In this high-flying wu xia fantasy from the genre’s golden age, klutzy swordsman Kwan-Mo (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and his hapless master Yat Yeung-Tze (Damian Lau) are on their way to attend a gathering of nine martial arts clans. Riding through the desert, a sudden attack knocks Kwan-Mo off a cliff, but he is rescued by Pak Wan-Fai (Anita Mui), a beautiful martial arts princess who rides a Magic Crane named Yuan Yuk. She saves his life again when he accidentally spies sexy, naked swordswoman Lady Jade Flute (Jay Lau Kam Ling), whose evil brother So Pang Hoi (Lawrence Ng) rules the Tien Lung Tribe, a powerful kung fu sect out to conquer the weaker clans.
After the Tien Lung unleash a horde of poison bats against the squabbling swordsmen, Wan-Fai and Kwan-Mo fly off in search of an antidote, while duplicitous clan chief Tsao Hung (Kelvin Wong Siu) makes his move. The antidote turns out to be a huge gall bladder, extracted from a giant, fire-breathing, prehistoric turtle whom Wan-Fai slays with her magic flute. However, mysterious beauty Butterfly Lam (Rosamund Kwan) arrives with her army of kung-fu amazons. Claiming Wan-Fai is “the princess of a fallen empire”, Butterfly seeks revenge because her father, Lam Hoi-Ping (Norman Chu) abandoned his family to raise the young prodigy. Wielding a mystical string instrument, Butterfly draws Wan-Fei into an amazing musical duel where sound waves rip floor tiles and explode water. Can these ladies settle their differences and prevent Tsao Hung, tutored by a blind, cave-dwelling cannibal kung fu master (Lau Shun), from conquering the Martial World with his giant bell?
If that half-crazed synopsis left you going “huh?!”, this movie and probably the whole genre is not for you. For those more attuned to its charms, The Magic Crane is a superb wu xia incorporating typical themes: idealism struggling amidst disharmony and mistrust, heroes striving for peace amidst the rising tide of war, and love as the ultimate answer. It’s a sprawling, complex saga that requires a notebook to keep track of who’s who and a much suspension of disbelief. Typical complaints centre around the over the top special effects and puppet monsters. Asian fantasy fans won’t mind, but Zhan Tie Lin’s cinematography is suffused with a dreamy atmosphere and so layered in mystic mists you won’t notice the wires. Yuan Yuk is a perfectly acceptable puppet who fights, flies and cries!
Typically for a Tsui Hark production this features ingenious, zero-gravity fight scenes incorporating flowing silks, sound waves and fireballs, plus a welter of Shakespearean wordplay, slapstick romance and sudden plot twists. Also typically Harkian are the dynamic and sexy female characters. For while Tony Leung Chiu-wai is fine in one of his atypically comic roles (see also: I Love Maria (1988)), this movie belongs to the women. Jay Lau Kam Ling makes a striking impression as the vivacious kung fu vixen, who flaunts her naked body before flustered swordsmen, but can outfight any of them. Sex pervades the storyline, from stolen kisses in mid-air combat and Yeung-Tze’s secret lust for Lady Jade Flute, to the much-vaunted “Cheerful Drugs.” This deadly narcotic will kill a woman unless she makes love right away. Which means Kwan-Mo absolutely must have fevered sex with gorgeous Butterfly Lam. What luck!
There are iconic turns from the late, much-missed Anita Mui as the righteous heroine slowly tainted by hate, and Rosamund Kwan as the vengeful swordswoman who finally shows remorse. Their final musical wire-fu duel, drenched in turquoise hues, is as poetic and pictorially beautiful as anything in Hero (2003), with the added sight of seeing characters fight atop, around and inside a giant, flying bell. It climaxes with an “only in Hong Kong” moment where Anita Mui sings the theme tune that deals the zombie villain an elaborate musical death. Plus there is the suggestion Kwan-Mo will marry both Butterfly Lam and Pak Wan-Fai. No wonder Tony Leung looks so happy.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.