Shaw Brothers’ resident eccentric, Lu Chin Ku, the Tim Burton of kung fu movies, brings his madcap style to this period martial arts rom-com based on a novel by insanely prolific wu xia writer Gu Long. The Ambitious Kung Fu Girl is Tian Si Si (Michelle Mei Suet), a spoiled little rich girl pampered by her wealthy family, but as skilful at kung fu as she is beautiful. Her legendary “Sloppy Blind Man’s Sword” technique scares all would-be suitors away, which is just as well since Si Si has her sights set on dashing martial arts hero Qin Ge (Chen Kuan-Tai). Just like a rock star, Qin Ge is forever being chased by hordes of gorgeous, gift-bearing kung fu groupies. Disguised as boys, Si Si and her maid Tian Xin (achingly lovely Lam Sau-Kwan) head out in search of her dream man, unaware that a gang of sex traffickers are kidnapping girls across the province.
Concerned for her safety, Si Si’s father promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to Yang Fan (an impressively athletic Yuen Tak), whose goofy demeanour masks amazing kung fu skills and a heart of gold. He sets forth to bring her home. Meanwhile, Si Si is unwittingly caught in an elaborate scheme to steal her family fortune, involving the mysterious one-eyed Master of Xia Hai Tang (Jue Tit-Woh), the legendarily beautiful courtesan Zhang Hao Er (Choh Seung-Wan) whose every move drives men wild, scheming brothel owner Madame Mei (Wong Mei-Mei), woman-hating sword hero Liu Feng Gu (Wai Tin-Chi) and a whole heap of ninjas. When she finally meets Qin Ge, it isn’t a romantic partner she finds but a worldly-wise friend who points her towards true love.
A delightful comedic performance from dainty but feisty Michelle Mai Suet drives this very different style of Shaw Brothers movie. Prolific appearances on martial arts TV series earned Mei Suet popularity across Asia. She made many notable films throughout the Seventies and Eighties, including Tsui Hark’s first movie The Butterfly Murders (1979), later ranked among the greatest Chinese films of all time. Co-star Chen Kuan-Tai gets a rare chance to spoof his screen image as the unflappable hero. He is unexpectedly hilarious as a man who coasts through life on his own inflated reputation.
Like the more celebrated Fong Sai Yuk (1993) (on which co-star Yuen Tak served as the award-winning fight choreographer), Ambitious Kung Fu Girl offers something akin to a Shakespeare comedy with kung fu. It shares certain plot parallels with the excellent Prodigal Son (1981) wherein a shallow, self-deluded rich kid has their eyes opened to the world around them. Sporting a tight, cleverly constructed plot this spins a smart, surprisingly poignant fable. Lu Chin Ku started out as an actor (and cameos here playing a lascivious killer transvestite!), before moving behind the camera when he joined Shaw Brothers. He made some of the studio’s zaniest, yet artful and interesting movies. With classics like Bastard Swordsman (1983), The Lady Assassin (1982) and Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983), Chin Ku arguably pioneered the kind of post-modern kung fu movie often credited to the Hong Kong New Wave. His camerawork is halfway between the old Shaw Brothers theatrical style and the hyper-fluidity of the New Wave, incorporating the usual gravity-defying swordplay, lush sets, extravagant costumes and gorgeous lighting, but also moments of surreal invention and playfulness. Notably a gambling bout between arch-rivals Qin Ge and Feng Gu staged like a modern TV game show complete with wisecracking elderly host and lovely assistant.