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Richly drawn portrait of the first woman revolutionary in China that is gripping, poignant and inspiring
The story of Qiu Jin is ripe fruit for cinematic picking especially for the rapidly growing China film industry, which has in recent years displayed a penchant for turning the country's own rich history into lavish spectacle. Here is a woman ahead of her time, who grew up questioning the unequal treatment of men and women, who fought for her right to an equal education, and who later on fought against the corrupt Manchu government to her death.
Attempting the dramatization of Qiu Jin's life is the production team behind 'Ip Man: The Legend is Born', and though the poster boasts of these credentials, those who have seen the earlier film will likely agree that the reference doesn't inspire much confidence. Surprisingly then, director Herman Yau and his screenwriter Erica Li have done an excellent job adapting the many facets of her life into a rich, stirring and poignant movie, one that easily stands out as the best among the recent bumper crop of historical epics.
Beginning with the last and definitive fight that would lead to her execution, we first see Qiu Jin's (Huang Yi) arrest following a fierce showdown with Qing military commander Ao Feng (veteran Xiong Xin Xin). Qiu Jin was then headmaster of the Daitong College, the first mixed- gender school whose mission was to give women the chance to receive an education. It was also a training ground for the fomenting revolutionary movement against the Manchu authorities, and that fateful day of 14th July 1907 was meant to be the fall of their Shaoxing province.
Unfortunately, it wasn't to be, and Qiu Jin is subsequently interrogated by both the outgoing Provincial Governor Gui Fu (Lam Suet) and the incoming Li Zhong-yue (Anthony Wong). Her refusal to give up the names of her compatriots leads to her torture and finally her execution, sealing her status as a martyr for the People's Republic of China. Filling in the blanks of the formative years of her life leading up to her revolutionary status are numerous flashbacks, which go all the way back to when she was only a little girl about to have her feet bound.
Yau makes excellent use of these early years to paint Jin as a determined and passionate woman not afraid to defy tradition- as a teenager growing into a young adult,Qiu Jin would ransom her jewels for the freedom of a child bride taken into slavery, who later becomes her loyal companion Fusheng (Rose Chan). Even after her arranged marriage to Ting-jun (Kevin Cheng), Qiu Jin refused to be subordinated as a wife, instead forcing her husband to buy a position in Beijing in the hopes that their proximity to the echelons of power can make it easier to engineer change in the Qing government.
The depiction of their marriage deserves special mention, for Yau and Li are careful not to allow Ting-jun just to be a caricatured husband figure in a feminist-driven movie. Instead, the filmmakers use Ting-jun to illustrate the mentality of those who quietly desire for change but resist being part of the process- and Ting-jun's plea for Qiu Jin to stop projecting her aspirations upon him ends up unexpectedly moving. Rare are such well-drawn supporting roles in films, and the attention Yau pays to Ting-jun is a nice surprise.
And in fact Ting-jun isn't the only one- the unofficial leader of the revolution Xu Xilin (Ip Man's Dennis To) is also similarly well- delineated, whom Qiu Jin meets while studying in Japan after quietly leaving Ting-jun and their two kids behind. There is considerable sizzle as Qiu Jin finds an intellectual equal in Xilin, and their scenes together hum with considerable vim and vigour. Xilin also becomes a catalyst in Qiu Jin's decision to join their Restoration Society and take up arms for the cause, their plans finally taking shape in the form of successive planned uprisings in Anhui and Shaoxing.
It therefore takes more than an hour before the action kicks in proper, but those looking for the kind of heroics in 'Ip Man' will likely come off disappointed. Standing in once again for Donnie Yen is kungfu champion Dennis To, but despite his title, To has a lot more to catch up with Yen. His extended fight scene with Xiong Xin Xin comes off choreographed, lacking the spontaneity de rigueur in any action sequence worth its salt. Xin Xin is also pitted against Huang Yi, but while the actress pulls off the fighting sequences convincingly, there is little in Leung Siu-hung's choreography that truly stands out. But of course, this biography of Qiu Jin isn't meant to spotlight her martial arts however brilliant they may have been in real life, but to celebrate her heroic achievements both as a feminist and as a revolutionary.
Appropriately then, the dramatic aspects of the film are the parts that stand out, brought to life by a stellar cast. Huang Yi isn't always as expressive as she should be, but she does a fine job bringing across Qiu Jin's steeliness fighting for her ideals and her insecurities worrying for her family. As the two most important men in Qiu Jin's life, Kevin Cheng and Dennis To have a nice rapport with Huang Yi as the head of the household and the head of the revolutionaries respectively. And as always, Anthony Wong makes the best of a small supporting role as the sympathetic Governor powerless to prevent the beheading of someone he greatly respects.
With Yau's assured restraint and confident grasp, the film doesn't remain as a stodgy recount of historical events, but rather a moving and inspirational tale of the first woman revolutionary in China's history. So don't let the other lesser films of its genre that have come before it dissuade you, 'The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake' stands high above its ilk, a shining example of history come alive.
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