Directors/Producers – Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, Screenplay – Wai Ka-Fair & Yau Nai-Hoi. Production Company – China Star Entertainment/Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd
Sammy Cheng (Wu Yen), Anita Mui (Emperor Qi/Ancestor Huan), Cecilia Cheung (Yinchun/Fairy Enchantress), Raymond Wong (Tsi)
The female bandit Wu Yen tries to stop the Emperor Qi from pulling out a sword that he finds imprisoned in a rock in the forest. However, during the struggle, both succeed in pulling the sword out and freeing the imprisoned Fairy Enchantress. Wu Yen and Qi realise they are destined to marry one another. Just as they are about to do so, the Fairy Enchantress places a red mark on Wu Yen’s face and Qi rejects her as ugly. The Fairy Enchantress is determined to marry both Qi and Wu Yen herself. Wu Yen comes to the palace, determined to win the Emperor back but the Fairy Enchantress also appears in the form of the servant girl Yinchun. Both attempt to sway the Emperor to love them.
Hong Kong comedy is something completely different to Western comedy. Western comedy seems to rely upon one-liners and reversals of expectation; Hong Kong comedy is maintained at a giddy shrillness – often pitched at a child-like level – filled with simplistic caricatures.
Wu Yen is a nominal fantasy. It contains a number of fantasy elements – predestined prophecies, transformations, supernatural aid from the ghosts of ancestors and the central character of a capricious shape-changing fairy. The film more than happily wanders away from its ostensible story about the fairy’s mischief to essentially become a royal court slapstick romantic comedy. Most of the comedy plays off the weak-willed emperor’s indecision between the good warrior women and the scheming fairy who has disguised herself as a servant girl. Most of this comes at a lowbrow level – fart jokes, sex-exchange jokes, caricatured slapstick buffoons. The rollercoaster rides of either character’s rises and abrupt reversals of fortune is amusing but at two hours the constantly shrill giddiness collapses an audience into exhaustion.
One of the most bizarre aspects of the film is that all three principal characters, irrespective of their sex, are played by women, including Cantonese pop star Sammy Cheng and well-known Hong Kong actress Anita Mui – and all make at least one gender change from their base character during the course of the film. The one joy of the film is Anita Mui. The range of expressions that she manages to convey on her face throughout is a delight to behold.
Wu Yen was the third film team-up between Hong Kong directors Wai Ka-fai and Johnnie To. Between them, the two have made a number of other eccentric efforts that enter the fantastic genre with:- the alternate timelines gangster film Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (1997); Help!!! (2000), a black comedy set in a hospital that has some fantasy elements; My Left Eye Can See Ghosts (2002), a comedy about a woman who starts to see ghosts after an accident; Running on Karma (2003) about a Buddhist monk with the ability to see people’s past lives; Fantasia (2004) about a wizard drawn through time to contemporary Hong Kong; Himalaya Singh (2005), a Magical Realist comedy involving amnesia drugs; Mad Detective (2007) about a detective that is capable of seeing people’s inner personalities; and the meta-fiction Written By (2009) where a dead man is reincarnated in an alternate life in his daughter’s novel.