You know, pirates have never appealed to me on a cinematic level as much as they should. I mean, their tales include, to use the cliché, “high adventure” on the high seas, and they usually look great. They have grizzled, swarthy men doing manly things (with just a whiff [sometimes more] of homoeroticism). They have pillaging of villages and molesting of maidens. But they’ve simply never done it for me completely. I’ve enjoyed some, to be sure, like Captain Blood and the underseen Nate and Hayes (hell, I even dug The Pirates of Penzance for a hot second back in the day), and the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films are some of my favorite fantasy films of all time (though, let’s be honest, that’s way more for the stop motion monsters than for any piratical hijinks [which Sinbad didn’t really get into anyway]). Nevertheless, the mere conceit of pirates in a movie never piques my interest beyond a halfhearted “okay, then.” This even extends to the wildly broad, threadbare pirates of Ulysses Au-Yeung Jun’s (aka Yang Ming Tsai) The Country of Beauties (aka Island Warriors aka Warrior Women aka Yang Yang Jun). They’re filthy and skanky, and their captain (Cheng Fu-Hung) is a flamboyantly adorned (his “crown” resembles nothing so much as a glorified hat from The Flintstones’ Loyal Order of Water Buffalo) malcontent, so all the bases are covered. And they still didn’t distinguish themselves for me overmuch.
Years ago, a “lascivious” tribal king exiled his wife to a remote island (read: Taiwan), where future generations of women became “Amazons” and formed a She-Woman Man Haters’ Club all their own. The women spend their time fending off pirate attacks, disowning the inhabitants of the nearby Men’s Island (yes, it actually has that uninspired name), and doing gymnastics and wicked dance moves en masse to a poppy, little rock number. When three idiots show up intent on stealing the legendary treasure of the Amazons (for the sake of argument, I’ll just refer to them as such from here on out, even though they’re not literally Amazons in the mythological sense), a monkey wrench is thrown into the not-so-delicate balance of the distaff society.
The Country of Beauties is an odd duck of a film in more ways than one, and I think this is largely due to its tone. On the one hand, the film is about women who hate men so much, they set any male infants born there adrift in the sea to be eaten by sharks or drowned, and they ritually castrate men who either trespass on their island and/or fail to produce female offspring. On the other hand, their entire existence is due to some asshole male who booted his wife to an island (assumedly so he could wet his wick with other women unfettered). The pirates regularly lay siege to the island and make off with some ladies. The Amazons have a right to not like men; all of their headaches were caused by men. The film takes this angle very seriously, but it does so to the point of condescension, because the filmmakers treat the women as completely wrongheaded in their ideology.
This patronization mainly takes the form of the denizens of Men’s Island. The men’s chief, Wan, sends envoy Lu (Don Wong Tao), along with the corpse of one of their citizens (for emphasis), to beseech Queen Nadanwa (Elsa Yang Hui-Shan) to “change your female chauvinist system” and calls the Amazons “barbarians” (way to win hearts and minds, man). Wan himself admonishes Nadanwa that “women can’t live in harmony without men,” and “everyone should live happily together.” It’s not until the men actually show that they’re willing to help the women that any of this is acknowledged. The women are presented as wrong, pure and simple. Naturally, then, one of the princesses, Chung (Fanny Fong Fong-Fong), falls for one of the men and violates the Amazons’ rules in order to be with him. Chung is willing to go to the point of self-injury to prove her point, but her chosen beau uses the opportunity to further browbeat the Queen and her people. Moreover, an Amazon uses up all of her “Virgin Kung Fu” energies to save the life of a man. Afterwards, they make out, and she turns into the old hag she actually is (she’s over a hundred years old, her youth and power maintained by her chastity), but she states that she regrets nothing. For a film which is ostensibly about female empowerment, it’s actually a vehicle for male dominance (you could, I suppose, argue that it’s a call for the harmony embodied by the yin and yang principle, but I just didn’t get that vibe).
For as po-faced as the film is about its theme, it also has some prominently unsubtle humor that not only doesn’t work due to its vapidity (which is standard in many Chinese genre films) but also turns on a dime back to the rather grim, self-serious approach of the rest of the picture. For example, a tubby pirate lands on top of an Amazon, impressing her into the sand on the beach like one of King Kong’s paw prints. Later, he is killed in a manner most bloody and without a hint of the drollness displayed earlier. Primarily, however, this odd dichotomy is exemplified by the three treasure hunters. They inveigle their way into not being castrated by stating that they are, by turns, a doctor who can cure any ailment, an expert cannon builder, and a schlub whose sole claim to fame is having fathered thirty-six children. The doctor handles a difficult childbirth by accidentally jumping on the mother’s stomach. The cannon builder digs his heels in about not wanting to be used as a stud. But the profligate guy, Dahai (Hui Bat-Liu), is the real exemplar. He mugs and gurns in the most ham-handed manner possible. When he’s taken to impregnate a couple of Amazons, they turn out to be not only kind of hideous but also biters. Later, he is castrated for trying to get with a lesbian princess, and he immediately turns into a swishy queen. Regardless, he falls into despair over this, and he plans to take revenge or die trying. The admixture of idiocy and sobriety sits uneasily, and in combination with the disdainful air aimed at the Amazons, The Country of Beauties produces conflicting viewpoints, not in the sense of sparking honest discussion but rather in the sense of wanting to be a fun, exploitative romp while also wanting to be a snotty reprimand to all the world’s uppity women. You want to like it. There are elements of it to like. But its waters are just a little too muddy to want to go swimming in them for any extended period of time.
MVT: The outlandish designs, from the unlikely costuming of the Amazons to the giant, naked, cannonball-firing (from its eyes, not from where you would at first assume) statue of the Amazons’ founding mother are just great.
Make or Break: The very opening of the film, with its dancing, cheerleading, and gymnastics truly drew me into the moment, although it belies where the film will go rather swiftly.