Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat) is a handsome, young, archaeology professor living in America where comely blonde students are always asking him home for some private tuition (wink, wink). His family want him to settle down with a nice Chinese girl, little realising Jeff is leading a double life as a sharp-shooting CIA agent. When the U.S. government grow interested in obtaining a valuable Chinese treasure, Jeff journeys to a remote region in northern China where treasury agent Tong Ling (Chin Han) tells him what they seek is protected by monks at the Shaolin temple. After infiltrating the monastery, Jeff clashes with stern Abbot Hung Chi (Gordon Liu) while he introduces the other monks, in particular child novice Ching Leung (Choi Yue) to the joys of baseball, Coca Cola, donuts and the Nintendo Game Boy! But the treasure turns out to be a beautiful woman named Sui Ching (Jaclyn Wu) with strange supernatural powers able to make objects fly or transform matter. Jeff and Sui Ching fall deeply in love, but there is a traitor in their midst intent on selling the psychic girl to the highest bidder.
One of several Hong Kong movies bearing the name Treasure Hunt, this particular title gave western viewers a very different Chow Yun-Fat from the twin-handgun wielding killer they were more used to seeing. Few welcomed the sight, but in actual fact Chow had made many broad comedies that proved popular with his Chinese fans. Here the normally suave superstar mugs enthusiastically through some comical kung fu fights, wry one-liners and surreal sight gags as Sui Ching’s amazing powers endow him with enormous earlobes, a swollen gut, an inflatable fist and also make flowers sprout from his head. Shaw Brothers icons Gordon Liu and Philip Kwok Tsui (Chow’s antagonist in Hard Boiled (1992) as an argumentative taxi driver with a secret to hide) also seize this rare chance to showcase their wackier sides but also lend some surprising (though welcome) gravitas to the plot’s more dramatic beats. In fact both Liu, Kwok and child star Choi Yue reprised their roles in the kung fu comedy Shaolin Kids in Hong Kong (1994).
The wildly schizophrenic tone is typical of writer-director Jeff Lau and Chinese Lunar New Year comedies in general. Culture clash humour, knockabout kung fu, gory gun battles, paranormal powers and heartfelt romance combine to create a random plot that abruptly ditches seemingly crucial characters (e.g. Michael Wong as Chow’s casually corrupt C.I.A. colleague) and throws crazed plot twists, including a revelation about one character’s identical twin, to keep things moving along. Lau does not bring a lot of energy to the cod-John Woo shoot ’em up scenes but peppers the script with some satirical points about civil rights, religious hypocrisy, American disrespect for Chinese culture, and the failure of Chinese authorities to value individual freedoms. Always the romantic Lau emphasises the love story which, thanks to the potent screen chemistry between Chow Yun-Fat and Jaclyn Wu and the director’s own knack for staging disarmingly poetic moments amidst the silliness, proves genuinely affecting. Some uniquely Jeff Lau touches include Sui Ching declaring her love for Jeff by sneaking him choice passages torn from their favourite wu xia (swordplay adventure) novel and the villain’s fear of wind chimes he believes will foretell his death. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau contributes a few striking images, including the lovers flying across the air through a picturesque snowfall - more like a scene from A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) than the action thriller this occasionally aspires to be.
Those not won over by the romance can instead savour the suspenseful finale where Chow reverts back to indestructible action hero mode, gunning down scores of sharp-suited gangsters (whom the chief villain uses as human shields!) and using some ingenious explosive traps to rescue his lady love. As expected, Siu Ching brings a supernatural resolution to the climax (Chow delivers the send-off: “Go to your next life!”) although thanks to the manipulations of the Chinese government the ending proves bittersweet.