The 14 Amazons (十四女英豪) (1972)
Before Oceans 8 (2018) or the Charlie Angels series (2000-2003), Hong Kong had Cheng Kang’s monumental film, The 14 Amazons (十四女英豪) (1972). The inspiration for this film comes from a collection of Ancient Chinese folklores, The Generals of the Yang Family (楊家將), focusing on the Yang family and their adventures throughout the Song Dynasty. Hong Kong’s film industry in the ‘70s was at its peak, as studios were churning out hundreds of martial art films and experimenting with a variety of ideas. Cheng’s film was the fourth highest grossed film of the year, but for Hong Kong standards (at the time), that was nothing worthy of a celebration. However, in today’s society, this film is deemed as a true Shaw epic for its fantastic production value, realistic fighting sequences, and inclusion of an all-female cast.
During the Song Dynasty, the Yang family was constantly at war with their rivals from the west. At the climate of the war, Commander Yang Tsung-Pao is ambushed and left for dead. After hearing of the tragic news, the Grand Dame sets on the quest to avenge his death. However, the Minister of War belittles the Grand dame’s orders and denies her request to use the imperial army. As a result, General Yang’s widow, Mu Kuei-Ying, gathers the rest of her family and volunteer troops to complete the task of ridding their enemy. Throughout the film, viewers witness the various plots and strategies used by the Yang Family and the Mongols. In the end, Mu Kuei-Ying outsmarts the King and his army and the Yang family maintains their power over China.
A Breakdown of the Characters
Who is Cheng Kang?
Cheng Kang’s exposure to the entertainment industry was after his participation in a Chinese art troupe in Chong Qing. In 1949 Cheng made his way to Hong Kong to pursue a career as a screenwriter. Two years later he made his directorial debut with Broken Mother and Child (斷腸母子心) (1951). Cheng continued to experiment with a variety of genres but mostly dabbled in the martial art genre. It was the film, The Sword of Swords (神刀) (1968) that garnered him success and recognition, especially from Shaw Brothers Studio. During Cheng’s career at Shaw Brother Studio, he made a total of twelve films. One of his films, The 14 Amazons (十四女英豪) (1972), received an award for the categories ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Drama’ at the 11th Golden Horse Awards. By 1980, Cheng thought it was best to leave the Shaw Studio and start a new career in Taiwan. Unlike his time in Hong Kong, Cheng focused on working behind the scenes to produce films for several film companies. A master in storytelling, the ability to produce dynamic scenes, and create a conveying narrative with minimal dialogue is why Cheng is regarded as one of the most memorable directors in Hong Kong film industry.
The Concept of War
There is no denying this film has entertaining scenes, especially when the two rivals go head to head. However, it seems as if Cheng's film strives to decipher the meaning behind heroism. Throughout the film, viewers witness acts of courage as members of the Yang family sacrifice their lives for the sake of protecting the dynasty. The overall film highlights the idea that heroic actions take courage and sacrifice.
However, this film also reveals the brutality and hardships of being a hero. Cheng cleverly portrays war from the perspective of Yang Wen Kuan, the youngest member of the Yang family. At the brink of going to battle, Yang Wen Kuan does not hesitate to participate in the war and is persistent in fighting for the honor of her family name. Over time, Yang Wen Kuan's cheerful, pure personality slowly deteriorates as he witnesses the horrors and gruesome violence war has to offer. Through his experience, viewers observe the consequences of war, but more importantly, the harsh realities of watching and losing your loved ones.
Female Representation as a Marketing Tactic?
Similar to earlier Shaw Brother Studio films from the ‘60s, female actresses were all the rave in the early ‘70s. For The 14 Amazons (十四女英豪) (1972), many film critics regard Cheng’s film as an early example of feminism. However, it is vital to argue if the use of female actresses could have been purely for marketing. After the commercial success of King Hu’s Come Drink with Me (大醉俠)(1966) and Cheng Pei Pei overnight rise to stardom, many studios thought it was necessary to churn films that promoted a woman warrior in the action genre. According to Ric Meyers, society deemed men to be the breadwinner for the family, while the expectation for women was to stay at home. As a result, the production of most Martial Art films targeted Hong Kong’s female demographic. Studios found a way to profit off of the Martial Art genre by promoting films with women at the forefront. Although Studios were able to benefit from female actresses, it is undeniable that these films can be a source of female empowerment. Films like The 14 Amazons (十四女英豪) (1972) challenge the notions of womanhood, as fighting is traditionally perceived with masculinity. Even watching this film in a modern context, this film conveys a sense of relatability as this group of female warriors fight for their values and beliefs. It is a film that can serve the purpose of entertainment but also celebrate empowerment.
By Ariana Heffner
Film footage supplied by Celestial Pictures Limited / 電影片段由天映娛樂有限公司提供