Heroic swordsmen Wu Yi-Dao (Leung Kar-Yan) and Miao Ren Feng (Alex Man Chi-Leung) are feted throughout the Martial World, but despised by the evil Qing court. The heroes meet up for a friendly duel, though along the way Wu is ambushed by ninjas of the Tien Lung clan, loyal to the Qings. Even though his wife is nine months pregnant, she helps despatch these assassins with ease. Soon thereafter, Miao pits his skills against Wu, unaware that in the meantime his best friend Tien Guan Nung (the ever-oily Goo Goon-Chung) is sleeping with his wife Ah Lan (Chan Si-Gaai). The ambitious Guan Nung poisons Miao’s sword so he unwittingly takes Wu’s life. Having birthed their baby son, a grief-stricken Mrs. Wu commits suicide, prompting Miao to renounce swordplay for ten years.
Many years later, Wu’s son Flying Fox Wu Fei (Felix Wong Yat-Wa) grows to manhood raised by his uncle and learns kung fu from his father’s precious martial arts manual. His skills are remarkable, but he still gets his ass kicked when he picks a fight with a flighty kung fu girl named Miss Yuan (Kara Hui Ying-hung). Later on, Fei watches in awe when Yuan crashes through the roof of the Wai To Clan, gliding on a silken thread. She bests their finest fighters with her amazing kung fu and promptly absconds with their sacred golden seal. Fei discovers Yuan has fought and won golden seals from thirteen other clans as part of a plan orchestrated by her master, Miao, to protect the stubborn clansmen from being ambushed at their next gathering at the Qing court. Searching for Miao, Fei arrives too late to see him framed for killing his uncle. Fei swears vengeance. But when Miao is blinded by a “Five Poisonous Smoke” attack arranged by evil Qing official Lord Fok (Tong Chun-Chung), Yuan persuades him to set aside his revenge, at least temporarily. Together they search for a cure, eventually reaching the so-called Medicine Mansion where the beautiful, enigmatic Ching Ling Soo (Tai Liang-Chun) safeguards the Seven Leaf Chrysanthemum with her mystical powers. A plant reputed to cure all ills, but which comes at a heavy price.
Jin Yong’s epic novel “Flying Fox of the Snowy Mountain” is one of those sprawling swordplay sagas adapted countless times for both the big and small screen. Shaw Brothers stalwart Chang Cheh made Legend of the Fox (1980) as a vehicle for his famed Five Deadly Venoms team of martial arts actors, while the novel also served as the basis for Sword of Many Lovers (1993), a New Wave fantasy-comedy starring Cantopop idol Leon Lai. But New Tales of the Flying Fox, which marks Shaw’s second stab at the material, is probably the best adaptation. This was among the very last movies released by the legendary studio and the influence of the then-burgeoning HK New Wave is apparent from the swooping camerawork, hyperkinetic pace and gravity-defying wire fu. Interestingly, director Lau Shut Yue opts for a naturalistic look, shot on real forest locations, to counterbalance the fantastical plot and action. After Shaw Brothers closed shop, he went on to specialise in horror comedies including Ghost Busting (1989), Ghost Fever (1989) and the Stephen Chow Sing-Chi vehicle, Look Out, Officer! (1990), as well as co-directing the effects-laden Japanese co-production Saga of the Phoenix (1990).
Here, Lau Shut Yue does a fine job weaving a complex, compelling story laced with a number of surprising and affecting scenes. The opening duel is an amusing study of chivalry and etiquette as the rival swordsmen politely size each other up and keep taking a break to swap compliments. That Fei should find himself repeatedly saving the life of the man he intends to kill is an interesting plot twist while a later, heartbreaking scene has one lovestruck character selflessly suck poison from his wound, killing herself so Fei can be together with another girl. Although New Tales of the Flying Fox is a good example of a kung fu film that stays focused on character development, the set-pieces remain agreeably zany, with one outstanding sequence where Miss Yuan fights while balancing atop a pyramid of wine jars making excellent use of Kara Hui Ying-hung’s legendary martial arts skills.
The finale trots out the usual martial arts MacGuffins in the form of the “Moon Knife” and “Sun Sword”, only this time it is the villain who unearths the super-weapons and has help in the form of an army of hippie-haired Tibetan Lamas who wield death-dealing frisbees. Shut Yue’s crazy jump cuts and circular dolly shots betray another New Wave influence that further removes the action from the earlier, stagey Shaw style although the studio’s trademark abrupt ending curtails the tragic self-sacrifice of one major character. Remarkably, given how coherent and generally serious in tone the film is, the screenplay was written by future schlock maestro Wong Jing!