Sunday, December 13, 2009

Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery (Taiwan, 1982)

Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery is based on a seminal wuxia novel that's been adapted for the screen numerous times throughout the history of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. This, though, is a Taiwanese take on the story, starring Wolf Devil Woman auteur Pearl Cheung Ling and directed by Yu Hon-Cheung, the man who gave the world Dwarf Sorcerer and the much sought-after Monster From the Sea, so I think it's safe to say that it can stand alone on the strength of its own unique charms.

That said, despite her prominent billing, Pearl Ling only appears in the movie for a total of about two minutes, showing up for a brief introduction during the opening moments and then returning again at the conclusion to play a key role in the climactic battle. It all has a very tacked-on feel, as if the producers, upon watching an early cut of the film, with all of its scenes of people randomly turning into flying balls of energy and shooting animated lightning bolts at each other, looked at each other and said, "Hey, you know what this movie needs?". At this point, as I imagine it, Pearl was called in for the afternoon's worth of shooting her role required, thus by her presence certifying the film as a bona fide work of weird-fu.

It seems that no one in Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery would argue that the Fen Lien Temple is not a very, very bad place. As we see in the film's opening scenes, the chief monk and his assorted long-haired masters have a habit of abducting unwary female worshipers and turning them into sex slaves. Thus it is not long before an official, Chief Lu Shiao Chin (Meng Fei), an emissary of what the subtitles refer to as "Headquarters House", comes knocking on the door to have a look-see. Fan Lien minion Can (Wei Ping Ao) sets out to dispose of this interloper, but only ends up with a broken leg for his trouble, and along with it a thirst for vengeance that does not bode well for Lu Shiao Chin. Coming to Can's aid in his vendetta are both his master and his master's master, Grandmaster Yung (Chi Kuan-Chun), who bring a formidable amount of magically-enhanced martial arts skill to the task. Eventually even Grandmaster Yung's sister (Pan Yingzi) joins the fray, though it soon becomes clear that she has her own, very different (amorous) designs on Chief Lu.

Ultimately the gang ends up imprisoning Lu in the temple underneath a giant bell, and it's up to the remaining disciples of Headquarters House to free him. Leading the charge is a master swordswoman by the name of Red Aunt (Elsa Yeung Wai San, who last captured our hearts in the slap-your-mama awesome Thrilling Sword), who comes aided by her amusingly foul-mouthed, magically fu-enabled, pre-adolescent son Chi Tsu (Au Dai). Also on board are Lu's fellow disciple Liu Chih (Lau Tak Hoi) and Can's own daughter, who has clearly chosen righteousness over the bonds of family. Oh, and, of course, there's also the eleventh hour arrival on the scene of Pearl Cheung Ling, who, as far as I could make out, was only ever referred to as "Official".

Pearl Cheung Ling or no, Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery is a film that is as fun to watch as it is difficult to sort out. It will, however, be a disappointment to kung fu purists, as its martial arts are in great part cartoon-assisted and don't require any physical contact between the participants. For me, its most baffling aspect was how it ends with Pearl Cheung Ling and Meng Fei exchanging meaningful glances and walking off into the sunset together, as if there had been some kind of romantic connection established between them, when, in truth, Pearl's character had just shown up without being referred to at all throughout the entirety of the film. Complicating this even further was the fact that I'm pretty sure that Meng Fei's character was supposed to have been killed during the second act. I imagine that there is some kind of behind-the-scenes story that explains why things went down this way, and that it is every bit as convoluted as what went on in front of the camera.

The Red Lotus Monastery: a model community


sunil said...

Sounds like the story of all the video games we used to play.

Todd said...

You're right. And maybe Pearl Cheung Ling only shows up to kick ass during the end if you reach a certain point level.

GoldenPigsy said...

It's based on old serial fiction that was extremely popular and adapted about a billion other times. There's an adaptation with Judy Lee and Tan Tao-Liang, and a three part adaptation from Shaw Brothers with Jimmy Wang Yu and Chin Ping.