Ling Ling-Fat (Stephen Chow Sing-Chi) is a zany, incompetent member of the Forbidden City Cops, an elite guard unit assigned to safeguard the Emperor (Cheung Tat-Ming) from would-be assassins. He also moonlights as a gynaecologist (!) and inventor creating all kinds of mad gadgets for use in his crime-fighting activities, aided by his adoring wife Ling Kar Ting (Carina Lau). When a bizarre creature, dubbed “the Flying Fairy” falls from the heavens, all the doctors in China are ordered to assemble at the site and perform an autopsy. However, this is all part of a cunning plan devised by the evil King of No Face, who literally lost his face whilst mastering a unique kung fu technique. Now he and his demonic family are out to murder all of the imperial physicians as part of their planned invasion.
Although beloved by Hong Kong audiences since his early days as a kids’ TV host, it is only relatively recently that English fans of HK film began to speak favourably of comedian Stephen Chow Sing-Chi. For die-hard action afficionados, his crass comedy stylings laden with wacky wordplay and over-the-top slapstick simply did not translate well. Forbidden City Cop was one the first films that turned the tide, partly because it packed enough high-flying wire fu action and fantastical fight choreography to sate serious swordplay fans. Things kick off magnificently with the hilarious James Bond/Maurice Binder-styled opening credits complete with cod-Monty Norman theme music as Chow strikes inept sword poses and lewd gestures at the naked girls gyrating in seductive silhouette.
While the film’s central conceit, placing Chow’s trademark fast-talking Cantonese wiseass into an anachronistic period settings, essentially covers the same ground as his crowd-pleasing though critically-despised Royal Tramp films, the shift away from his usual abrasive persona towards a more tender characterisation, alongside the deeper relationships and sincere dramatic beats mark a significant step towards the maturity and ambition of his breakthrough hits: Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004). Not many films could intergrate knockabout fantasy kung fu action, a spoof of the notorious Roswell autopsy video, gag references to the ridiculous candlewax sex scene from Madonna’s godawful Body of Evidence (1992) and the showstopping climax to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and some genuinely well-conceived plot twists into an affectionate portrayal of a warm, loving relationship between husband and wife. But that is exactly what Forbidden City Cop manages to do.
The first half is deceptively episodic with most of the laughs centred around Ling-Fat’s array of crazy contraptions including a rat-powered, massaging bed and a helicopter rotor that allows him to fly, yet they establish the relationship that gives the film its emotional core. Chow shares great chemistry with his co-star Carina Lau and their exuberance proves infectious in a string of comic vignettes that seem semi-improvised. At the midway point, the plot takes an unexpected detour. After the Emperor orders Ling-Fat to woo comely courtesan Gum Tso (achingly lovely Carman Lee Yeuk-Tung, giving a spirited, vivacious performance) on his behalf, the imperial agent promptly falls for her himself and seemingly abandons his wife. Nothing is quite as it seems though and the climactic act unveils a pleasing array of twists done, quite uniquely, as a spoof of the Hong Kong Film Awards, before the knockabout martial arts finale. The action is surprisingly visceral for a comedy: bones are snapped, guts spilled, throats slit, and bodies are impaled, set on fire or blown apart. Some of the humour does get lost in translation but the best gags hit the funnybone with satisfying consistency. Martial arts film aficionados will take great delight in the presence of Yuen Cheung-Yan in drag reviving his crazy kung fu granny character from Miracle Fighters (1982) while Yuen Shun-Yi spoofs the psychotic character he created in Dreadnaught (1981), both magnificent films directed by their illustrious brother Yuen Woo Ping. Also look out for director Vincent Kok Tak-Chiu in a small role and another regular Steven Chow collaborator, Lee Lik Chi who directed the star in the excellent Love on Delivery (1994). Forbidden City Cop was produced by Wong Jing who later directed a remake called On His Majesty’s Secret Service (2009) starring comedian Louis Koo.