The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake qualifies as a pleasant surprise, given the recent spate of ballyhooed big-budget films celebrating Chinese historical figures or events. A historical biopic set during China's developing revolution against the Qing Dynasty, Woman Knight eschews the polarizing pitfalls of recent patriotic fare. Woman Knight isnít intended to instill pride in Chinese people because of their nationality. Instead, the film asks that viewers care because its biographical subject, writer and revolutionary Qiu Jin, was a remarkable woman. Backing up these admirable intentions is director Herman Yau, who gives the film solid dramatic structure and storytelling smarts. The film's entertaining martial arts sequences are just icing.
Woman Knight opens in the 1880s with a quick historical rundown explaining China's late nineteenth century unrest, from subjugation by foreigners to the Qing governmentís growing corruption. Amidst this, Qiu Jin is born, and she immediately chafes at her place in society. As a child she refuses to have her feet bound, and questions why she can't receive an education like her brother. Presto, her father gives her equal status, and she grows to adulthood in a quick montage that uses fast onscreen titles to relay even more key history.
Actual historical events are important here, but Yau and screenwriter Erica Li sideline that larger panorama in favor of their character focus. After the quick history rundown, the film jumps to 1907 where Qiu Jin (Huang Yi), now clothed in western male garb, runs a college for future revolutionaries. However, the Qing authorities come calling and Qiu Jin enters into hand-to-hand combat with Qing official Ao Feng (Xiong Xin-Xin). Eventually, Ao Feng captures her and she's set to be tried and possibly executed. This is not a spoiler.
Woman Knight of Mirror Lake alternates between two time periods. The first spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, covering events in Qiu Jinís life like her arranged marriage to a wealthy scholar (Kevin Cheng) and her burgeoning career as a poet and writer. Later, she becomes involved in womenís rights and receives an education in Japan, where she comes in contact with Xu Xilin (Dennis To), a revolutionary who recruits Qiu Jin into one of the many groups that would one day join together under Sun Yat-Sen as the Tongmenghui.
The second time period rests solely in 1907, as Qiu Jin is tried as a revolutionary by Qing court official Li Zhongyue (Anthony Wong), who admires Qiu Jin for her writing and education. However, Li must contend with the influence of the corrupt Qing court, represented here by officials Ao Feng and Gui Fu (Lam Suet). This non-linear setup is smart storytelling, as we learn about Qiu Jinís past and character gradually while also witnessing her rapidly approaching fate. The time shifts sometimes occur without onscreen titles, but the distinct plot threads and confined locations make things easy to follow.
Also smart is the use of Li Zhongyue, a character who in some ways acts as the audience stand-in. Liís empathy towards Qiu Jin is due to her strength and resolve and not because of her beliefs. Ultimately, nationalism is less important here than simply having ideas and being willing to fight for them. That's a small but vital distinction, and it makes all the difference in how an audience Ė especially one that doesnít drink the China pride Kool-Aid Ė receives the film. It helps that Anthony Wong essays Li Zhongyue with a sympathetic and underplayed integrity.
At the center of everything, Huang Yi is surprisingly good. Only recently raised from supporting to lead roles, Huang demonstrates a greater range and ability than previously, though sheís still a notch below some of her contemporaries in screen charisma. It helps that few of her co-stars can act rings around her; besides Wong, this is largely a cast of respectable but not decorated performers, and they perform solidly. The big exception is Tsui Tin-Yau, who overacts his sensitive student with the subtlety of spastic chinchilla.
The fighting is also a plus. Handled by Tony Leung Siu-Hung (with some advice from producer Checkley Sin), the action is a bit over the top, with choreography and prop use thatís reminiscent of late-eighties and early-nineties Hong Kong Cinema. Huang Yi surprises with her ability when she goes toe-to-toe with Xiong Xin-Xin, the two sparring nimbly over a name list of revolutionaries. There are also minor dustups along the way, including sequences where Qiu Jin takes on Qing soldiers and also Japanese police.
The film's biggest set piece is an uprising led by Xu Xilin, as he and some revolutionaries attempt to assassinate a Qing official (Lau Siu-Ming). The scene features a lengthy fight between Dennis To and Xiong Xin-Xin that's intricately choreographed and quite entertaining. There are a few debits in the action design, mostly involving potential animal cruelty, but it still possesses a flair thatís become increasingly rare in Hong Kong Cinema. The action sequences don't occur that often, but when they arrive they donít disappoint.
Artistic license is rampant. The action is too over-the-top to be real, and the actual Qiu Jin was only interested in martial arts and not a kick-ass master like she's portrayed here. But the fudged facts are acceptable. Like the Once Upon a Time in China movies and also Bodyguards and Assassins, Woman Knight of Mirror Lake is a knowing mix of history, character drama and only-in-the-movies entertainment, and the fast-and-loose facts are part of equation. The liberal doses of unreality make the didactic drama more palatable, and also let the audience know that maybe the history presented in films isn't the absolute truth.
Nevertheless, Woman Knight still presents an idea - that revolution is how people can effect change - that's ironic in today's CCP-centric China. The script kind of addresses that, telling us that true change takes years or decades, and may only be felt after the revolutionaries are dead and gone - just like the light from stars in the sky belonged to dead suns of millennia past. Woman Knight of Mirror Lake isn't as grand as that metaphor implies, but its flame burns brightly enough to be seen from where I'm standing. And hopefully from where you're standing too. (Kozo, 2011)