Why you should care
Because if everybody is kung fu fighting and their kicks are fast as lightning, who are you to not know that one of the pioneers was Hsu Feng?
Women’s roles started changing wildly in the 1960s, and it wasn’t too long before pop culture caught up to the social upheavals and produced a movie movement: female badasses.
While historically there had been powerful, aggressive women in the movies, their strength was more often seen as the product of their unfulfilled weakness: Because they couldn’t find a place in their “natural” role as a woman, they turned to violence. Which is to say that a woman who committed an act of physical aggression was most often a criminal, or near enough to drain off an audience’s empathy.
A prime example of the classic criminal woman of action can be seen in Jean Simmons in Otto Preminger’s Angel Face
But benevolent women action stars? These were mostly reserved for the realms of low-budget camp, like 1966’s The Wild World of Batwoman.
Until a one Ms. Hsu Feng.
In 1971, Hsu Feng starred in one of the seminal wuxia films, A Touch of Zen , and delivered one of the most singularly awesome performances in martial arts film history. Helped along by the popularity of the Blaxploitation genre and the increased desire for action films in general, Feng’s work pushed the notion that a woman could be sane and strong and violent.
She was a new film archetype: the heroic woman who lived comfortably in the kicks and combinations of male action stars.
Her character, Yang Hui-ching, was not without emotion, but her desires and emotional entanglements were secondary to what drove her character as an action hero: survival and justice. Yang worked within some of the classic conventions of strong women in cinema — a warrant out for her execution briefly pits her as a potential villain — but those conventions are dismissed and distorted as soon as they are established. She is not cunning or devious, not driven by a desire for bloodshed, but when she is pursued by Ouyang Nian, a murderous, corrupt official, she defends herself and those she cares for with deadly force.
Alongside actresses like Angela Mao and Pei-pei Cheng, Hsu Feng helped create a new film archetype: the heroic woman, an action heroine who could live comfortably in the kicks and combinations of male action stars.
Film historian Stephen Teo said of her work, in his book King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, “Yang’s silence and her action are crucial indicators of her femininity on the one hand, and her feminism on the other.… [Her love interest’s] weakness is contrasted with Yang’s show of “masculine” courage and strength in repelling the intrusion of Ouyang Nian.” Teo goes on to note that director King Hu didn’t need his star to take on a cross-dressing male identity to show her strength; rather, she was able to show her “masculinity” through her own female identity.
Hsu Feng would go on to other successes in her career (Raining in the Mountain and The Valient Ones ) and won a pair of Golden Horses (China’s Oscar equivalent) for her performances in Assassin and The Pioneers. After she left acting, she became a noted film producer; her film company’s production of Farewell My Concubine won the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and snagged Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography. However, her role in A Touch of Zen has remained her most timeless, and it is still one of the strongest characterizations of a woman in action cinema.
Which now? You should see.