Of historical interest for being the very last martial arts movie produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, Journey of the Doomed is a patchwork effort but still fascinating. A talking parrot awakens Shui-Erh (Fu Yin-Yu) with the disturbing news her younger sister is being sold into sex slavery. The unfortunate sister is drugged, hoisted on a rope with her buttocks branded by hot iron, before being ravished by a squealing fat sadist. So Shui-Erh slings a poisonous snake at the scumbag. This upsets her guardian, Big Sister (Tam Wai-Mei) who, in the midst of a steamy romp with her boyfriend, reveals Shui-Erh is really the emperor’s love child. At her lover’s suggestion, Big Sister sneaks inside the imperial palace, hidden naked in a rolled carpet Cleopatra style, where she reveals the truth about Shui-Erh to the Crown Prince (Tony Leung Ka-Fai, in a one-scene cameo).
The Crown Prince sends the heroic trio of Fei Hsia (Candice Yu), Swallow 13 (Max Mok - what happened to the other twelve swallows?) and Xi Ma Cross (Goo Goon-Chung) to fetch Shui-Erh back to the Forbidden City. Complicating matters is Fei Hsia’s cape-swishing boyfriend, Sheng (Alex Man Chi-Leung) working for the evil 2nd Prince (Law Yun-Ping) who wants Shui-Erh dead. Sheng summons deadly, inaccurately named Monkey Lin (Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Shaw’s greatest kung fu diva of them all). Alongside her Eighties’ rock chick styled partner in crime, Wind Eel (Li Tien-Lang), she slaughters a houseful of whores in a whirlwind of bloodshed and gratuitous nudity, but Shui-Erh makes an ingenious escape. The princess-to-be is rescued by a handsome fishermen (Tung Wei), who turns out to be Monkey Lin’s kid brother. This prompts her change of heart and Lin dies protecting her sibling. On the run from two teams of warriors, the youngsters fall in love but their’s is a star-crossed romance.
Journey of the Doomed was the directorial debut of Chan Chuen Yee who went on to a prolific career as an actor, director and producer, notably with the award-winning Once Upon a Time in Triad Society (1996). Several of his later works, e.g. Basic Impulse (1992) and The Rapist (1994), repeat the salacious aspects evident here. He seems to have been instructed to “sex up” this fairly traditional wu xia romance, reaching beyond soft-focus love scenes between the young leads to include kinky episodes involving characters who have otherwise little to do with the plot. Nothing new there, since Shaw Brothers had been pushing the envelope as far back as the mid-Sixties, although the guitar rock and power ballad soundtrack is something different.
Confused storytelling loses track of some of the myriad characters, with Kara Yui Ying-Hung (in a villainous role for once) grievously wasted in a glorified cameo. A star at Shaw’s since the age of seventeen, there isn’t enough space to list the many classics she as been in, though she won the very first Hong Kong Best Actress award for My Young Auntie (1980). Her co-star Li Tien-Lang was the daughter of Shaw’s most revered director Li Han-hsiang. She’s quite memorable as a leggy, Frank Frazetta styled Amazon and exits the film far too early. Nevertheless, the film is distinguished by strong performances and complex characterisation, as lovers Fei-Hsia and Shen find themselves on opposing sides. The romantic elements are well handled for the most part, but it is disheartening that Shui-Erh stars out as gutsy and smart then grows inexplicably whinier. This culminates in a lengthy midsection where she and Tung Wai’s peasant hero (who goes strangely unnamed!) experience all sorts of domestic troubles when sheltered by a kindly mute girl (Regina Kent).
Tung Wai is perhaps most famous for playing the young kid painfully tutored by Bruce Lee in the opening scenes of Enter the Dragon (1973). He studied under legendary Peking Opera performer Fen Ju-Hua, before making his film debut in 1964 aged ten years old. From stuntman to actor, Tung went on to become one of the greatest action choreographers in the business, with occasional directing gigs like Magic Cop (1990).
The film is well crafted and beautifully shot, making strong use of outdoor locations though the absence of Shaw’s trademark sumptuous sets is noticeable. The naturalistic look makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the usual flying heroes and explosions of coloured fog, with the trippiest moment occurring when Shan blasts hypnotic rainbow beams from his forehead at Fei, whereupon they enter a private dreamscape to make love. And this happens in the middle of a fight!
Actress Candice Yu was briefly married to superstar Chow Yun-Fat. She was a regular in Shaw Brothers martial arts movies and television serials where she often sang the theme songs. After remarrying she rarely appeared in films except for a cameo in Tsui Hark’s modern classic Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992). Co-star Alex Man Chi-Leung made his screen debut in Ann Hui’s groundbreaking New Wave film The Secret (1979). He appeared in what seems like every single Shaw Brothers film from the early to mid-Eighties, winning a Best Actor HK Film award for Hong Kong, Hong Kong (1983) and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Best Actor award for Gangland Odyssey (1988), besides being nominated for the Wong Kar Wai classic: As Tears Go By (1988).
The theme underlining Journey of the Doomed is bad luck. Early on a fortune teller correctly identifies Shui-Erh as a princess but claims she will bring misfortune to all she meets. He is immediately proven right when she accidentally sets fire to his stall. Nevertheless, it’s not bad luck so much as stupidity that seals the young lovers’ doom as they repeatedly flee the good warriors. The climactic detonation of an old, worn-out Shaw’s set induces a twinge of sadness, not so much for the protagonists, but because this was the end of an era.