In 1930s China, ace adventurer, author, archaeologist and martial arts expert Dr. Wai (Jet Li) foils his arch-rival from stealing an ancient war machine in the form of an enormous mechanical ox. Thereafter the Chinese government commission Wai and his handsome but hapless sidekick Shing (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to prevent a legendary lost scripture with destructive magical powers from falling into the hands of the Japanese. Infiltrating the Japanese embassy, Wai finds himself unexpectedly falling in love with a sweet servant girl named Cammy (Rosamund Kwan). Or at least, that is what appears to be happening.
Re-teaming Hong Kong superstars Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan after their smash hits Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and Swordsman II: Invincible Asia (1992), Dr. Wai in ‘The Scripture with No Words’ exists in two drastically different versions. While the international cut seen by most English fans is a more or less straightforward Indiana Jones pastiche, the original Hong Kong version is a post-modern romantic comedy including a wraparound story set in the present day with Jet Li in a second role as Chow Si Kit, author of the Dr. Wai stories serialised in a daily newspaper, whose estranged wife Monica (Rosamund Kwan in a second role) wants a divorce so she can marry a film star (Billy Chow). In a conceit lifted from the fine French action-comedy Le Magnifique (1973), Kit pours his anxieties over his failing marriage and re-imagines real life encounters as characters in the adventure yarn, including romantically fraught colleagues Shing (Takeshi Kaneshiro, again) and Yvonne (Charlie Yeung). Different writers gain control of the story-within-the-story with Shing and Yvonne charmingly incorporating their own tentative romance as a sub-plot while at one point an embittered Kit transforms Cammy from sympathetic heroine into a remorseless Japanese spy conducting horrific experiments in a secret laboratory. He also makes her a slut. Ouch.
Opinions differ as to which is the superior cut. Action fans overseas were supposedly aghast over the heavily romantic slant, but despite pacing problems the original version makes for a richer viewing experience. Eventually Monica gets a hold of the Dr. Wai manuscript and draws the plot in the direction of screwball farce, concocting a far more benign and romantic outcome for the characters. The action sequences are as arresting and over the top as one would expect of Jet Li and veteran fight choreographer-director Ching Siu Tung. The fluidity of Jet’s amazing high speed kicks is amazing to behold and fans should relish scenes where he battles flying ninjas and gargantuan sumo wrestlers along with a climax that finds him wielding an actual flaming sword. No CGI in that scene folks, although the film does feature some early computer animation in the form of bullets sliced in half and a villain magically transformed into a pile of marbles. There are blatant steals from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) where those who open the magic box intended to house the scripture are either reduced to ash or turned into blind zombies, though its powers prove less than consistent. Late in the day, the principal villain (Ngai Sing) is turned into a crazy-haired, skull-faced demon with a throbbing elastic brain.
Ching Siu Tung handles the romantic banter and comedic scenes with less confidence and verve than the action sequences, reinforcing the theory that such scenes were left to Tsui Hark back during their Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman collaborations. Nevertheless, there are a few welcome gags and a priceless scene with Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro in less than convincing drag. The enthusiastic cast bring more warmth and charm to the central romance than is found in the script and the essential message, that marriage is a risky adventure through which couples must persevere, ultimately rings true.