A group of power-crazed martial arts masters (including Chan Shen, Elvis Tsui and Lam Wai) seek the magical yin and yang Holy Flame. Led by evil lady sifu Yi Tsing-yin (Leanne Lau Suet-Wa), the Seven Clans ambush and kill an innocent couple who refuse to reveal where it’s hidden. Before they murder the couple’s twin babies, the powerful Yama Elder (Philip Kwok Tsui, one of the Five Deadly Venoms) saves the day with his gale force superpower - the “Ghost Laugh”. He adopts the male infant, promising the child will return to seek vengeance. Realising the clan needs protection, Madame Yi raises the baby girl amidst the O-Mei School of Virgin Swordplay, passing on her formidable kung fu skills.
Eighteen years later, Wan Tien-sau (Max Mok) has grown into a strapping, young hero and is sent by Yama to retrieve the Yang Flame hidden inside the danger-filled Moon Cavern. In a wonderful sequence, Tien-sau battles living Chinese ideograms that make up a giant riddle he needs to solve. They spin and fly about the chamber until he and fellow swordsman Duan Yuan-sau (Lau Siu-kwan) trap them with an enormous feng shui mirror. A huge drum splits, revealing a skeleton with a book in one claw and Yang Flame in the other. This super-weapon proves handy when Juan-er (adorable Mary Jean Reimer, who headlined Little Dragon Maiden the same year), lovely daughter of the local snake catcher, is kidnapped by the leader of the Bloodsucking Clan (Donald Kong To), who need virgin’s blood to resurrect their pet monster. Said monster is pretty memorable: some dude wearing a Halloween mask and fetching green leotard, and only speaks English (“I like it! I like it!”). Together, Tien-sau, Juan-er and Yuan-sau flip across an acid-filled lake inhabited by cartoon demons and finally pierce and dissolve the fiend. Along their journey, Tien-sau encounters Wan Dan-fung (comely Yeung Jing-Jing) who, unbeknownst to both, is his long-lost sister, while Juan-er befriends benevolent jungle prince, Golden Snake Boy (played by actress Candy Wen Xue-er, confusing viewers by being really cute). A bite from Snake Boy’s pet serpent/weapon - no, that’s not a euphemism - endows Juan-er with magic powers, so she’s able to fire lasers from her fingers. Mary Jean Reimer did the same thing in Little Dragon Maiden - what is it with this girl and energy beams? Meanwhile, nasty Madame Yi gives Dan-fung the Yin Flame, telling her it was Yama Elder who slaughtered her parents. This leads to the inevitable confrontation between the unwitting siblings, until Juan-er and various kindly supporting characters manage to reunite Yin and Yang to blast the baddies to skeletal oblivion.
Holy Flame of the Martial World was Shaw Brothers’ answer to Golden Harvest’s big-budget epic - Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). Set beside the film that redefined the martial arts/swordplay genre, this may seem quaintly old-fashioned and theatrical, but the story throws in a few winning surprises and delivers action and spectacle on a lavish scale. The result is one of the last great period fantasies to emerge from the studio before they closed down two years later. If director Chu Yuan was Shaw’s Steven Spielberg, then Lu Chin-ku was their Tim Burton. In movies like this and Bastard Swordsman (1984) he pushed the wu xia genre past the point of absurdity and towards the brink of madness. And audiences loved it. Here, colourful heroes, masked wrestling monsters, animated demons, magic serpents, talking skeletons, slapstick fu, and - it has to be said - a beguiling array of beautiful heroines dance across the screen amidst an array of rainbow colours. The no-holds-barred swordplay and wild, acrobatic kung fu are performed with daredevil skill all the way until an ending that leaves viewers exhausted, but exhilarated.