In a bid to get their accident prone father elected sheriff, pigtailed kung fu queen Phoenix Huo (Elsa Yeung Wai-San) and her similarly badass kid sister Little Chicken stage a spectacular acrobatic display. However Old Huo's bitter rival, greying martial arts matriarch Shui, is also after the town vote. She has her equally skilled daughters Dragon Water (Sun Chia-Lin) and Lax (Wu Jia-Shan) try to upstage Huo’s kung fu kids at every turn. Both sets off wannabe law enforcers then intervene to prevent the suicide of the dejected De Flato (Li Min-Lang). He despairs because his wife has been kidnapped by Oolong, a mysterious, gold devil-masked cult leader so evil he scares both Madame Shui and Old Huo. All three and a half kung fu girls set forth on an adventure to rescue De Flato's wife, squabbling every step of the way.
By the late Seventies martial arts filmmakers were spoofing the plot tropes and genre motifs that drove many seminal works earlier that decade. Jackie Chan, for example, became a star by poking fun at the old "downtrodden guy learns kung fu from a kindly old master" trope in his breakthrough films Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978) and Drunken Master (1978). In a similar vein 3 and a Half Kung Fu Girls (also known as simply Kung Fu Girls or less flatteringly 3 and a Half Dumb Kung Fu Girls) takes aim at female-led wu xia films that dominated the Hong Kong and Taiwanese box-office. As if to underline the joke, in a nod to the wu xia film that started it all, genre veteran Yueh Hua more or less reprises his role from Come Drink With Me (1966) as a super-badass martial arts master disguised as a humble beggar. Although Hua is personable as always his presence lends an otherwise good-natured, if ramshackle, parody a bit of a sour undertone. Whereas in the previous decade women dominated martial arts cinema, here they are played as semi-competent (albeit still way more badass than in most mainstream fare) goofballs that eventually need to be bailed out by a big strong man. It took several more years and the rise of the '80s girls-with-guns subgenre - e.g. Yes Madam (1985), Angel (1987), She Shoots Straight (1990) - before balance was restored.
A zany Benny Hill style fast-motion opening title credit set to a bizarre electronic score establishes 3 and a Half Kung Fu Girls is going to be a really weird ride. Indeed leading lady Elsa Yeung Wai-San ought to be enshrined in the weird kung fu movie hall of fame. Though less of a cult figure than similar genre divas Polly Shan Kwan and Pearl Chang Ling, Yeung Wai-San etched quite the filmography of wildly imaginative fare: e.g. Bruce, Kung Fu Girls (1976), Thrilling Bloody Sword (1981) (where she is the wicked queen in a kung fu rendition of Snow White), Golden Queens Commando (1984) and Challenge of the Lady Ninja (1984). Here she is an appealing presence as the pigtailed, perpetually smiling Phoenix, mugging enthusiastically throughout a ramshackle plot laden with pratfalls and cartoon sound effects. It is really just a string of skits, some in questionable taste, many others simply laboured and tiresome.
The second act gets badly bogged down in dire sex comedy antics at the town brothel although having Dragon Water and Lax go undercover as prostitutes only to run into Phoenix posing as a male client is mildly funny. At one point the film even pulls off a Scooby-Doo style montage of characters running in and out of various doors. Happily the third act kicks things up a notch or two. Chan Jun-Leung, who went on to direct superior children’s fantasies Child of Peach (1987), Hello Dracula 5: The 3D Army (1989) and Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins (1991), ditches the dumb comedy and goes full wu xia surrealism. Our kung fu girls take on masked cultists, a mute magician who stages David Copperfield like tricks while adopting different disguises (including a very good Zatoichi impression) and a giant, poison-spewing kung fu frog. Also thrown into the mix: a genuinely unexpected twist. Even so as wu xia spoofs go this pales beside David Chiang's far wittier and more energetic Legend of the Owl (1981).