In terms of the kung fu cinema world, the fact that Angela Mao Ying’s character in Broken Oath uses scorpions hidden in her handkerchief to assassinate targets is par for the course. Gimmicks and the various larger than life characters that use them are a dime-a-dozen in the cinematic landscape of martial arts films. Quite frankly, there are more far more absurd things to witness in other films. Yet, when her character Liu Chieh Lien first uses a wafting movement to place a scorpion on a man’s neck just to watch him suffer and die in front of her, it’s perhaps one of the most fitting elements of Broken Oath. It’s a symbol that is befitting of the character and, to some extent, the actress on hand. A swift and deadly killer that is hidden underneath the movement and beauty of a lace handkerchief? It’s gimmicky, but it’s also incredibly fitting. It’s the perfect character to build a film around.
Liu Chieh Lien struts her vengeance and charisma as the main protagonist of this Golden Harvest gem. Broken Oath is a film so rooted in its martial arts tropes and style that often enough it’s easy to forget that the film is a remake of one of the most iconic genre films, Lady Snowblood. Although the latter chanbara film certainly stakes its claim as classic also rooted in its creative elements, time period, and style, it’s a film that does share one key feature – an incredible lead performance that anchors the entire film. Although each actress has her own bravura in their respective films, their ability to hold an intensely emotional moment before and after completely decimating an action sequence is why each film is successful at its core. It could be argued that if both Meiko Kaji and Angela Mao Ying had a staring contest of hatred then the world would implode.
LADY KUNG FU > LADY SNOWBLOOD
Broken Oath and director Walter Chung (most prominently known as the director for the kung fu flick heard round the world, King Boxer) are not completely reliant on Angela’s ability to crush souls with her eyes and necks with her kicks. The film is legitimate on its own too. Broken Oath takes the basics of Lady Snowblood and gives them a wild Hong Kong twist. The core of the plot, where a young woman is born to avenge a family she has never met, is perhaps the only real similarity between the two films plot-wise. The structure might be similar, but the narrative, style, and many themes are very different and tied together in some surprising ways. The film doesn’t take her character arc quite as seriously (or artistically) as the source material, playing its narrative rather loose and fun with her mission to destroy the evil General. It doesn’t relish in the sadness of her fate, but instead promotes the justice of it. When it’s revealed later on that she shares the same goal as some undercover Imperial guards looking to oust corruption from the government, it’s revealed she is truly on the side of heroes and not as some renegade kung fu Judge Dredd acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Notable, this is very much par for the course in a martial arts film of this ilk. Despite some of its more lyrical ideas in the prologue of her birth, the film quickly finds its place in the comfort of traditional kung fu tropes of non-systematic justice, some slapstick humor courtesy of her adopted pickpocket family, and fight sequences galore. Director Walter Chung embraces it and lets to meld with the gimmicks so that eventually the film settles into its own rhythm that only gets tighter, stronger, and more impactful as it unfolds.
Naturally, it’s the action sequences where Broken Oath soars. With action directors like Hsu Hsia and the legendary Yuen Woo Ping on board, how could the action not be fantastic? Giving the heroine Shaolin training, the previously mentioned scorpions, and a penchant for grabbing a staff and pummeling her attackers, the film does not hesitate to let her take the center stage with her abilities. Her compact size and the feminine moments of the film act in perfect conjunction with her ability to unbuckle her on-screen talents of kicking ass. As the film goes and they start adding other fighters to the mix, notably the undercover agents that assist her in the finale, but she continues to highlight what’s great about this film – in both character and star. She is given a fun and dynamic fight with a ridiculous looking Sammo Hung, and the outlandish final fight against the evil General is given a fun twist that almost makes it look like she may not come out on top. Almost.
Many martial arts fans tend to overlook the strengths of Broken Oath to favor Angela Mao Ying’s other iconic film, the Fist of Fury inspired Hapkido. Considering the strong action, the layered storyline, and the strength of its scorpion-in-lace star, it’s easy for me to call Broken Oath my favorite film of her career.