The valiant 13th Prince Yen (Kenny Bee) flees his kingdom with a small army led by loyal swordswoman Hsien (Maggie Cheung), after the scheming 14th Prince (Kelvin Wong) seizes the throne. They run into Ah Fei (Andy Lau), a happy-go-lucky youth, whose supernatural kung fu skills help rout the pursuing shadow warriors. The friendly fisherman bonds with the good-hearted prince and introduces him to his best friend, Wei the killer whale. After an ambush, the prince calls upon Fei to deliver one half of a singing jade pendant to Princess Yuet (Anita Mui), who acts like a spoiled brat but has amazing martial arts powers. She and Fei bicker their way to a budding romance, eluding the forces of evil. But Yuet is already betrothed to Prince Yen and the all-conquering army of the 14th Prince are drawing nearer.
Moon Warriors was made during one of those crazy years when every production company in Hong Kong cashes in on the latest trend. In this instance, the fantastical swordplay flicks that proliferated after Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992) became a monumental box-office smash. Suddenly, every filmmaker in town was strapping some teen idol or Cantopop star into a wire-fu harness. Though the lesser examples are legion (and if I’m being honest, pretty darn fun in their own right!), Moon Warriors was a class act thanks to some top-flight talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Despite the hectic shoot, the finished film has the sweep of an Akira Kurosawa epic and, as written by Cheung and Law, much of the poetry and elegance that characterises old wu xia novels. The filmmakers weave a melancholy tale of star-crossed lovers frustrated by fate that is typical of the genre. As indeed are its philosophical musings on karma and chivalry, interwoven amidst surrealistic flourishes: a battle in a bamboo forest that predates House of Flying Daggers (2004) (which also stars Andy Lau); an ambush by kite-waving ninjas in drag; an amazing duel between Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui with both protagonists bouncing off statues around an ancient temple; and a flaming flying severed head that ignites a row of arrows spelling that spell the kanji for “Heaven and Earth”.
The gravity-defying swordplay erupts with imagination and events speed by at an astonishing pace, yet Hung and cinematographer Arthur Wong find time to savour such poetic images as moonlight rippling on water or the glitter of the magic powder Yuet uses to soothe Ah Fei’s wounds. In fact, in addition to multiple directors, at least two other genius cameramen worked on the film: Peter Pau (an Oscar winner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)) and Andrew Lau (no relation to Andy and best known as the co-director of Infernal Affairs (2002)).
Maggie Cheung was by this point well on her way to becoming one of Hong Kong’s greatest acting talents. Remarkably, she shot all her scenes (in a variety of locations) in just three days, yet shines in her atypical role as conflicted assassin, in love with her target. But really, the whole cast are equally adept at soul-searching drama as high-flying swordplay and Shamu the killer whale acquits himself pretty well too. Sadly, the closing act is too chaotic by far and downright downbeat with innocents slain and heroes humiliated by the psychotic super villain who cannot be beaten. After enduring his cruelty and taunts, it’s rather disappointing that - spoiler warning! - he gets his just desserts from the future star of Free Willy (1993).
Hong Kong born actor, producer and director and one of the best known figures in Hong Kong cinema. Hung's large frame belies a formidable martial arts ability, and he's best known for his collaborations with Jackie Chan during the 1980s and more recently for his US TV show Martial Law.