Travelling bricklayer Wu Fei (Leon Lai) hails from noble blood and martial arts expert. When his adopted peasant family are wrongfully accused of stealing food from starving villagers, Fei soon spots the real culprit: the spoiled son of clawed kung fu master Fung Nam Tin (Elvis Tsui). Fei’s attempted revenge goes awry, setting him on the road where he meets a flirty martial arts beauty named Purple Yuen (Sharla Cheung Man), who rides a super-intelligent, talking horse called Big Brother. Sparks fly between the pair, though the vivacious Yuen proves strangely reluctant to admit her love. When Yuen foils Fei’s second attempt on Fung Nam Tin’s life, he discovers she is actually the villain’s illegitimate daughter and plotting her own personal revenge against him for the rape of her mother and massacre of a kind-hearted family of fishermen. But in the midst of battle, Yuen is struck down by a lethal poison. Fei brings her to an acquaintance of his, Ching Ling (Michelle Reis), a beautiful but eccentric hippie herbalist who lives alone tending a vast garden of poisonous flowers. Ling agrees to cure Yuen only on the condition Fei marries her and becomes her sex slave. Which proves but the first of many calamities that befall our two star-crossed lovers.
Strangely unsung by Hong Kong film fans, this superior New Wave swordplay fantasy marked the third time wu xia novelist Jin Yong’s epic “Flying Fox of the Snowy Mountain” was adapted for the screen following Shaw Brothers stalwart Chang Cheh’s early version Legend of the Fox (1980) and the studio’s second stab at the story with New Tales of the Flying Fox (1984). Curiously, although directed by Poon Man-Kit, the opening credits announce this as “A Johnny Mak film.” Mak, officially listed as producer on this film, is one of the great idiosyncratic talents in Hong Kong cinema and was behind the groundbreaking, gritty crime thriller Long Arm of the Law (1984). Since then he has stuck largely to producing, but his visceral touch is apparent in the almost tactile quality possessed by Sword of Many Loves. Mesmerising cinematography captures those vivid desert vistas in dusky hues and one can almost smell, touch and taste the grimy period detail. Although generally light-hearted in tone, the film packs as many unsettling details as laughs, from the crazed, persecuted peasant woman who disembowels her own child to prove he did not eat stolen food to the twisted homoerotic bond between villainous Fung Nam Tin and his cretinous son.
Amidst an eccentric melange of knockabout farce and uncompromising tragedy typical of Hong Kong cinema, it takes a while before something resembling a plot kicks in but the charming character interplay, inventive action sequences and non-stop barrage of colourful incidents ably compensate. You’ve got watermelons and caramel used as lethal weapons, a dwarf whose enlarged skeleton erupts from his body, a kung fu clan comprised entirely of shirtless fat blokes, a villain punched out by a horse, and Ching Ling using poison to inflate Fei’s head like a balloon. A trick she later repeats on Yuen’s arse. When the plot eventually does seep through the silliness, it proves surprisingly nuanced and sensitive, placing more emphasis on the romance than previous versions. The adrenalin-pumping action choreography is outstanding and the film is laden with awesome death-dealing gadgetry, but it is the witty wordplay, sweetly sensual romance (literally so in one scene where Fei and Yuen are forced to lick caramel off each other) and engaging performances that prove the most winning elements.
Intended as a vehicle for Leon Lai, the Cantopop star delivers his most ingratiating performance and receives stellar support from the gifted Sharla Cheung Man and former Miss Hong Kong, Michelle Reis. Cast against type as a fiery shrew, she rips into her comedic role with relish and proves unexpectedly affecting when the plot turns poignant. The film builds to a rousing, brilliantly orchestrated finale amidst a sandstorm, no doubt modelled after a similar sequence in New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), while the coda is mercifully less abrupt and far more poetic than either of the Shaw Brothers versions.