At Fan Lien Temple the monks and their long-haired masters have a nasty habit of abducting beautiful female worshippers to be imprisoned in their sex dungeon. Who says life doesn't imitate art, huh? An Imperial Princess (Pearl Chang Ling) assigns dashing martial arts hero Lu Shiao Chin (Meng Fei) to investigate. In the process of apprehending a dastardly Red Lotus minion named Can (Wei Ping Ao), Shiao Chin befriends Chi Tsu (Au Dai), a fiery-tempered little boy with mystical kung fu superpowers, and the boy's mother: flying martial arts superheroine Red Aunt (Elsa Yeung Wai-San) who is even more formidable. Thirsting for revenge Can turns to the evil Grandmaster Yung (Chi Kuan-Chun). He amasses an impressive array of black magic death-traps to pit against our heroes whose ranks are bolstered by moustachioed good guy Liu Chih (Lau Tak Hoi) and Can's own daughter (Bao Zheng-Fang), out to redeem her family's good name. However Grandmaster Yung has an ace up his sleeve.
Inspired by a real historical atrocity wu xia author Xian Kairan penned a popular pulp novel that in turn sired decades' worth of Hong Kong movies. From Zhang Shichuan's classic nineteen-part silent serial in 1928 and Shaw Brothers' breakthrough martial arts epic Temple of the Red Lotus (1964) to Ringo Lam's revisionist masterpiece Burning Paradise (1994), often likened to the Apocalypse Now (1979) of martial arts movies. Easily the most fantastical, if not downright surreal, take on this oft-retold story is this special effects-heavy Taiwanese production. Which fittingly features a special guest star turn from Pearl Chang Ling, patron saint of weird Asian cinema. Fans of the actress-auteur behind such demented gems as Wolf Devil Woman (1982) and General Invincible (1984) will be disappointed to learn she only appears in the top and tail end of the movie for all of two minutes. Nonetheless, it is hard not to smile when Pearl literally flies in at the last minute as the Chinese wu xia equivalent of a deus ex machina to wipe out an army of bad guys.
Judging from the lavish, beautifully detailed sets and costumes and carefully composed camera-work, Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery was something of a prestige production. However, choppy editing and a haphazard attitude to continuity lend it a cheapo chop-socky vibe. Historical accuracy takes a back seat (which is fine) as the film sets some kind of record for sheer volume of cel-animated effects scenes where characters morph into flying meteors and zap each other with cartoon laser beams. Almost every character exhibits some kind of Atari eight-bit superpower including glowing force fields, teleportation and cool flying sequences. At one point Lu Shiao Chin is assaulted by what look like Space Invaders graphics circa 1982, in a striking sequence filmed as reflected in Red Aunt's eye. Whilst sure to annoy martial arts purists (i.e. boring people) the film's plethora of psychedelic set-pieces will delight devotees of weird Asian cinema. With an atmosphere fusing horror, surrealistic fantasy and old school kung fu, Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery at least has plenty to compensate for its occasionally confused storytelling. Like the Shaw Brothers' delightful Eighties reboot of Buddha's Palm (1982) this is a wu xia fantasy for a post-Star Wars era. As such it predates Tsui Hark's more celebrated and accomplished Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983).
The mother-son detective duo (who snag a compelling sequence to themselves as they sneak inside a spooky subterranean lair swathed in Mario Bava-style candy coloured lighting) add an interesting element. Indeed the amusingly potty-mouthed and cocky child hero recalls director Yu Hon-Cheung's previous fantasy The Dwarf Sorceror (1974). Buried beneath the eye-catching pyrotechnics is a vaguely subversive message in keeping with many wu xia stories. In satirizing corrupt authority figures the plot conveniently plays to Chinese viewers with both pro-and-anti-communist ideals. The film also devotes a lengthy and disarmingly poignant section of its plot to a star-crossed love story wherein Grandmaster Yung summons his magically gifted sister. Played by genre veteran Violet Pan Ying-Zi, star of One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and Swordswomen Three (1970), Yung's evil but flirty sister not only proves the most powerful character but adds a dose of sensuality to the mix. She shrinks Lu Shiao Chin to tiny size and imprisons him under a large bell, only to fall hopelessly in love with him. Interestingly the film attaches a great deal of importance to male chastity as Lu stoically refuses to sleep with her even to save his friends. When events take an unexpectedly tragic turn towards the rousing finale, including a surprise death and even more surprising and abrupt resurrection, it is genuinely affecting. Also worth mentioning is the John Carpenter-esque electro-funk score that plays whenever characters zap each other with cartoon laser beams. Which happens a lot.