Hong Kong. 1993.
Directors – Ching Siu-Tung & Johnny To, Screenplay – Sandy Shaw, Cinematography – Wing-Hung Wong. Production Company – Cosmopolitan Film Productions Company.
Stephen Chow (Dragon Fighter Lo Han), Maggie Cheung (Hsiao Yu), Paul Chun (Tiger Fighter), Anita Mui (Goddess)
Up in the Heavens, Dragon Fighter Lo Han and his brother Tiger Fighter are reprimanded for their misdeeds. To earn forgiveness they are sent down to Earth to get three individuals – a whore who likes her job too much, a boil-infected beggar and a villain – to repent of their ways. However, Lo Han is also stripped of his magical abilities and given only three days to complete the task. The task is made more difficult by his having to also contend with the demon Heh Lo Shah and the gods who have aligned together to cause him to fail.
A dip into Chinese fantasy filmmaking is often something utterly mind-boggling to Western eyes. Not only does it depend on understanding many facets of Eastern religion – fate, reincarnation, ancestor worship, curses and various ritual means for dispatching trouble – it also requires one to understand that this is often being presented with tongue considerably planted in cheek. This is also frequently hindered by poor dubbing, breakneck pacing and the scanty attention that these films pay to plot.
The Mad Monk is a film that seems to take all of these problems to an utter extreme. The plot verges on near incoherence – chopping and changing, introducing so many new elements – that it is almost impossible to follow from one moment to the next. The pace is one of demented excess – the dialogue is delivered at a shout the whole way through and many of the cast play at a level that to call it over the top might be an understatement. The worst offender here is the character of Tiger Fighter played by Paul Chun who plays the entire film as a bawling baby.
The joys of The Mad Monk are its wild imagery – the dazzling (although relatively restrained in comparison to some of the other films in this cycle) martial arts and sword fights, including at one point the hero fighting the villain on top of a ladder that is impaled in the villain’s head. Or else the scenes with giant demon Heh crushing the hero under a single foot, sucking out souls and chasing through the streets after the hero at the climax, smashing entire houses in his path.
The vision of the Eastern afterlife offered – Heavenly bureaucracies, reincarnation, golden bodies for transportation between astral planes, demons and multiple Heavens and Hells – is truly amazing and the film equally so for treating it with an irreverent sense of humour. This is probably not enough to salvage The Mad Monk from almost total incoherence and an abominably OTT pace but it at least stands it in good stead.
Elsewhere, Johnnie/Johnny To has made genre efforts that include Happy Ghost 3 (1986), the children’s ghost story Lucky Encounter (1992), The Heroic Trio (1993) and its sequel and the ghost story Linger (2008). He is best known for the hits of the gangster films Election (2005) and its sequel Election 2 (2006). To gained a name for his directorial collaborations with Wai Ka Fai. Together they made a number of hits including the romantic comedy Love on a Diet (2001) and the gangster film Fulltime Killer (2001). The two have versatility in a variety of genres and have ventured into fantastic material on a number of occasions including:- Help!!! (2000), a black comedy set in a hospital that has some fantasy elements; the comedy Wu Yen (2001) about mischievous fairies; 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; and Mad Detective (2007) about a detective who can see people’s inner personalities.
Ching Siu-Tung’s other films are:- Duel to the Death (1983), The Witch from Nepal/The Nepal Affair (1985), A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990), A Terracotta Warrior (1990), A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991), Swordsman II (1992), Swordsman III: The East is Red (1993), The Scripture With No Words (1996), The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) and Jade Dynasty (2019). Siu-Tung is also known as an action choreographer par excellence and has coordinated sequences on films like Shaolin Soccer (2001), Invincible (2001), Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004) and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007).