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The Lady is the Boss

Kara Hui and Guk Fung in The Lady is the Boss.
Year: 1983
Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Producer: Wong Ka-Hee, Mona Fong Yat-Wah
Cast: Lau Kar-Leung, Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, Wong Yue, Chang Chan-Peng, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Guk Fung
The Skinny: A hip, young woman shakes up the world of a conservative martial arts sifu in this well-meaning, but woefully dated kung fu comedy from Lau Kar-Leung. An interesting premise is basically squandered due to slapdash plotting, but some likeable performances and solid action choreography, particularly in the finale, sweeten the experience considerably.
Review by

     In 1983, director Lau Kar-Leung re-teamed with Kara Hui Ying-Hung for The Lady is the Boss, a Shaw Brothers kung fu comedy that sought to capitalize on the success of the previous year's My Young Auntie. The duo's prior collaboration yielded an enjoyable, if imperfect cross-generational romp and even garnered Kara Hui a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress. So who can blame them for going to the well one more time? But even though the idea of making a follow-up sounds logical enough, the flick itself may be a prime example of the law of diminishing returns.
     The premise of The Lady is the Boss is vaguely similar to My Young Auntie, although updated to the modern era. Due to urban development, Master Wong Hsia-Yuan (Lau Kar-Leung) and his students (Gordon Liu and Hsiao Hou among them) must abandon their old school and move to a new location. Once there, they expect the arrival of a new headmaster. But instead of welcoming the return of the school's founder as they expected, the students instead get the old man's daughter, the sexy, English-speaking Chan Mei-Ling (Kara Hui Ying-Hung). To their surprise, it's Mei-Ling who's going to be calling the shots from now on.
     And from the moment she arrives, Mei-Ling starts shaking things up, flouting tradition at every turn. Fresh from a stint in America, the young woman finds the Hong Kong school's methods to be far too conservative for her liking and is shocked to learn of the school's pitifully low membership. To Hsia-Yuan's disgust, Mei-Ling starts employing various unconventional methods to lure new students to the fold: hawking promotional discounts, jockeying for media exposure, and even using cutesy children with kung fu skills as walking, talking advertisements. Offended by what he feels is a cheapening of his art, Hsia-Yuan washes his hands of the whole affair and retreats into the background.
     When Mei-Ling takes full control over the school, the film begins to delve into kitsch, as the students start dressing in ridiculously over-the-top (even for the time) eighties-era fashions. Mei-Ling and company start exploring the discos, which if the film is to be believed were filled entirely with call girls, pot smoking degenerates, and mincing homosexuals. For some odd reason, she eagerly convinces these folks to sign up for kung fu lessons. The results are, as one might expect, less than stellar.
     After a solid first half, the film begins to lose its grip when the focus moves away from the main characters and centers instead on a group of call girls who've just joined the school. Although this diversion helps set up the film's main conflict, it really derails the generational battle that the storyline seemed to be setting up in the first reel. To make matters even more confusing, when Mei-Ling goes to avenge her students against a gang of hoodlums led by Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, she brings along a crew of complete unknowns straight out of BMX Bandits. Although the action sequence itself is pretty creative (if odd), the fact that Gordon Liu, Hsiao Hou, and the other main disciples are absent really lessens the viewer's interest in the onscreen battle. One is forced to wonder, what happened to the main cast we've grown to love?
     Well, whatever the reason for their absence, Lau Kar-Leung corrects this mistake by bringing those characters back for the climax. The kung fu fighting is at full-force during the film's ending battle—which pretty much saves the movie. The inclusion of a Mad Monkey Kung Fu homage and a nifty 36th Chamber of Shaolin parody featuring Gordon Liu himself gives the finale just the right touch of humor. But even if the film concludes with a bang, it's unfortunate that the generational conflict wasn't given a chance to play out in a more natural fashion. Of course, from the get-go, we expect the elder and younger generations to come to a sense of understanding, but due to some spotty scripting, the way in which it unfolds seems obviously forced.
     Even with the lack of a quality script, the all-star cast help keep the proceedings interesting. Kara Hui Ying-Hung, in particular, shines in the starring role and gives a gutsy performance, but the outlandish "I love the eighties" fashions really do her appearance a grave injustice. In this case, the wardrobe malfunction has nothing to do with clothes falling off, but with the crappy get-ups she and other characters put on.
     Despite her brash behavior, Mei-Ling remains pretty likeable, but for some, her "revolutionary" ideas will probably get a little annoying. And as with My Young Auntie, Kara Hui Ying-Hung's character is kidnapped which of course, necessitates her being saved by Lau-Kar-Leung and company. As with the previous film, it's a blown opportunity to let a strong female actress take center stage in the finale, and one wonders why the filmmakers felt they had to fall back on the same old "damsel in distress" ploy.
     In any case, despite the slapdash plotting and muddled generational theme, The Lady is the Boss has plenty of top quality martial arts action, and thanks to some fine performances all around, it earns just enough good will to make up for its obvious deficits. I give it a marginal recommendation at best; but if you're feeling nostalgic for old school Shaw Brothers kung fu or get a kick out of Flock of Seagulls haircuts, then this is the movie for you. (Calvin McMillin 2005)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Intercontinental Video Limited
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Original Poster, Photo Gallery, Trailers

image courtesy of Celestial Pictures

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