Told remarkably passionless for a story about national pride, THE WOMAN KNIGHT OF MIRROR LAKE is a bit of a mess: narratively, it’s all over the place, told via flashbacks and – even the more unfortunate – flashback-within-a-flashback, and there’s even a few other weird storytelling quirks thrown in for bad measure. This isn’t to say that it’s not a film worth watching – all of the players do the best they can with the material they were provided – but a weak script struggling too often to pull the poetry from the woman’s life lets them down more than they let it.
The story involves 19th century China when the nation was being ruled by an internal government all too accommodating of foreign influences. A quite rebellion began to stir, and Qui Jin (played with a bit too much stoicism by the lovely but mannish Huang Yi) starts to turn against the establishment. She’s definitely a woman out-of-time – a century ahead of her time – as she insists upon wearing men’s attire, engaging in the business society said best left to men, writing inspirational poetry, and training to fight alongside the other rebels. She eventually marries, but she’s soon disowned by her in-laws because of the life she leads. Eventually, she finds others who stand with her, but the martyred Xu Xilin (Dennis To) moves too quickly in sparking insurrection, and, thus, Qui Jin is captured and left to face trial for what she did against the state.
However, It’s an interesting story given only middling treatment here, and I’ve no doubt that the life of Qui Jin is definitely one deserving greater study. Despite her treasonous intentions, her behavior was mostly noble – at one point, she agrees to endure great suffering so that the nation may prosper (clearly, there’s an ideology argument near the core of the film) – but quite a bit of good deeds go unanswered or even unacknowledged by her fellow countrymen. In its closing moments, the film briefly describes the fate of those who crossed her path in the lead-up to the tragedy, so – if those outcomes are indeed fact – it’s clear that her life inspired many more than what gets showcased here. While I would’ve liked to have seen more to justify those sentiments, I realize that may not have been the intent of the film. Also, screen legend Anthony Wong is given little to do here – it’s an admirable supporting role given great depth by a man who (like Qui Jin) deserves better.
Still, it’s a period piece, and there’s been great attention given to all of the details. The film looks impressive with excellent filming locations that capture the architecture and lifestyle to a period of time more than 100 years old. Costuming and props are exceptional, and, throughout, the production quality remains very high. All players involved wanted WOMAN KNIGHT to look great, and it does.
Sadly (but not surprisingly) what works best is all of the fighting. As one who’s taken in more than his fair share of Asian releases, I know firsthand when these folks stage a throwdown it usually something special, and WOMAN KNIGHT has quite a few action pieces. It opens strong but then it gives way to the story, and, understandably, the pacing falls back into first gear. It stumbles around the history but, when possibly, it ramps up for some more glorious fisticuffs and swordplay when needed. I doubt much of it is entirely respectful of the story told, but it looks good, and that’s good enough for me. So HINT: if you’re looking for action, this may not entirely be the film for you, but, if you’re looking for action with a story, you should be as reasonably entertained as I was.
What’s massively disappointing about WOMAN KNIGHT is that – for reasons that defy explanation – some editor had the bright idea to cut a super-miniature version of the story which gets interspersed between the features opening credits: so – if you’re watching closely (like so many of us do) – then you’re already provided some insights surrounding most of the major events in the picture. What sane person would do this? Wouldn’t you rather keep the surprises for the climax? I certainly understand how an editor might’ve ‘jumped the gun,’ as they say, and wanted to experience (and re-experience) the patriotism inherent to the story – the tale is China’s celebration about rising up to throw off the influence of foreign powers such as Japan in order to establish their own way of life – but shouldn’t some things in the story remain under lock and key for the purpose of the narrative? What’s more important – nationalism by itself OR a story that celebrates the nationalism? Call me naïve, but I would’ve done differently.
The film was a joint project of the National Arts Films Production Limitedand Xi An Mei Ah Culture Communication Limited. It would appear to come to US in an unrated version – the packaging cites TV MA – and, while it isn’t completely family-safe I’ve seen far worse violence on American TV programs. The cinematography is actually very good, though some cuts linger on a bit longer than needed. Sound editing is top notch. The disc comes with either with English-dubbed track or English-subtitles. There’s only a single special feature respective to the film (a 23-minute making of documentary), and there are previews for other films available from Funimation.
While it wasn’t the best period piece picture I’ve seen come out of China, it certainly isn’t the worst, either. Still, THE WOMAN KNIGHT OF MIRROR LAKE set a high mark that it probably couldn’t get all that close to striking. It’s an admirable picture; it’s just told perhaps too clinically in order to fully respect the subject matter. Qui Jin probably deserved better – maybe she’ll get more the next time the story is visited.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Funimation provided me with an advance screener copy for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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