally topped herself — Pearl Cheung Ling disappeared from the screen, the details of her activities ever since becoming as mysterious to us as those preceding her appearance on the scene in the mid-1970s. While I respect her desire to shun the spotlight –- if that is indeed the case –- I do truly hope that, wherever she is, she understands the uniqueness of her contribution to world cinema. And that she has perhaps learned to be more tolerant towards those poor bunnies.