Saturday, October 24, 2015

Kung Fu Wonder Child (Taiwan, 1986)

I know. It’s unbelievable that, in seven years of writing for 4DK, I have until now failed to review Kung Fu Wonder Child. The fact is that it was such an obvious choice that writing about it began to feel like a fait accompli. I myself was surprised to find that I hadn’t covered it.

I discovered this oversight during preparation for an upcoming episode of the Taiwan Noir podcast in which Kenny B and I provide an overview of the Peach Kid series. Kung Fu Wonder Child is generally considered to be a spiritual sibling of the Peach Kid films because, like them, it (a) stars gender-bending actress Lam Siu-Law in its titular male role, (b) it is very 80s (glam metal hairdos, perky synth-pop soundtrack), and (c) it is very silly. It also, like them, is representative of two prevailing trends in Chinese martial arts cinema at the time, one being the increasing reliance on flashy special effects spurred by the success of Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain, and the other the prevalence of kung fu comedies that combined martial arts action with broad slapstick involving lots of people (and animals) peeing, farting and shitting on one another.

The threat in KFWC comes from a rogue holy man (Lee Hoi Hing) who, ensconced within his creepy graveyard lair, is accumulating all kinds of arcane magics toward unknown nefarious ends. When the priest suspects a gifted young village boy, Hsiu Chuen (Lam), of stealing some of his tricks, he dispatches his ghoulish minions to take care of him. Meanwhile, Hsiu Chuen encounters Hai Chiu Hse (Yukari Oshima), a girl whose father and sister are being held captive by the priest. Joined by Hsiu Chuen’s grandfather Hua Won (Jack Lung Sai-Ga) and the requisite pair of bumbling disciples, they set off to confront the evildoer. All in all, it’s a simple plot that nonetheless allows for the introduction of a lot of peripheral characters, among them a guy named Master Crazy, because that is the kind of movie that this is.

The above scenario also allows the opportunity for a lot of fun spook show elements—not all of which have much utility to the plot, such as a pair of orphaned vampire babies who appear to have briefly popped in from one of the Hello Dracula movies. This also means that there is an abundance of cartoon lighting--perhaps as much as there is urine--shooting out of everybody at everybody. The evil priest, in particular, seems to be using his palm rays to slow roast his captives in a pair of over-sized urns. And while I earlier credited Zu with inspiring the effects-dependent fantasy kung fu boom, there is no escaping the Hollywood origins of the face-hugging beastie that attacks Lam Siu Law or the light saber that the evil priest produces during the climactic fight. A giant flying worm that looks like it is made from the world's largest pipe-cleaner, however, is all Kung Fu Wonder Child's own.

About the time that I was first getting into writing about cult movies, Kung Fu Wonder Child, along with films like Kung Fu Zombie and Taoism Drunkard, was considered to be the gold standard of batshit crazy martial arts cinema. And it can’t be said that it doesn’t have the pedigree: It’s writer, Cheung San-Yee, in addition to also writing the loopy Polly Shang Kwan epic Little Hero, had earlier directed the mind-suplexing Thrilling Sword, and its director, Lee Tso-Nam, could also claim Magic Warriors as parts of his filmography.

Nonetheless, re-watching Kung Fu Wonder Child now only reminds me of oh how much I have seen since my first viewing of it. For example, having recently revisited the first Peach Kid film, Child of Peach, which is both furiously paced and expertly realized, I must report that KFWC pales ever-so-slightly in comparison. Part of this is due to its relative sidelining of the always charming Lam Siu-Law; ascendant ass-kicker Yukari Oshima (who would become a figurehead of the “girls with guns” subgenre with films like Angel) is a damsel in little need of rescue, and so leaves Hsiu Chen with little to do in the way of chivalrous derring do. There is also a sense of childish indulgence to Child of Peach’s toilet humor that makes KFWC’s more adolescent, mean-spirited approach seem somewhat tiresome by comparison.

All of which is not to say that Kung Fu Wonder Child does not deliver its share of dazzling visual hocus pocus. Indeed, its most noteworthy achievement is a climactic composite sequence involving a cell animated dragon that is executed with admirable precision. There are also a lot of goopy practical effects employing pulsating bladders that rival the work of Cronenberg in their visceral repulsiveness. The fact that the film seems relatively normal in comparison to some of the films I've seen since testifies only to the cornucopia of riches that the broader category of Taiwanese fantasy films offers. Because, believe me, Kung Fu Wonder Child is not a normal film by any standard. That it focuses on Yukarim Oshima fighting vampires and cartoon dragons to the detriment of its titular flying, fire-breathing, monster-battling child is not a criticism that I can level against it with a straight face. Truly, there are no losers here.

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