If you know anything about martial arts movies, you’ll know they essentially come in three flavours: gritty kung fu, high-flying fanciful wu xia, or the dingbat crazy, “what the hell just happened” genre. Like magic mushrooms sprouting along a mysterious jungle path, movies like Buddha’s Palm (1982) and Magic of Spell (1988) offer a heady, hallucinogenic trip, with none more mind-bending than anything written, directed and starring the queen of weird kung fu cinema: Miss Pearl Chang Ling.
Wolf Devil Woman, her most infamous opus, opens with a wild satanic ritual. A horrified kung fu couple (the female half played by Chang Ling) witness masked megalomaniac, the Red Devil - who, I kid you not, sounds just like Foghorn Leghorn - perform ungodly acts with voodoo dolls and rip a man’s heart out for an encore. Fleeing the scene, they are chased and slain by crimson clad ninjas and kung fu gorillas, and their spurting blood warms their baby girl against the bitter cold. A pack of ferocious wolves (actually some jolly looking Alsatians) rescue the infant and raise her on a diet of 1000 year old, magic ginseng, so she grows into a super-duper kung fu dynamo (Chang Ling, again). The kid really lucked out, because evidently these wolves also possess the opposable thumbs and rudimentary sewing skills needed to fashion her a chic little wolf-skin outfit.
Years later, Red Devil - who, I kid you not, dresses like a glam-rock member of the Klu Klux Klan - and his angry apes run riot across the Martial World, seemingly unstoppable with his deadly “freezing spell.” According to worldly-wise White Beard (Sek Ying), the one thing that can stop him is 1000 year old magic ginseng. So, Young Master Rudolph (Sek Fung) and his goofy sidekick Rudy (Pa Gwoh), trek across the frozen wastes in search of the mystic root. Instead they find Wolf Devil Woman and, after inadvertently slaying her wolf mother, play Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering to her Eliza Doolittle, trying to educate the feral girl into polite society. Which isn’t easy when she keeps biting them.
As well as teaching Wolf Devil Woman to read and write, Young Master Rudolph uses kung fu to realign her spine - which we glimpse in x-ray! - increasing her agility and skill. He also discovers that getting angry (or drunk!) transforms our heroine into a white-haired, unhinged, super-witch - a sure sign she’s consumed the magic ginseng. Returning home to his father (Wang Hsieh), Rudolph struggles to protect their clan, only to end up hypnotised as one of Red Devil’s “golden needle” zombies. Meanwhile, Wolf Devil Woman discovers civilisation isn’t especially civilised, after angry townsfolk beat her with sticks and try to drown her down a well. But she recovers and with Rudy’s help hits the vengeance trail, disembowelling apes and decapitating ninjas with a nifty whip made of wolves’ tails.
Helter-skelter storytelling climaxes in delirious fashion with an epic showdown amidst Red Devil’s psychedelic lair of dry ice and lava pits. Hideous zombies fling acid, hopping vampires spring from nowhere, and a sexy, white-veiled, flying witch shoots silk webs and laser beams from her hands. Crazy, white-haired Wolf Devil Woman tackles zany, cartoon-flame spewing Red Devil, extinguishing them with her own spurting blood, before revealing a half-dozen surprise plot twists in around sixty seconds. Like Rudy says, “I never met anyone like her. Quite a girl.”
A long-cherished cult movie among kung fu aficionados, Pearl Chang Ling’s second directorial effort starts out crazed, turns demented and ends up completely off the wall. Based on the same wu xia novel that inspired the more ambitious and artful The Bride with White Hair (1992), this movie exists in a state of constant flux, tossing out surreal ideas (like the golden needles that trap human souls) and audacious low-budget visuals as if it were the goriest, most avant-garde children’s pantomime ever staged.
At the centre of her self-created whirlwind stands dainty, pouty-lipped Pearl herself, delivering a daffy, yet endearingly enthusiastic performance. She flies on wires, rips a chicken apart and gobbles its entrails (bunny lovers beware! This also features gratuitous rabbit slaughter), and emotes like crazy as the feral, yet disarmingly soulful wolf child. She won’t make you forget Brigitte Lin in The Bride with White Hair, but she’s fun to watch and even more so in the superior sequels: Matching Escort (1983) and Miraculous Flower (1984).
Veteran schlock producer Godfrey Ho released these movies in the West as the Wolfen Ninja series, thus by default they rank - alongside Duel to the Death (1981) - among the most imaginative ninja movies. This includes great action sequences where Pearl hangs an ape man from a bell tower, impales another gorilla with flying swords that launch him into the trees, or burrows like a mole under the desert as she flings ninjas out of the sand and spins zombies like yo-yos. Listen out for the eclectic soundtrack that veers wildly from a traditional Chinese orchestra, to excerpts from Goblins score for Dawn of the Dead (1978), spaghetti western themes, and Bonanza.