by Gabriel Valdez
Female martial artists have rarely had the opportunities of their male counterparts. Even when Hong Kong saw the rise of the profitable “girls with guns” genre, producers treated these like exploitation films. Women performed martial arts, yes, but they were also trotted around in various states of undress and often needed last-minute rescuing from the male lead. There was also a certain brutality toward women in the fights that wasn’t always shown toward the men.
The Iron Angels series, also known as Fighting Madam, Angel, or Midnight Angels, exemplified the best and worst traits of the genre. It established the genre as viable on a bigger scale while introducing defining female martial artists like Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima to many martial arts fans in the West who hadn’t seen their smaller, earlier films. When the first film proved successful, however, its 1988 sequel backseated the women in favor of focusing on the exploits of Nathan Chan.
It is noteworthy that this sequel was co-directed by Raymond Leung and Teresa Woo. Women (as in the U.S.) rarely direct in Hong Kong or Chinese cinema, but Woo was a writer/director who enjoyed brief success.
We’ll focus on that sequel here, but I’ll feature a great fight from the original down the road. I want to focus on Moon Lee today because her choreography reflects the blending of kung fu, taekwondo, and kickboxing that was taking place in Hong Kong cinema at the time. Jackie Chan had originally infused kung fu films with his zeal for risky stunts. For years, he had also been bringing in foreign martial artists in order to vary up his choreography and the skills of the opponents he faced.
What Jackie Chan did, everyone did. This blending of styles was becoming very popular and what we think of as older, more rigid “kung fu” choreographies could become repetitive to audiences on their own. Moon Lee was one of the best – male or female – in terms of shifting into choreographies heavily informed by stunt work and non-traditional, “post-modern” martial arts.
The best fight in the entire Iron Angels franchise takes place between Moon Lee and fight choreographer Yuen Tak. It’s a condensed, no-frills fight where the two go toe-to-toe after she beats the snot out of his Lieutenant. (You’ll also see Elaine Lui there right at the end.)
It’s a shame Moon Lee and her contemporaries are rarely thought of in the same way that Chan, Jet Li, or Donnie Yen are. They were just as skilled, but no one with influence was interested enough in pushing female-led films.
This didn’t really begin to happen until Jackie Chan saw Michelle Yeoh practicing choreography for his 1992 film Supercop, and he delayed production to have the entire film rewritten with her as his co-lead. And, as we know, what Jackie Chan did, everyone did. That’s not to say things are at all equal today, but a lot changed thanks to Yeoh pushing the boundaries with her talents and Chan realizing what he’d overlooked for so many years.
Moon Lee’s film career was finishing up by this point, though she would continue to enjoy success on television. Within the parameters of what the industry allowed at the time, her career was massively successful. It’s just a shame that this still means we rarely think of her today. In the fight scene above, you can see why we should.