Around the 18th century, Emperor Chien Lung of China suffers nightmares about a possible assassination attempt led by Han patriots known as the Red Flower Society. So he despatches a ruthless kung fu killer (Zhao Wen-Zhou) to track down a list bearing all those involved in this seditious society. Meanwhile in Canton, bandit-turned-business tycoon Tiger Lui (Chan Chung-Yung) attempts to win over the locals by staging a martial arts contest. Whoever beats his super-skilled wife Siu Wan (Sibelle Hu) in combat wins the hand of his beautiful daughter Ting Ting (Michelle Reis). Local legend Fong Sai Yuk (Jet Li), whose feats of daring-do are the talk of the town, has already fallen for Siu Wan without knowing her name. He enters the tournament only to uphold the honour of Canton, but despite fighting Siu Wan to a standstill, deliberately loses after mistaking Ting Ting’s homely handmaiden for intended bride. But word of this “defeat” reaches Sai Yuk’s mother, Miu Chui Fa (Josephine Siao). Outraged, she enters the contest to uphold the family name, disguised as a man. Whereupon Siu Wan falls madly in love with this handsome stranger, which creates even more chaos and confusion for Sai Yuk even before evil government troops arrive in town.
Stories about the martial artist and folk hero Fong Sai Yuk first began to appear during the Qing Dynasty. According to legend, soon after he was born, Fong’s mother - daughter of one of the famed Five Elders of the Southern Shaolin Monastery - broke every bone and limb in his body then bathed him in Chinese rubbing alcohol. This special treatment left him practically invincible or as the old folk tales would have it, his body became of “copper skin and metal bone.” Such an outlandish folk hero was ideal for martial arts movies and there have been scores of Fong Sai Yuk films since the silent era. For many kung fu fans the character was ideally incarnated by the late Alexander Fu Sheng in the straight-laced Shaw Brothers slug-fests Heroes Two (1974) and Shaolin Temple (1976). In their eyes, the larky, revisionist 1993 effort was nothing less than an affront to the integrity of those earlier works. Nevertheless, the Nineties Fong Sai Yuk was a smash hit across Asia and, one would argue, endures as a classic of kung fu cinema - far more dextrous than the stoically constipated machismo of Chang Cheh.
Fong Sai Yuk was the first and finest of many collaborations between notoriously lowbrow but high profit-yielding producer Wong Jing and iconic martial arts star Jet Li, fresh off the success of his Once Upon a Time in China films. In place of the stern-faced and steadfast Wong Fei Hung, Wong Jing gave audiences a smiling, mischievous Jet, prone to pranks and wisecracks. Heck, he even dons drag! Jet himself signals the change in tone in one cheeky scene where he adopts a typical Wong Fei Hung pose before announcing his alias as none other than Wong Jing. Whereas Wong’s own directorial efforts were often hit-and-miss, here he sensibly handed the reigns over to one of the best martial arts movie-makers in the business: Corey Yuen Kwai while the wild and witty screenplay was co-written by comedy auteur Jeff Lau.
The result was surprisingly close to a Shakespeare comedy with kung fu. Its web of romantic entanglements, mistaken identities, clever wordplay and puns delivered in rhyming couplets could have come straight from the Bard, while the zany anachronistic humour with a humanist touch is pure Jeff Lau. The richness of Lau’s script energises Jet Li who delivers a lively comic performance, ably assisted by an outstanding supporting cast. Among them: former Miss Hong Kong Michelle Reis (Jet’s flirty sidekick in Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992) and who later gave a risk-taking performance in the Wong Kar-Wai gem: Fallen Angels (1996)), Sixties matinee idol and John Woo favourite Paul Chu Kong (in his penultimate role) as Sai Yuk’s stern but loving father, an impressively venomous Zhao Wen-Zhou (who briefly succeeded Jet as Wong Fei Hung in Once Upon a Time in China IV (1993) and V (1994)), and an especially noteworthy Sibelle Hu. Often typecast as no-nonsense policewomen, she relishes her tragicomic role as Siu-Wan’s mistaken romance with Sai Yuk’s mother reaches an unexpectedly poignant end. Her amazing duel with Jet is among this movie’s most memorable set-pieces as they battle atop a pagoda, run across people’s heads and continue fighting whilst standing on their servants’ shoulders!
But the performance most people talk about upon viewing was that of veteran actress Josephine Siao. A huge star in musicals and martial arts movies, spy films and dramas in the Sixties, while most of her contemporaries retired from the screen at age twenty-one, Siao endured throughout the ensuing decades appearing in groundbreaking New Wave films from Jumping Ash (1976) to The Spooky Bunch (1980) and one of John Woo’s early comedy hits: Plain Jane to the Rescue (1982), which she also produced. She twice won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress in The Wrong Couples (1987) co-directed by Shaw Brothers icon David Chiang and Ann Hui’s acclaimed art-house drama Summer Snow (1995). Plagued by deafness in one ear throughout her life, she retired shortly afterwards. Siao is flat out hilarious in Fong Sai Yuk as she spoofs the sort of roles she played regularly throughout the Sixties and goes into ecstatic reveries every time her husband recites poetry. She and Jet prove a highly amusing double act and combine their boundless enemy for some truly exuberant action sequences choreographed by former Shaw Brothers star Yuen Tak. Interestingly, Tak earlier appeared in the Shaw Brothers’ Ambitious Kung Fu Girl (1981) which has a similarly irreverent tone. Given Fong Sai Yuk was such a smash, it is no surprise Wong Jing wasted no time in reuniting cast and crew for the equally splendid sequel: Fong Sai Yuk II (1994).
In the nineties, he directed Jet Li in films like The Legend, The Defender and The Enforcer, which led to work as action choreographer on many of Li's Hollywood films, including The One, Kiss of the Dragon and Cradle 2 the Grave. Most recently, Yuen directed the Luc Besson-produced action hit The Transporter.