This fun fantasy romp from Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh comes from his mythological period when he was adapting classic Chinese tales like The Water Margin (1972) and The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975). Three thousand years ago when heavenly beings ruled a turbulent Earth, fun-loving deity Na Cha (Alexander Fu Sheng) sneaks away from boring school lessons to explore the mortal world. His eyes are opened to human suffering, seeing how self-righteous celestial bigshots like his father General Li Chi (Lo Dik) stand aside while cruel warlords enslave the peasant populace. Meanwhile, the 3rd Prince (Fung Hak-On), a sea monster in human guise, rises from the ocean to harass a peasant lad (Li Chen Piao) and kidnap his girlfriend (perennial damsel-in-distress Yuen Man-Tzu). Na Cha heroically slays the sea dragon, angering both his own father and King Dragon (Kong Do) who demands the Li family pay with their lives.
As penance for his crime, and on the condition his family be spared, Na Cha commits suicide. “My naughty son is better off dead!” huffs his ungrateful father, though mortal folk begin venerating Na Cha as their saviour. Seeing this, Taoist immortal Tiayi (Lee Wan-Chung) resurrects Na Cha as a demon-busting superhero wielding the super-cool Fire Point Lance and Wind Fire Wheels (basically fiery pinwheels attached to his feet), but in doing so goes against the wishes of heaven…
Chinese households have venerated the flying deity Na Cha for centuries. His story has been told onscreen many times, including Shaw Brothers' earlier Na Cha and the 7 Devils (1971), but this 1974 version remains the most enduringly popular and that’s likely due to its star, Alexander Fu Sheng. One of the studio’s most beloved superstars, Fu Sheng’s popularity rivalled that of his Golden Harvest counterpart, Jackie Chan. Being among the first graduates of the performing arts school founded by Shaw Brothers and TVB, his skill at martial arts, comedy and dramatic acting graced many classics until his career was cut tragically short by a hit-and-run accident in 1984. Fu Sheng’s impish performance ably embodies the prankster-god, who may have right on his side but is often foolish and rash.
On the opposite end of the moral spectrum stands Na Cha’s father, rigid and implacable. He believes heaven’s law is absolute and reacts to his son’s questioning by delivering a stern kick to the head. The plot poses this philosophical question: is it more important to respect your elders than do what is right? For an English audience, the answer might seem like a no-brainer, leaving the open-ended conclusion - wherein divine intervention in the form of a mystical miniature pagoda arrives to assist the bullying father and not the heroic son - somewhat confusing. What viewers should bear in mind is that Na Cha has questioned the founding principles of Chinese society. It is not a question of right and wrong, but of balance between order and chaos. Anyway, a heavenly official (Fung Ngai) admits it is impossible to judge which of the pair holds the moral high ground.
While Chang Cheh was never as strong a visual stylist as his Shaw Brothers peers Chu Yuan and Lu Chin Ku, he pulls off some delirious set-pieces including Na Cha’s aerial battle with the dragon prince and his resurrection morphing from a heavenly lotus into a silver-clad Fu Sheng amidst crazy coloured lights. Sort of Cecil B. DeMille on a budget, the film trades po-faced piety for charming pantomime special effects, loveably cheesy monster costumes and goofy comedy. Instead of a grim-faced avenger, Na Cha mounts his battles like elaborate pranks, a trait liable to endear him to unruly kids everywhere.