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“There is no end to our vendetta and no revenge is enough for us.”
There’s a moment early in The 14 Amazons that tells us all we need to know about our protagonists, the 14 women of the Yang clan. Struck by an enormous blow — the wartime deaths of all the family’s men save one underage boy — the many widows of the family face the possibility of their clan dying out. But they do not mourn. They do not hide. They grab spears, swear revenge, and head to war. The Yangs will not go out with a whimper.
And when a minister, the emperor’s right hand man, orders them to stop, not only do they refuse to do so, they arrest the minister instead. As they surround him, he shrieks that the penalty for imprisoning him is death. He only shuts up when the elderly clan matriarch steps forward, ornate dragon staff in hand.
She informs him that this staff was given to her by the last emperor. That it legally empowers her to beat down incompetent and corrupt officials. And that she is now in charge.
This 14-woman, 4-generation revenge epic had to be quite a treat for the audiences of the time. The 14 Amazons was the first filmic adaptation of China’s popular Yang clan stories1. The Yangs were an actual historical family who were prominent circa 1000 CE. While many of their exploits are fictional — and the story of The 14 Amazons almost certainly falls into that camp — they are beloved mainstays of Chinese literature, film, and theater, and still get regular adaptations even today. Curiously, while many of the better-known Yang stories follow the family’s more famous male-centric history, this relatively obscure female-led story (even the male heir is played by a woman!) was seemingly the first to film.
Knowing the background of the Yang stories only enhances the movie itself, particularly the backstory of the main character, Mu Guiying2. In introducing her as a demure wife and mother, the movie leaves out what the audience presumably already knew: that Guiying was an unstoppable asskicker before the movie even started. Her unreferenced origin story, a literary prequel to The 14 Amazons, reveals that she was the daughter of a bandit king, and that she’d forced her husband to marry her after defeating him in battle. As a peculiar form of courtship, she then took control of her husband’s armies and won a war for him, as a sort of dowry for their marriage3. In short, Mu Guiying was the baddest lady in China.
And so when the bad guys kill her husband at the beginning of The 14 Amazons, the audience, already familiar with the Yang stories, knew things were about to get very, very ugly.
But make no mistake — this story isn’t an easy victory lap for our heroines. It’s a nasty, brutal, knock-down fight from beginning to end. While contemporary films like Come Drink With Me emphasized grace and style, The 14 Amazons goes for more savage bloodletting. While the gore on display is laughably fake – seriously, it’s not difficult to watch in the slightest – the base idea’s intensity still stands. The enemies are vicious, capable, and numerous. Victories are scratched out in blood.
Unfortunately, the filmmaking style, in covering the rough subject matter, occasionally gets a bit too rocky for its own good. It’s everything you’d expect from 1970s martial arts movies: lots of zoom lenses, choppy edits, and dodgy special effects. Nevertheless, it holds its own on a number of great sequences, particularly one in the middle where Mu Guiying fights an archer so skillfully that he just has to remark upon it.
Regardless of its flaws, The 14 Amazons is a rare species — an action movie team-up where the entire team is women. Although its story has been told many times since in many different Chinese media, it all started here, and it’s worth checking out.
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- At least, as far as I’ve been able to determine. If there were prior ones, they would seem to be quite obscure. ↩
- Spelled in the movie as Mu Kuei Ying. ↩
- The particulars of this story change from telling to telling. In some, her future husband, Yang Zongbao, fights her — and loses — to get a weapon that she’s safeguarding. In others, the two simultaneously shoot a bird with arrows at the same time, and quarrel over who killed it. In some, she’s prophesied to marry him, thus making it a bit more culturally acceptable for her to make the first move. Hell, in some she actually gives birth on the battlefield before the final battle. There’s a lot of variations on the tale. ↩