Night Orchid is a name adopted by a mysterious masked stranger murdering women across the Martial World. Celebrated kung fu detective Chu Liu-Hsiang (Adam Cheng) is hot on the killer’s trail till he is distracted by Szu-Szu (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), a beautiful maiden pursued by an assortment of wacky super-powered ninjas in colourful body-stockings. But this being a wu xia mystery adventure, nothing is as it seems...
Chang Pang-Yee is likely remembered, if at all, as the poor man’s Chu Yuan. Both directors specialized in adapting the fantastical wu xia novels of prolific genre scribe Gu Long. However Chu had the vast resources of Hong Kong’s prestigious Shaw Brothers at his disposal while Chang toiled for the most part on fringe productions in Taiwan. Even so he directed several solid, imaginative wu xia fantasies including his lone Shaw Brothers outing Clan Feuds (1982) and gonzo Pearl Chang Ling vehicle General Invincible (1984). Night Orchid, also known as Demon Fighter, is probably Chang's best known film. Chiefly because it features the powerhouse duo of Adam Cheng (the John Wayne of Chinese swordplay fantasies) and Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia (arguably the biggest Chinese star of all time) one year before their iconic turns in Tsui Hark's genre-redefining Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983).
Working from a screenplay penned by Gu Long himself, Chang imbues Night Orchid with a colourfully surrealistic flair and quasi-horror movie atmosphere (lots of fog, eerie lighting tricks and taut suspense sequences) worthy of Chu Yuan at his finest. Some beautifully staged sequences prove he made these seemingly disposable kung fu quickies with some care. Gu Long's eccentric murder mystery is almost Argento-esque in its elliptical approach to storytelling. Indeed the deliberately ambiguous narrative would be impenetrable if not for the spectacular action and charismatic interplay between the two leads. The film is pitched as much as a tragic love story as a martial arts adventure. Reprising his role as debonair, fan-wielding super-sleuth Chu Liu-Hsiang (a character also portrayed by superstar Ti Lung in the Chu Yuan-directed Shaw Brothers productions Clans of Intrigue (1977), Legend of the Bat (1978) and Ghostly Village (1982), Adam Cheng sparks palpable chemistry with beautiful Brigitte Lin who imbues a limited role with a disarming depth of emotion. Their romantic banter has a poetic edge that, for all the film’s daffy moments, is quite charming. While the twist ending is easy to guess (and actually par for the course with these films) it remains effective and hits home for the normally unflappable Chu Liu-Hsiang. Brigitte also gets to show off some of the fancy sword moves that would become her stock in trade in her later career resurgence in the Nineties while looking the picture of elegance in a tiara and flowing lavender gown.
While inevitably set to offend martial arts purists the film's fast-paced, high-flying action sequences are visually striking and, in terms of sheer bravado, often inspired. This one has a ninja turning into a flat piece of paper in order to slide under a door, a giggling little girl villain with a lethal flying cape and a jaw-dropping Alien-inspired moment where a pregnant woman "births" another whirling ninja! And that is before we reach the bizarre finale where the heroes face off against a twisted secondary turned major villain with a chamber full of severed heads guarded by twin robot leopard men and a death ray. Chang utilizes electronic sound effects that often make his action scenes resemble a live action video game. On top of that the eclectic soundtrack is all over the place, in a charming way, merging brooding John Carpenter style synths with bossa nova, snatches of Ennio Morricone's score for The Untouchables (1987) and, most bizarrely, treacly pop ballad "The Greatest Love of All."