Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Silver Maid (Taiwan, 1970)

(Apologies for the lack of visual flair this time around, but, thanks to an uncooperative disc, I was unable to provide screen caps from this film. The accompanying images were pulled from the ever helpful Hong Kong Movie Database.)

For Hollywood, the idea of a martial arts adept preteen may just be a moneymaking novelty to pull out of the hat every couple decades or so, but to the Taiwanese it's obviously never been much of a big deal. Witness, for example, the young star of Silver Maid, Ng Siu Wai, who appears to be in the neighborhood of about twelve. Somewhat unusual, sure, but, then again, we've seen much younger in these type of films. And aside from that, Silver Maid, rather than being some kind of exercise in kung fu kidsploitation, is nothing more than a humbly enjoyable example of your standard martial arts fantasy of its day, complete with all of the plot elements that entails: warring clans, magical super weapons of awesome power, and over-intricate power struggles between its many and varied characters.

Our story begins with young Silver Maid (Ng Siu Wai) applying to become a pupil of the ruthless Red Devil sect. The Red Devils are an internally fractured group who appear to be held together solely by the fearsome demonic authority and appropriately fiery facial hair of their leader Red Devil Chief (Wu Pin Nan). At the same time, Silver Maid is also on a quest to find a cure for a mysterious ailment that is afflicting her dear old grandpa. Said cure turns out to be the elusive Fairy Fungus, which is said to be guarded over by "five poisonous creatures". When Silver Maid later encounters those creatures in an eerily surreal sculpture garden, they're revealed to include a frog, a centipede and a scorpion that can transform themselves into deadly human fighters, and a snake that can transform itself into a really, really big (puppet) snake.

Thanks to some really formidable magical kung fu skills, Silver Maid makes short work of these critters, and is able to retrieve the fairy fungus. This whole violent spectacle, with all of its preposterous airborne kicking, is witnessed by a couple of the Red Devils, who quickly realize that Silver Maid really isn't in need of their sect's tutelage at all. Could it be that she is a spy for their hated rivals, the Black Devil Sect? Meanwhile, Silver Maid's grandpa is revealed to be a legendary hero called the Silver Knight, and then everybody sets off in search of a magical superweapon called the Sacred Tooth. Ultimately, the Red Devil Sect will be revealed to be harboring a secret so secret that its members chopped off the ends of the English subtitles on the disc I watched so that not even I could be privy to it.

In her performance as the film's high flying heroine, Ng Siu Wai combines an impish glee with the kind of intermittent spooky menace that only little kids can pull off. Especially effective are those scenes in which she announces her arrival by trilling out a haunting melody on a flute, causing her opponents to freak out all over themselves. As far as her actual martial arts prowess, I'm afraid that's where Silver Maid relegates itself to the "not for purists" pile, as that's pretty much entirely accomplished via wire work and special effects. That's more than okay with me, of course, and I especially liked the optical effect that was used to show Silver Maid splitting into multiple versions of herself. Not that I hadn't seen it done numerous times before, mind you, but -- what can I say? -- a classic is a classic. I also have to say that it was very gratifying to see a Taiwanese martial arts film in which the character played by the female lead was actually identified as female, without her even having to masquerade as a boy at any point.

Beyond that, Silver Maid doesn't have much that distinguishes it thematically from the rest of the fantasy kung fu pack. Yet it does, thanks largely to the mystery elements of its plot, boast a strong narrative drive, as well as some tight direction and an engagingly brisk pace. (I would name-check the director here, but none of the sites I depend on for information on these movies seem to know who he or she was.) This surehandedness was particularly welcome, due to the fact that the film's fantasy elements lacked the over-the-top quality that would have made them stand up as the main attraction, being instead subordinate to the story itself. Though in saying that I don't want to short change the giant puppet snake, which was indeed the awesome.


That Cranky Redhead said...

"Ultimately, the Red Devil Sect will be revealed to be harboring a secret so secret that its members chopped off the ends of the English subtitles on the disc I watched so that not even I could be privy to it."

Hilarious. Love the writing. I almost suspect that reading your reviews is more entertaining than watching the films would be.

Todd said...

Thank you! In some, but not all, cases you may be right.