Also known as Magic Kid which is a more accurate title given the hero of this Taiwanese kung fu fantasy is not a man of short stature but a little boy around five years old. It opens as Shih-Ja, a terrified peasant, flees a couple of kung fu cavemen having pilfered a precious jewel from the lair of their Hagar the Horrible-like king. The luckless thief is promptly slaughtered in front of his doting wife, Jiu-Hwa, who is abducted. But before the cavemen can kill the couple’s young son, Shao Lung, a ropey-looking puppet, er, magic eagle flies the lad safely away to the magic mountain.
Cue surf guitar rock score! Over the opening credits, a white-haired old wizard schools Shao Lung in supernatural kung fu. Fellow students include a grownup brother and sister sword duo and a pigtailed little girl skilled with deadly throwing stars. Through rigorous training Shao Lung learns to fly like Peter Pan, wield wild weapons like a death-dealing crimson umbrella, burrow underground like a supersonic mole, explode enemies with a flick of his wrist and generally kick all kinds of ass. Upon learning his dear old mom is still a captive in the Cave King’s lair, he embarks on rescue mission.
Along the way, Shao Lung rescues a maiden from a couple of would-be rapists (this is a kids’ film, right?) and fights loads of men in shoddy monster costumes, including a friendly ape and its child who help him out after he spares their lives. Evidently pigtailed girl has a bit of a crush on Shao Lung since she periodically pops through a magic portal to lend a helping hand. Unfortunately, our hero is at that age when most boys find girls yucky and spurns her help, though he is still decent enough to rescue her from this film’s creepy, cackling equivalent of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
More than three decades before Chloe Moretz popularized potty-mouthed, homicidal kung fu kids with her splendid turn in Kick-Ass (2010), The Dwarf Sorcerer gave Taiwanese children a terrific role model with a little hero who swears like a trooper and stabs villainous grownups in the bollocks. Maybe if Harry Potter had been a low-budget kung fu movie the result would have been something like this. Paving the way for the kind of bizarre, borderline traumatising Far Eastern children’s fantasy films that were a staple of this writer’s youth - e.g. Kung Fu Wonderchild (1986), Child of Peach (1987), Magic of Spell (1988), Magic Warriors (1989), Twelve Animals (1990) and Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins (1991) - this intriguing effort is sadly only available via a scratchy, washed-out print with barely decipherable subtitles.
There are enough similarities to suggest prolific director Yu Hon-Cheung, whose cult output includes the loopy Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery (1982) starring queen of weird Pearl Chang Ling, had some familiarity with the superior Japanese children’s film Watari Ninja Boy (1966). While The Dwarf Sorcerer lacks that film’s polish, Hon-Cheung’s whirling camerawork is often inventive, melding subliminal editing with stop-motion trickery to create delirious set-pieces with a certain handmade charm. Like a lot of Asian children’s films this has a jarringly hard edge with gory violence and twisted ideas such as the tigerskin bikini-clad sorceress who shoots fire from her breasts! However, Hon-Cheung also ladles on the melodrama with mournful ballads while Shao Lung wanders the countryside whining for his mom.
Luckily there are enough creepy sequences, such as the one with Shao Lung trapped in a dark cave with cackling demons, and monster battles to offset the occasional soppy moment. Things get really strange with the introduction of an out-of-leftfield love triangle when the bikini sorceress catches the hairy Caveman King canoodling with her sister. He then turns the tables and scolds her for exposing her breasts to a child! The film gets back on track, climaxing with a lively magical duel between chief villain and super-waif while those wacky apes applaud from the sidelines.