PRINCESS MADAM (1989) review

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As a director, erstwhile Chang Cheh assistant Godfrey Ho is known as a master of schlock, many of his films being facepalm-inducing patchworks of stock footage, recycled scenes from older films, gratuitous sex scenes and quite often, random ninja appearances. He’s like the dark flip-side of that other Chang Cheh assistant, John Woo. Yet, a film like Princess Madam is proof that Ho was more than capable of delivering a solid, coherent and at times even affecting actioner. Moon Lee and Sharon Yeung star as police officers Mona and Lisa (aheheh), assigned to the protection of a key witness in bringing mob boss Lung (Yueh Hua) to justice for murdering a cop. During a failed ambush on the witness and her police escort, Mona kills the lover of assassin Lily (Michiko Nishiwaki), who later retaliates by seducing, then kidnapping her husband. But matters are complicated further by the fact that Lisa’s adoptive father (Kenneth Tsang) was complicit in Lung’s crime, which poses an agonizing dilemma to her.

Briskly-paced yet taking the time to flesh out its lead characters (something not many Girls with Guns films actually managed to do), Princess Madam is indeed a true anomaly within Godfrey Ho’s filmography. It does present some of his usual tendencies: there’s a gratuitous sex scene, and the first half of the film is narratively scattered, with two rather aimless subplots. One, the seduction of Mona’s husband by Michiko Nishiwaki’s character, goes nowhere, but is at least an opportunity to marvel at the actress’ unique, smoldering charisma (destined to always be underused), and leads to a gloriously tense – and faintly ludicrous – action scene which ends with Michiko fighting Yeung and Lee in a dizzying three-way that’s over too soon but still lingers in the memory. The other, a  romantic/comedic relationship between Yeung and a deeply annoying Liu Kai Chi, is overwhelmingly unrealistic (what would a strong, statuesque police Madam find in a scrawny, gesticulating little coward?), but at least is capped off with an amusingly bellicose break-up scene that’s witnessed from afar and muffled by the sound of a passing train. Slight comedic sophistication in a Godfrey Ho film?

Then, past the midway point, the film kicks into high gear, concluding the aimless subplots and dropping the comic relief in favor of streamlined, hard-hitting Greek tragedy, with still a dash of dark narrative playfulness: a shocking scene is revealed to be only a dream, but ends up happening away. Lisa’s dilemma between her police duty to protect the witness and her filial duty to protect her father is clear-cut and effective, and made rather affecting by Sharon Yeung’s strong presence. As actress she had everything needed for a Michelle Yeoh-level career: fine acting skill, perfect timing and brutal grace in fights, and a fearlessness in the face of dangerous stunts – too bad she didn’t really get her due. Her chemistry with Moon Lee is ironclad, the latter a sweeter (yet no less skilled and courageous) counterpart to Yeung’s steeliness; they even fight each other twice, short but magnificent displays of powerful agility. Yueh Hua is an excellent scumbag, while the ever-reliable Kenneth Tsang brings his indelible brand of moral ambiguity to a key tragic character. The finale is glorious bullet ballet captured with unsuspected class by Godfrey Ho (and cinematographer Ma Kam Cheung deserves praise for his evocative and contrasted work): marvel at the sight of Yeung and Lee moving in harmony, each mowing down henchmen with dual guns, right to an impactful coda.

Long Story Short: Godfrey Ho resists most of his worst urges in Princess Madam, resulting in a top-shelf ‘Girls with Guns’ actioner. ***1/2

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