Martial arts movie buffs know superstar David Chiang best for his stoic Shaw Brothers roles. In mucho macho epics like Vengeance! (1970), Blood Brothers (1973) and The Water Margin (1972), he punched heads so hard eyeballs flew out of their sockets and tore still-beating hearts from his enemies chests. Horror fans may recall he cut quite a dash in the Hammer/Shaw Bros. co-production Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). But few people outside Asia are aware that David Chiang also had a lively, goofy sense of humour. Having made his directorial debut at Shaw Bros. with the comedy A Mad World of Fools (1974), Chiang set out to send-up exactly the sort of straightlaced period fight-fests he was famous for with the sublimely silly independent production: Legend of the Owl.
A masked mastermind known as the Owl (yes, he wears a silly owl mask) hosts a secret auction in his underground lair where guests bid for stolen art objects and captive slaves. His guests snap up a black stud (who turns out to be Kunta Kinte from the hit TV series Roots), a busty blonde in a leopardskin (none other than Tarzan’s mate, Jane!) and the Mona Lisa (?!). But one unimpressed customer challenges the Owl to kidnap the Emperor’s 36th wife for the next auction. So the Owl sends a message by rocket - that shoots past an array of scenes-in-progress from famous martial arts movies - to a super-skilled midget ninja called Ko. The dwarf tunnels under the imperial palace and plucks the startled queen right out of her bathtub.
Soon the whole palace is in disarray, although the assembled princes are more worried the Emperor might discover his favourite wife has been sleeping with all of them on the side. The Emperor tasks the hapless General Feng (so clumsy he bumps right into the camera) to rescue his beloved bride and assigns lovely swordswomen Pearl and Jade to assist him. One year later, as an onscreen narrator immediately informs us, the general returns embarassingly empty-handed but with a newly, doubly-pregnant Pearl and Jade! After arranging the immediate castration of General Feng, turns to his most trusted advisor: a talking parrot. The bird promptly summons the heroic Fan Shik Ling (David Chiang), who is only slightly bemused to be taking orders from a talking parrot. It turns out the bird is the smartest person in the film.
First off Ling must assemble his crack team. Sifting through painted portaits of Jackie Chan, Ti Lung and Charlie’s Angels - to the sound of the theme from Mission: Impossible - he decides to seek out legendary hero Hsiao Li. Unfortunately, the old man is sick of adventuring and fobs him off with his son, Hsiao Li Jr. (Barry Chan), a jive-talking, high-fiving hipster. Next, Ling visits his heroic uncle Feng, who seizes his chance to off-load his oafish son Shark (Eric Tsang) - first glimpsed emerging from the undergrowth to the theme from Jaws (1975)! These three numbskulls set out to save the queen but are hindered by a cross-dressing ninja assassin (Paul Chun Pui), a crazy femme fatale (Au-Yeung Ling-Lung) who speaks solely in musical verse with lyrics lifted from Bee-Gees hits, and killer clockwork robots.
What we have here is essentially the martial arts movie equivalent of Hellzapoppin’ (1941) or Airplane! (1980). Like some live action Looney Tunes cartoon, Legend of the Owl racks up dozens of sight gags and pop culture parodies at a mile a minute. The screenplay was co-written by David Chiang’s younger brother Derek Yee (a famous Shaw Brothers star in his own right and future art-house auteur) and Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, prolific character actor and future director of trash sexploitation sci-fi flick Robotrix (1991), with additional input from co-star Eric Tsang. International audiences probably know Tsang best from his dramatic turn as the crime boss in the award-winning Infernal Affairs (2002), but in Hong Kong he is recognised as a comedian and influential producer-director. Plot takes a backseat to the martial arts mirth, but the film is beautifully shot and boasts fluid camerawork and stellar production values. Plus the laughs fly thick and fast. There is the world’s most ridiculous bar-room brawl, a ninja disguised as a can-can dancer repeatedly fails to high-kick Lung with his spike-toed boot, two swordsmen share a slam-poetry duel, our heroes take break from the climactic battle whenever a ninja ambulance glides by, an owl bursts from one character’s chest in a gag reference to Alien (1979).
It’s laugh-out-loud funny stuff, deftly orchestrated by David Chiang. He ropes in an array of martial arts movie veterans who likely shared a similar itch to spoof their normally stern screen personas: Norman Tsui Siu-Keung plays a sardonic brothel owner and his righteous twin brother, Yasuaki Karuta cameos as a hapless ninja who hilariously loses his trousers in the climactic duel. Typically for a Hong Kong comedy, the action is on par with any serious kung fu film. Notably throughout the memorable finale where Lung’s fight with the lightsaber wielding (!) Owl degenerates into a jitterbug set to Bill Hailey singing “Rock Around the Clock” and the villain unveils one surprise identity after another.