Skipping merrily down a golden path, a little girl called Silver Maid (Ng Siu-Wai) is ambushed by the notorious Red Devil sect. These crimson-clad killers don’t take kindly to trespassers. But Silver Maid coolly kicks their collective asses with her mystical kung fu skills! To prove there are no hard feelings, she asks to join their group to improve her already awesome abilities. However, the aptly-named Red Devil Chief (Wu Pin Nan) remains suspicious of her motives. Sure enough he discovers Silver Maid shares a shack with her grandpa, a once-legendary hero named Silver Knight. They are actually on the trail of an elusive superweapon known as the Sacred Tooth also coveted by the Red Devils and their hated rivals, the Black Devil sect. But first, Silver Maid must aid her ailing grandpa by retrieving the magical Fairy Fungus, which is guarded in a cave by a magic frog, magic centipede and magic scorpion able to transform into deadly human fighters, along with a snake that turns into a giant puppet, er, I mean, giant snake.
There seems to have been a mini-craze in early Seventies Taiwan for films about flying moppets with mystical kung fu. Silver Maid ranks alongside such similarly unhinged kiddie kung fu epics as The Dwarf Sorcerer (1974), Young Flying Hero (1970) and Boy and a Magic Box (1975). Tonally these films lie somewhere midway between traditional Chinese wu xia (swordplay) fare, classic costume fantasies a la The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and fast-paced Japanese children’s action films, most likely taking their cue from the seminal Watari Ninja Boy (1966). It is a sub-genre that can be traced back to the ninja kids manga and anime epics of Sanpei Shirato, though international imitators avoided his penchant for Marxist allegory and strident sociopolitical commentary.
With the exception of our heroine’s all-too-brief but delirious encounter with those wacky guardians of the Fairy Fungus, Silver Maid is low on the kind of colourful creatures that usually mark madcap movies of this type. Instead the film runs along the lines of a kung fu Nancy Drew. As our pre-teen, martial arts adept super-sleuth unravels the mystery of the Red Devil sect and their plan for world domination (bwah-ha-hah!!), she encounters a cocky leopardskin-clad lad named Fu Leng, earning his admiration by besting him in battle, and also star-crossed sword-wielding lovers Sister Feng (Sally Cheng Sha-Li) and Western Devil (Su Chen-Ping) whose plan to escape the reach of the evil sect goes seriously awry. These may have been children’s films but no attempt is made to shield them from the harsher aspects of life. Friendly allies die stage literally explosive suicides to safeguard loved ones while blood flows freely. Bloodshed and brutality sit uneasily alongside zany humour and jovial whimsy but fans would not want it any other way. Films like Silver Maid undoubtedly paved the way for the wave of even more outrageous, effects heavy Hong Kong-Taiwanese children’s fantasy films of the Eighties and Nineties, e.g. Magic of Spell (1988) and Twelve Animals (1990) where slapstick and sadism where seemingly inseparable bedfellows.
The severely cropped subtitles featured on the most widely available print render the already arcane plot all but impenetrable, but the film is rife with exciting incident and not terribly hard to follow. While the action choreography is uncommonly bland, director Nan Tu-Fu stages some ingenious lighting tricks and eye-catching optical effects particularly whenever Silver Maid dazzles onlookers with her magical powers: splitting into multiple double-exposed duplicates of herself, blasting a dozen bad guys at a time, or using the holes in her flute to catch six darts then sling them back at a villain. A big part of the film’s appeal is the ebullient performance given by child actress Ng Siu-Wai who counterbalances the usual sorrowful back-story and filial duty with a welcome level of impish glee. “She’s tricky”, gasps one villain. You said a mouthful, friend.