This film starts off with the ubiquitous in Hong Kong cinema at the time, the staged credit opening, with a pause on the credits and a non-descript background (usually one color). This gives you a taste for what is to come, but is not part of the storyline. You might notice that a bow is used here which later in the film is not used as one of the 18 weapons in the film (though is used during the scene with Master Mo), though it has been considered one of the weapons in older lists. The most hilarious aspect of this is how much Kara Hui seems to enjoy killing off people. My favorite part is Hsiao Ho's winning a double dao () dual by being really, really flexible.
Reviewer Score: 8
Lui Gung (Lau Kar-leung) was sent to Yunnan three years previously to start another branch of the Boxer Gang. He disbanded it because of his disbelief that spiritual fighters can learn to block bullets. He is now considered a traitor to be drawn and quartered and his descendants killed so that the Empress Dowager Cixi will not hear of this (I would date the film about 1900 given these facts.) Chief Li visits Magic Fighter leader Tieh Tien (Chu Tit-wo) for him to send a fighter Tieh Hau (Hsiao Ho), who will have to be sacrificed whether he succeeds or not, to kill Lui Gung. Li visits the Earth Clan, whom have been practicing diligently on getting themselves killed by bullets*, to send their own representative which will ultimately be Ti Tan (Gordon Liu.) They are to look for anyone who has skills in the 18 weapons and has a propensity to show off their skills.
Meanwhile Fang Shau-ching (Kara Hui) from the Heavenly Clan was also sent (or else she went on her own; still not sure about this; she says she received her orders but we never see that). I would say that Kara Hui has one of the worst male disguises I have seen except, but there are too many instances of this to count in Hong Kong cinema (like Wing Chun; countless Bridget Lin roles; The Spiritual Boxer; etc...) And just like in The Spiritual Boxer it later uses the plot device I just touched a male booby so it must be a female (I feel a little sorry for tubby guys or guys with gynecomastia.) However, Tieh Hau does not know about Victor/Victoria being on the same side as him which leads to some nice battles between the two early on. The best is the cramped attic sequence which I wish they elongated.
Master Mo (which reminds me of the old book The Book of Master Mo by Mao Zi), a con-artist played well by Alexander Fu Sheng, in a supporting role, is paid to impersonate Lui Gung by his brother Lui Yung (whom I doubt very much would kill himself if he was successful.) However, he ends up impersonating Lui Yung when he is made a surrogate fighter when Yung takes him over via a Mao Shan doll (analogous to a scene in Dirty Ho where Kara Hui is also like a marionette.) I do love that scene and add in potty humor and it adds even more excremental goodness.
Now who is this woodcutter named Tien Gung Yu with trembling hands and the ability to lift heavy objects? I think we all know who he is and soon all the characters do as well. But does he survive his unmasking? Is his brother on his side? Does he win over any converts? Is the last half hour an awesome amalgam of weaponry (at least 18 weapons worth with Chinese characters stating each one like it is a fighter in a wuxia film), fighting, long takes and superb martial artists? Are my questions rhetorical?
Speaking of non-rhetorical: this movie does ask important questions that other films rarely go into. Do you ever wonder how they learn to rip off their own genitalia? How do they practice? I find it hilarious that after the self-emasculation scene you see an object fly up into the air and descend. I also wonder if ripping out your own eyes is actually fatal (analogous to biting off your own tongue in several films). I do not want to try it myself though. During the we can block bullets scene I was also wondering would not it be smarter to first attempt shots on non-lethal areas on the body. Once you pass that test than you can try fatal shots. It is funny that Hsiao Hos character gets sick from the feces infested lavatory water (eau de toilette) but I wonder if Fu Shengs character does since you no longer see him in the movie and he spends more time looking for the money in the cesspool.
For the most part the early scenes are too short in their fighting to satisfy connoisseurs of hand-to-hand combat. I think because of one of the main bouts with Fu Sheng is technically a fake fight that it is not as interesting to some, but it is still one of my favorite staged (in the cinematic world) scenes because of how good it looked, how funny it was and of course the Chang Cheh reference with pushing the guts back in and fighting on -- Fu Sheng has had his midsection previously pierced and bandaged (Disciples of Shaolin for example). When the fights are elongated they are superlative. This is where Lau Kar-leung's direction and action choreography (along with Hsiao Ho and Lee King-chu) help tremendously. Plus the fact that he works with tremendous martial art talents, uses longer takes than most directors and often uses real weapons.
There are a few negatives to the film are the sometimes obnoxious electronic score and the plot that could have used a little more editing especially in dealing with the relationships between Magic Fighters and Spiritual Boxers (the subtitles also add Mao Shan, but Spiritual Boxers tend to be Mao Shan correct?). However, there are additional positives to the film. The non-action choreography and editing is nice as well. One of my favorite short scenes of this type about 16 minutes in goes from a transitional cut to a full-screen fan with Chinese characters to it folding with a zoom to Lui Yung.** There are a lot of little scenes like this when you pay attention (usually after a few watches when you are not concentrating on the action or humor.) Lau is underappreciated as an auteur. Lau has another film that deals with some of his favorite topics like authenticity and identity. Obviously in his approach to martial arts mentioned above. But also look at how many films of his deal with impersonators, doppelgangers (both real and supernatural), woman as men, westernization, peons as masters and masters as peons. This film has all of those so much that I noticed it has confused several reviewers. Of course it does not help that Lau Kar-wing does look like his brother Lau Kar-leung.
I am going to go with the critical consensus on this and state this is one of the better 1980s Hong Kong films regardless of studio. I have had a lot of fun with the plot, I think the action is quite good (though not enough of it) and the ending(s) is superb. I love seeing so many weapons used so well. I could have even watched Lau Kar-leung practice with all of them and elongate this film. I have rewatched this several times and should rewatch it again in the future.
I have the R1 Image release and it has English subtitles (no dubtitles). It comes with the Mandarin mono and Mandarin 5.1 dub only. This really should have had the Cantonese language dubbing which is the preferred dub of this film. The IVL R3 release has that dub. The bonus material is rather light. You have Shaw Brothers Trailers (11 of the Image/Celestial releases) and Other Titles You Might Like (13 and some of them like Shaolin Family Soccer you might not like.) The print is rather good, especially compared to a lot of other Image releases which suffer from ghosting. This looks to me to be progressive as well. I believe the IVL release is a few minutes shorter because of a crummy PAL-to-NTSC conversion. The Image release, for me, came with two inserts: Asian Cinema Catalog No. 1 and a postcard you filled out to receive advance notice of future releases.
* In Lau's first released film The Spiritual Boxer he has a similar scene to start the film with.
** David Bordwell has a nice write-up in Planet Hong Kong (2nd Edition; pg. 144-145) on how a non-action choreographed scene uses a pause/burst/pause pattern prevalent in Hong Kong cinema.