One night in a Chinese village centuries ago, an entire family are murdered, supposedly by ghosts. The monks at Chung Kuei Temple start selling charms to ward off evil to frightened locals but newly-arrived, feisty, whip-wielding kung fu girl Cui Ping (Shih Szu) suspects a scam. For her part Cui Ping has come hoping to apprentice herself to the Lady Hermit, a fabled and righteous martial arts maiden not seen for some years. She rents a room with kindly Uncle Wang (Fang Mian) where she flirts with handsome kung fu hero Chang Chun (Lo Lieh) and befriends humble housemaid Leng Yu Shuang (Cheng Pei-Pei). To Cui Ping's surprise, Yu Shuang eventually reveals herself as Lady Hermit when she saves her from the evil monks behind the ghost attacks. As well as adopting Cui Ping as a student, Yu Shuang becomes her devoted friend. Until their friendship is tested when they both fall for the same man. With an evil kung fu master named Black Demon (Wang Hsieh) on the rampage wielding his deadly Shadowless Claw technique, the ladies must settle their differences to take on an entire temple of malevolent monks.
A significant film for the Shaw Brothers, The Lady Hermit marked the end of their cycle of heroic swordswomen films and was also the last studio outing for their biggest star: Cheng Pei-Pei. Which is not to suggest women vanished entirely from the martial arts movie landscape. Far from it. Yet The Lady Hermit proved the last Shaw swordplay film tailored exclusively around a female star. Thereafter macho male-centred epics from filmmakers like Chang Cheh were the order of the day. Meanwhile the swordswoman archetype, though enduring in the hands of able actresses like Ching Li and Kara Hui Ying-Hung, was relegated to part of an ensemble cast in films by the likes of Chu Yuan, at least at Shaw Brothers anyway. It was a different story at rival studio Golden Harvest.
Born in 1946, the lovely and talented Cheng Pei-Pei studied ballet for six years before joining the Shaw studio in 1963. Early roles in films like The Lotus Lamp (where she played a man!) and Lover's Rock got her noticed but King Hu's seminal swordplay epic Come Drink With Me (1966) made her a star. Cheng Pei-Pei made twenty films at Shaw Brothers including the musical drama Hong Kong Nocturne (1966) and spy adventure Operation Lipstick (1968) but above all reigned as queen of the swordplay film in such favourites as The Jade Raksha (1968), Dragon Swamp (1969) and The Shadow Whip (1971). After leaving the studio she relocated to the United States where she settled into marriage and anonymity. However, her retirement proved short lived. Ten years later she returned to the screen in low-budget exploitation films like The Virgin Commandos (1980) then became a character actress in more prestigious productions: e.g. Painted Faces (1988) and A Man Called Hero (1999) before making a spectacular comeback with Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Her comeback might have been even bigger had any mainstream critics known who she was or understood the significance of Lee casting the most iconic swordplay star of all time as an embittered villain.
Looking especially badass in a white veil and bamboo hat, Cheng Pei-Pei exudes a near-mystical presence in her last studio role. Interestingly, The Lady Hermit opens almost like a Mario Bava ghost story, with a spooky intro where pasty kung fu zombies splatter innocent blood, before it turns into a female buddy movie. As Leng Yu Shuang adopts Cui Ping as her sidekick-cum-protege, the film contrasts her thoughtful, outwardly genteel yet formidable persona with the fiery, impetuous youngster. The film was evidently designed to mark the passing of the torch from Cheng Pei-Pei to Shaw's then-newest discovery, the engaging Shih Szu. She joined the studio in 1970 whereupon Hong Kong audiences instantly took her to their hearts as a great swordplay star in acclaimed films like Heroes of Sung (1973), Trilogy of Swordsmanship (1972) and Lady of the Law (1975). As a top international draw she appeared in several notable co-productions including the Hammer-Shaw opus Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires a.k.a. Seven Brothers Against Dracula (1974) and Italian superhero comedy Supermen Against the Orient (1975) looking especially fetching in red form-fitting lycra. The same could not be said for co-star Lo Lieh although he is quite dashing in The Lady Hermit. Hard to believe this is the same actor Ho Meng-Hua cast as a sleazy black magic pimp daddy in Black Magic, Part 2: Revenge of the Zombies (1976). As for Shih Szu she returned to her native Taiwan in 1980 where she made the occasional cult gem like Chinese Magic (1983) before bowing out of the limelight.
The sisterly relationship between the two heroines is an appealing element in The Lady Hermit although the love story is no less moving (particularly when Yu Shuang and Chang Chun exchange coded love messages through poetry). Also the film puts a nice Cinderella twist on the old familiar Zorro conceit of the dashing sword hero posing as an incompetent weakling. It goes without saying that the action sequences are dynamic and showcase Cheng Pei-Pei at the peak of her abilities performing flying leaps, crawling across the ceiling, killing dozens upon dozens single-handedly and felling trees with a kung fu chop. Astonishing to think the Shaws considered her over-the-hill at twenty-five when she looks as doe-eyed and fresh-faced here as she did back in Come Drink With Me. Not to be outdone Shih Szu snags a few showy set-pieces notably a sequence where she clings to a collapsed bridge similar to the climax to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and where she climbs a pagoda eliminating bad guys on each level. For the record The Lady Hermit is also probably Cheng Pei-Pei's goriest swordplay film with limbs lopped off, blood splattered everywhere, a bamboo pole through the chest, a beheading and most memorably chopsticks jabbed in one unfortunate's eyes.
Versatile studio hand Ho Meng-Hua weaves a vivid quasi-supernatural atmosphere with his evocative lighting tricks and mobile camera work featuring an interesting mix of hand-held camera and fluid tracking shots. Regrettably the one area where the film suffers has nothing to do with the original production. The Lady Hermit was among several restored Shaw films for which Celestial DVD lay a droning atonal synth score over the original soundtrack. The bizarre audio mishmash is jarring to say the least. Otherwise it is a fine farewell for Cheng Pei-Pei.