Fans of Taiwanese children's fantasies like Magic of Spell (1988), Kung Fu Wonderchild (1986), Twelve Animals (1990) and Friendly Shock Yaya (1988) will find themselves on familiar, if no less disorienting ground with The Ginseng King. Which is also known as Three Headed Monster. Somewhere in China, a long time ago (or maybe not, read on...), a young boy called Hsiao Ming (Chan Ying-Kit) is out picking mushrooms in the forest when he happens upon a talking ginseng root. While attempting to apprehend the feisty little bugger for its valuable medicinal properties, Hsiao is bitten by a poisonous snake. His life is saved by the kindly, albeit freakish-looking, 10,000 Year Old Ginseng King. Then when Hsiao returns home he finds his dear old mum being attacked (indeed borderline sexually assaulted) by a Nazi zombie.
Yes, this alleged kids' movie has the child hero's mother molested by one of the undead. And yes, it is a Nazi zombie. He not only wears the uniform but barks 'heil, Hitler!' upon mistaking a monk's Buddhist symbol for a swastika. Maybe the filmmakers are making a reference to Shock Waves (1975). Kids love that movie, right? Anyway, there is a perfectly logical reason for why an undead German soldier from the 1940s is active in ancient China, but the film has no time to go into that. Hsiao's mum is going to die from an infected zombie bite, right? Luckily Ginseng King happens along to lure the Nazi zombie into a minefield (?) where he gets blown up. However, on his way to revive Hsiao's mum, Ginseng King tries to save dainty Little Princess (Cynthia Khan) from a goblin attack. Whereupon the minx reveals it was all a ruse (ha-hah!). Little Princess strips down to a sexy leopardskin bikini and micro miniskirt then spirits Ginseng King to a subterranean lair for her evil master the Three Headed Monster. To save mother's life Hsiao must first save the Ginseng King. So he teams up with Old Gramps, a senile cave-dwelling wizard, for what proves to be a nightmarish rescue mission in which he doesn't actually do anything.
If Ginseng King is remembered at all, aside for being another bat-shit crazy example of Far Eastern children's cinema, it is for launching the screen career of Cynthia Khan. It was around the same time that the Taiwanese beauty took over from Michelle Yeoh as the lead in Hong Kong's top policewoman franchise. Beginning with In the Line of Duty 3 (1988), Khan became a staple of the girls-with-guns sub-genre, headlining cult favourites Tiger Cage 2 (1990), Queen's High (1991) and Madame City Hunter (1993) among others along with period martial arts fantasies like 13 Cold-Blooded Eagles (1992) and Blade of Fury (1993). On occasion she got to show off her legitimate acting chops as with the charming Sixties-set comedy-drama It's Now or Never (1992). Clearly the filmmakers where not about to waste Cynthia Khan's star quality on a secondary villain role. Hsiao quickly discovers Little Princess is really a nice girl. She only serves the Three Headed Monster because he has her mother, a crazy cackling hideous old witch (evidently the princess got her looks from her dad), imprisoned in the castle dungeon. So Hsiao teams-up with Little Princess. Which is just as well since his only other ally, the useless Old Gramps falls asleep in a cosy dungeon until the movie is over.
Trained as a ballet dancer, Cynthia Khan brings genuine grace to her fantastical fight scenes with goblins and the titular triple-threat. In time honoured three-headed monster tradition his heads argue hilariously among themselves. Wielding the cool-looking 'Cold Ice Sword' while delighting fans with a sexy outfit, Cynthia performs most of the heroic feats in the movie. Meanwhile ostensible lead Hsiao reacts with increasing, if perhaps understandable bewilderment and horror to each downbeat development in what proves a child-traumatizing yarn. In typically Taiwanese 'is-this-really-for-kids?' fashion Ginseng King includes elements straight out of a Lucio Fulci horror movie: truly scary zombie makeup, a descent into hell, torture, multiple innocent deaths and the graphic disemboweling of a major character. Y'know, for kids.
The stream of consciousness plot possibly makes more sense for anyone familiar with Chinese mythology. Yet seasoned fantasy film fans may notice certain scenes are staged and lit suspiciously similar to key sequences from Hollywood fantasies like Ridley Scott's Legend (1985) (an early scene with Little Princess traipsing through the woods in a flowing white gown echoes the introduction of Mia Sara's heroine), The Neverending Story (1984) (Hsiao's encounter with wise old crackpot Old Gramps mirrors Atreyu's visit with the gnome scientist) and the climactic scenes with the Gnome King in Return to Oz (1985). Much is made of Hsiao's sense of 'filial duty' reflecting traditional Chinese family values. However the film also stresses the importance of not judging people based on first impressions. Whether it is the complex motivations driving Little Princess or even Ginseng King's frankly grotesque appearance which likely scared more kids than made them think fondly of ginseng roots. Half the movie involves inane slapstick while the other half is jarringly visceral and gloomy. Nonetheless there are moments of cracked wonder along with some amusing monster costumes. Among the film's fantastical highlights the heroes hitch a ride with Longleg 7, the fastest giant creature on Earth, then consult the memorable Magic Eyes and Magic Ears to locate the Three Headed Monster's hideout. This gigantic duo use their uncanny abilities to scour the Earth in search of the monster's hideout. In the process viewers are treated to stock footage of old movies that stand in for Africa, Europe and the United States. At one point the goofy monsters even ogle a sexy naked girl climbing out of a river. Y'know, for kids.