Once seen never forgotten, Magic of Spell is the king of all weird kung fu fantasies. The weirdness starts with the title itself which besides being grammatically awry is inaccurate since the onscreen name reads: Magic of Stell! Loosely based on the Japanese folk tale of Momotaro, this Hong Kong-Taiwanese co-production is actually a follow-up to the earlier Child of Peach (1987) and begins as young hero Peach Boy (actress Lin Hsiao Lan) uses his super-strength and magical powers to rescue a drowning lad while his bubblegum pop theme song tickles our ears (“The world is full of laughter and hope… the happiness of childhood is no dream…”). Living alone with his elderly mother (Yau Mei-Fong), Peach Boy has to contend with a goofy young warrior who wants to become his student and two hideous wisecracking kung fu zombies (with makeup as scary as any Lucio Fulci movie) and their skeletal dad out for revenge.
Meanwhile, a decrepit old magician known as the Devil wants to rejuvenate his withered body and rid the world of that goody two-shoes Peach Boy. Bathing in a pool of virgins’ blood doesn’t do the trick, so the Devil sends his loyal monsters - including his son: a Chinese hopping vampire (see Mr. Vampire (1985) for details), an ogre able to shape-shift into a man-eating boulder, a green goblin with a handheld energy cannon, and a fey albino transsexual witch called Miss White - and army of demonic samurai warriors to blow up the nearest village and kidnap their children. The bad guys also pull off a pre-emptive strike by poisoning Peach Boy and killing his dear old ma. Just when they’ve got the upper hand, out of the well flies a giant magic peach that zaps them all with laser beams. No, I have no idea either…
The next morning, Peach Boy is joined by his colour-coded magical animal friends Monkey Boy, Doggy and Chicken. All played by child actors whose amazing acrobatic skills make for some dynamic set-pieces. Doggy clobbers villains with a giant bone. Chicken wields a bird-shaped glove puppet. Don’t laugh, because not only does she wipe out hordes of villains with that glove puppet she also rips the eye out of a major bad guy in gory close-up (bear in mind though, this is meant to be a kid’s movie!). Anyway, these guys and the klutzy comedy sidekick follow Peach Boy on his journey to rescue the kidnapped kids.
On the way, they happen across a band of ginseng hunters searching for the legendary Ginseng King, who bursts out of the ground in a flurry of optical effects played by a little boy in a pantomime root costume. Traditional belief has it the one-thousand year old ginseng is a powerful rejuvenating tonic, so it comes as no surprise the Devil is desperate to grab it for himself, but Peach Boy foils that scheme. Out of gratitude, the little ginseng follows Peach Boy to the Devil’s (cel animated!) palace where an apocalyptic punch-up ensues. In a plot twist that must have traumatised a generation of Chinese kids, Peach Boy learns he must eat his newfound friend in order to save the day.
Growing up on a diet of Asian cinema, Taiwan was for me more than a manufacturer of cheap plastic toys. It was a land where imagination ruled and anything seemed possible. My belief stems from a youth misspent watching the output of Kinko Films, a company that cranked out crazy kids movies from Hello Dracula (1985) to Kung Fu Wonderchild (1986) and Twelve Animals (1990) usually starring Lin Hsiao Lan. Like those actresses who play Peter Pan onstage, the diminutive Hsiao Lan was forever cast as a boy hero. She combined outstanding martial arts prowess with a winning sincerity, note her intense anguish during mom’s teary death scene.
Former stunt choreographer Chiu Chung-Hing got his start on the Yuen Woo Ping classic Miracle Fighters (1982) whose eccentric influence can clearly be felt here. His background is evident from the fact Magic of Spell is largely one jaw-dropping fight scene after another, but the madcap wire fu, optical effects and cel animated interludes are interwoven with eye-catching artistry. The story is rife with Buddhist virtues not least the selfless, altruistic Peach Boy who seems always willing to lend his strength to those in need. At one point the Buddha himself intervenes and saves Ginseng by zapping the evil monsters with cartoon laser beams. Nice one, Buddha. Considering this is a children’s film it is a little alarming how horrific the action gets with a large of array of innocent bystanders getting killed, but this is something of a Kinko trademark. Imagine Disney movies with extreme violence, big explosions, risqué humour (at one point the comedy sidekick is sexually molested by the witch!) and rampant surrealism that would make Salvador Dali do a double-take.