Centuries ago in ancient China, five mighty martial arts clans are at war over possession of the magical To Lung sword, with many innocent folk caught in the crossfire. During a clash between two rival clans, Chang Tsui-San (Francis Ng Chun-Yu) chooses to commit suicide (by exploding his own heart, no less!) rather than betray a friend. He is followed by his wife, Yan So-So (Sharla Cheung Man), but not before she urges their young son to take revenge. Spared by the villains but cursed with a life-threatening injury, the boy is adopted by his parents’ sifu, the sprightly one-hundred year old Master Chang San-Fung (Sammo Hung). As he grows to adulthood, Mo-Kei (Jet Li) is a humble weakling kept alive only by an energy infusion from his kindly master. His despicable cousin, Ching Su (Ngai Sing) allies with Chow Chi-Yu (Gigi Lai), a comely visitor from a rival school, to torment and bully Mo-Kei, until he is rescued by the beautiful Siu Chiu (Chingamy Yau), a wily Ming clan handmaiden with awesome kung fu searching after yet another fabled super-weapon, the Yee Tin Sword.
Fleeing the scene, the pair plummet to their presumed death off a cliff but actually arrive in a mystical cave. Here Siu Chiu tricks a mad monk chained to a giant flying boulder (yeah, I know but just go with it) into teaching Mo-Kei the “Great Solar Stance.” Now cured of his affliction, Mo-Kei becomes an indestructible kung fu genius, able to fly and shoot laser beams from his palms. Over many adventures Mo-Kei and Siu Chiu battle an evil sect, escape a booby-trapped tomb and learn even more ancient kung fu techniques. Eventually, Mo-Kei unites the warring clans and uncovers a sinister plot headed by the lovely and mysterious Princess Chao Min (Sharla Cheung Man, again), who looks exactly like his late mother.
After scaling the heights of Hong Kong movie superstardom, Jet Li teamed with Wong Jing, the notoriously trashy but most consistently profitable producer in the industry. Their union spawned a string of crazy kung fu flicks, arguably none more so than Kung Fu Cult Master, also known as The Evil Cult. This was an all-star semi-spoof of Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, a famous five volume epic written by the great wu xia novelist Louis Cha, which originally graced the screen as a three-part Shaw Brothers film series directed by the legendary Chu Yuan. Even that celebrated version only skims the surface of the insanely ambitious, incredibly complex plot. Kung Fu Cult Master’s dizzying pace never relents as it races through a tangled web of secret conspiracies, magical kung fu stances, eccentric characters (lookout for comedian Richard Ng as the bloodsucking King of Green Bat, seemingly styled after Count Dracula), sudden betrayals and gravity-defying swordplay, leaving the film more likely appreciated by ardent wu xia fans than casual viewers looking for a beer-and-pizza kung fu fix.
Although the story stars out deeply dramatic, things grow increasingly goofy and humorous including an abundance of embarrassing sex gags that are Wong Jing’s stock in trade (Early on, Master Chang San-Fung warns Mo-Kei only a virgin can master the secrets of ultimate kung fu, but admits “I may be old and grey, but I still get a stiffy every morning.” Thereafter, Mo-Kei struggles to stay chaste surrounded by increasingly sexy and flirtatious young women). Nevertheless, some of the original story’s poetic elements and political satire seep through.
With Jet Li as co-producer and Sammo Hung choreographing the action, this big-budget Golden Harvest production has a grandiose sweep and an array of outstanding set-pieces: e.g. the battle under the desert sands where severed limbs explode out of the ground; Mo-Kei’s gravity-defying duel with a flirty Princess Min as she wields an enchanted six-string instrument; and an army slaughtered by a blitzkrieg of flying shields - set to a syrupy Cantopop ballad. Nobody does stoic heroism quite like Jet Li, even though it is a shame he rarely gets to show his more animated comic side as in the Wong Jing-produced Fong Sai Yuk (1993). While it is great fun to watch him wipe out entire armies, the film is stolen by his female co-stars, in keeping with a tradition of strong roles for women in wu xia movies.
Sultry Sharla Cheung Man acquits herself very well in her dual roles, but the movie truly belongs to the adorable Chingamy Yau, who was Wong Jing’s girlfriend at the time and appeared in what seemed like every single one of the movies he made throughout the Nineties. Nevertheless, she had the talent to sparkle like a real star. Sporting a hairdo likened by Hong Kong film guru John Charles to “a cross between Princess Leia and Minnie Mouse”, Yau rips into her role with great gusto and is charming and vivacious. Kung Fu Cult Master ends on something of a cliffhanger, but though a sequel was filmed back-to-back with the original, the footage was never edited into a movie. So if you’re wondering why Princess Chao Min looks like Mo-Kei’s dead mother, you are out of luck.