While investigating a string of strange deaths at a picturesque area known as Moonlit Sky, young swordsman Feng Xiwu (Max Mok) discovers a beautiful, mysterious, lute-playing maiden named Shuiling (Mary Jean Reimer). It’s love at first sight as he follows her to an enchanted cave. Unfortunately Shuiling turns out to be the daughter of Shui Tianjiao (Wei Chiu-hua), a flesh eating Japanese ghost hell-bent on destroying nothing less than the entire universe. All because she was once betrayed by her lover, legendary martial arts master Lan Tianyu (Liu Yung), who has withdrawn to a monastery to atone for his sin unaware he has a daughter. Aided by Taoist ghost buster Master Ku (Lo Lieh - well into the comedy character actor phase of his long and varied career) and klutzy sidekick Ku Didi (Yim Chau-Wa), Feng aims to free Shuiling from her mother’s control, but the ghost is so powerful he enlists further help from an array of super-beings and eventually the gods themselves.
A little piece of history this. The Enchantress was the last movie Chu Yuan directed for Shaw Brothers. Indeed the legendary Hong Kong studio ceased making movies altogether by 1985 and, save for distributing the occasional comedy, concentrated on producing television shows. Yuan had been directing for fourteen years by the time he joined Shaw Bros. in 1971. Though he continued doing so after leaving he never scaled quite the same heights again and became better known as an actor in Police Story (1985) and Days of Being Wild (1991).
This is the sort of movie where characters move like human ping-pong balls or shoot laser beams from their hands. Where Lo Lieh turns invisible by removing his robes and wields a death-dealing umbrella. Those HK film fans who prefer movies where shirtless tough guys brawl in rock quarries over who killed their teacher may well balk at the unashamedly fantastical tone, the more open-minded should have a jolly good time. The special effects are pantomime-level compared to Golden Harvest’s groundbreaking Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) (in fact Lo Lieh name checks Zu in one cheeky line of dialogue!), but that is all part of its charm and the set-pieces actually exhibit a great deal of zest and imagination.
Yuan uses candy-coloured lighting and cel animation to create strange parallel worlds, plus those incredibly well-crafted Shaw Bros. sets seeped in magic mists. He crams an incredible amount into eighty-eight minutes with nearly a dozen major characters and still scope for supporting turns from Yueh Hua (as the all-powerful immortal Master Purple Robe), Norman Tsui Siu-Keung (being decapitated), Philip Kwok Tsui (camping it up as a drunken master possessed by a lady ghost!), comedy character actors Cheng Miu and Yeung Chi-Hung as a pair of Abbott and Costello type Shaolin monks, and Chiu Man-Yan and little Kei Kong-Hung, that amazing kung fu kid from Shaw’s Demon of the Lute (1983), as members of the “Galaxy of Seven Stars” - a sort of Chinese intergalactic justice league.
The sheer volume of weird and wacky supporting characters compensates for Max Mok ranking among Chu Yuan’s least charismatic leading men. Mok was and remains mostly a television actor, though he made memorable appearances in Shaw’s excellent Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983) and Journey of the Doomed (1985), which was the studio’s very last martial arts movie. He is best known for playing Jet Li’s sidekick in the classic Once Upon a Time in China II (1992).
Occasionally The Enchantress grows too frantic and cluttered for its own good. Despite the back story weaving the familiar theme of karmic atonement for past sins, unlike Tsui Hark with Zu, Yuan fails to coalesce the numerous adventures into anything truly meaningful. The seemingly cosmic story boils down to one big scrap between various ghosts, ninjas and almighty super-beings. Nonetheless, this moves at a rattling pace and has moments to cherish like the floating white cat; the ghost with extendable arms; Lan Tianyu performing an amazing kung fu exorcism using giant Buddha statues and flying Jingong lanterns; and one seriously trippy journey across outer space. Though agreeable to long-time HK film connoisseurs the action is stagy and old-fashioned compared to the New Wave films that would soon consign films like this to a distant memory.