If not for this goofy spoof version of Louis Cha’s seminal wu xia (“swordplay") fantasy, Eagle Shooting Heroes, celebrated Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai could not have completed his own, arty, ambitious adaptation, Ashes of Time (1994). Stuck in the desert, facing escalating production costs, Wong and co-producer Jeff Lau came up with the novel idea of shooting a comedic version of the story, cheap and fast with the same stellar cast and crew, aimed at the lucrative Chinese New Year market. Needless to say, their gambit paid off. The big money earned by the silly spoof version paid for the serious masterpiece, encapsulating the balancing act of the Kar Wai/Lau partnership. Wong earns the critical plaudits while Jeff makes the hits.
Somewhere in an anachronistic fantasy version of Asia’s semi-mythical past, the dastardly yet strangely pathetic Ouyang Feng (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and his glittery vamp cousin-cum-lover (Veronica Yip) seize the Persian throne by tricking the king and his courtiers into eating black magic centipedes, by which they control their every move. At least that is the idea. Given our dim-witted evildoers can’t quite recall which centipede controls which person, disaster ensues. Meanwhile, the king’s heir, Third Princess (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), who claims mastery of mystical kung fu when in fact her skills are sub-par, rides off in search of a secret martial arts manual known as the Book of Yin. Using the latest in jet-propelled flying boots, Ouyang Feng flies off in pursuit, only a stray boot fells righteous martial arts master Wang Chongyang (Kenny Bee), who has an unwanted admirer in Zhou Botong (Carina Lau), a sexually confused sword hero who abuses his/her position to molest handsome students! Seeing Third Princess flee the scene, Zhou mistakenly swears vengeance on the wrong person.
Next up, Third Princess runs into Huang Yaoshi (Leslie Cheung) and Suqiu (Joey Wong), a sappy, pastel-clad sword duo whose syrupy romance runs off the rails once the former claps eyes on the comely newcomer, leaving the latter insanely jealous. Fair Suqiu has her own admirer in Hong Qi (Jackie Cheung), a bedraggled but incredibly accomplished martial artist whose love she cruelly spurns, sending him suicidal. Falling, quite literally, into a pit of despair alongside the hapless Ouyang Feng, Hong Qi willingly surrenders his life to the bad guy. Unfortunately, Hong Qi is so invulnerable, Ouyang Feng only succeeds in repeatedly injuring himself in classic Wile E. Coyote fashion. Meanwhile, fey Prince Duan Wang-Yeh (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) comes to believe he can achieve immortality by finding true love with a woman who has a special mark emblazened across her chest. Naturally, he asks random women on the street to bare their boobs and is somewhat perplexed when each responds with a hearty slap. Unfortunately, Duan fails to recognise Third Princess as his predestined paramour and somehow gets it into his head that Huang Yaoshi is his dream guy instead! Eventually the wacky court magician (an especially cute Maggie Cheung) manages to get all these goofballs to settle their differences and combine their powers in battle against Ouyang Feng.
Although its anything-for-a-laugh approach is inevitably hit-and-miss, Eagle Shooting Heroes delivers a generous amount of side-splitting fun. Not least the spectacle of serious, award-winning actors mugging like school kids in an end-of-term play. Tony Leung Chiu-wai delivers the standout comic turn, pairing a pantomime swagger with a hyaena laugh and spending half his screen-time sporting outrageously swollen lips. Carina Lau is equally notable, subverting the standard practice in kung fu cinema of women posing as male heroes, and adding another layer to the film’s provocative take on gender and sexuality. Surprisingly few critics care to note that love and its myriad complications are themes that bind the highbrow Wong Kar Wai with the seemingly low-brow spoofmeister Jeff Lau. Where Wong is preoccupied with romantic ennui and frustrated desire, Lau goes one step further by embracing the concept of desire as something fluid and ephemeral, transcending all boundaries, gender, sexuality, spirituality, this world and the next. His characters ricochet across the screen like live-action Looney Tunes cartoons, oddly befitting of the helter skelter fantasy land conjured by Louis Cha. It must have been a disorientating shoot for the cast who, with the sole exception of Jackie Cheung, play different roles to those essayed in Ashes of Time (N.B. Joey Wong was among the original cast of Ashes but was unable to take part in Wong’s reshoots, hence she was replaced by teen pinup Charlie Yeung). Indeed, the late Leslie Cheung had earlier played Hong Qi in Little Dragon Maiden (1983), a drastically condensed though incredibly charming Shaw Brothers adaptation of Eagle Shooting Heroes. Here the openly gay actor has to feign outrage whilst courted by Tony Leung Ka-Fai, dressed in period drag and looking like a camp Queen Amidala. The game duo perform a full-on, song and dance number which ranks a close second in the weirdness stakes besides the scene where a gang of swordsmen play football with one character’s floating, disembodied head while the soundtrack plays the theme from Match of the Day!
Lau spoofs the stoic conventions of the old school martial arts movie including characters who get cramp in the middle of performing martial arts stances or whose throwing knives consistently strike the wrong target. At one point Huang Yaoshi and Suqiu fight in slow-motion by actually moving very, very slowly. There is also the obligatory inn scene with all our heroes sequestered in the same spot resulting in ever escalating misunderstandings. For all these zany goings on, the action choreographed by the great Sammo Hung is as imaginative and spectacular as any “straight” kung fu film, with energetic camerawork to match thanks to future Oscar winner Peter Pau and future director Andrew Lau. Rubber monster fans are well served as the magical talking gorilla, giant bird and dinosaur featured in Louis Cha’s original novel make memorable appearances, partaking in an amusing slapstick chase through a haunted cave and mistaking Ouyang Feng... for a duck. You need a silly sense of humour, but anyone familiar with the eminently spoof-worthy conventions of wu xia cinema will derive at least a handful of belly laughs. Incidentally, Jeff Lau recently released his second screen adaptation of Eagle Shooting Heroes, this time a contemporary re-imagining called East Meets West (2011).