Adapting a chapter from the 16th century novel, Journey to the West, popular chopsocky auteur Chang Cheh is at the helm for this wild and woolly Shaw Brothers fantasy. Back in the day, The Fantastic Magic Baby played grindhouse theatres on New York’s 42nd street and probably left audiences completely baffled. The titular enchanted boy is child god Hung Hai-erh (Ting Hua-Chung), whose parents the Ox Demon King (Kong Do) and Princess Iron Fan (sexploitation starlet Hu Chin in a glorified cameo) task him to waylay pious Tang monk Tripitaka (Tang Gok-Yan), and his disciples Sandy (Yeung Fui-Yuk), Pigsy (Chen I-Ho) and the legendary Monkey King (Lau Chung-Chun).
With his mystical powers of kung fu, the child god gives Monkey a run for his money. His parents want to eat the monk’s flesh and gain immortality, but Hung Hai-erh has no interest. He’s an anarchic sprite, prone to mischievous pranks and mocking heavenly heroes in battle, but shows potential for redemption by defending downtrodden villagers from the greedy, old Mountain God (Lee Ying) and Ju Ling God (Choi Wang). Tangling with shaggy-haired demons, kung fu trees, and a crazy half-werewolf centaur thing, Monkey barely escapes Hung Hai-erh’s fire-breathing dinosaurs. A celestial army of wacky immortals led by Yang Jian (Fung Hak-On) fares little better, until Monkey beseeches the Goddess of Mercy (Chiu Lai-Guen) and her protégé, Dragon Girl (Chang Chuan-li). Dragon Girl kicks demon butt and lures Hung back to heaven for a seriously trippy journey to enlightenment.
Newcomers to this sort of thing might feel bewildered, but the film actually offers a pretty good introduction to Chinese opera and Taoist philosophy. Performed like a traditional stage piece, it’s a tale of rebellious youth, wise maternal goddesses and the lessons young and old can learn from each other. Combining a raucous punk rock spirit and 42nd street gore with the whimsical imagination of a children’s fairytale, this features Peking Opera dance routines, amazing acrobatic stunt-work and fight choreography by Liu Chia Hui, who directed some of Shaw Brothers’ best films. The frenzied athleticism of Wa-Chung, Chuan-li (watch out for her amazing dancing spears routine) and Chung-Chun is really something to behold.
Monster fans are well catered for, with hairy hippie trolls, manic monkey-men, prehistoric beasties, and a surreal cameo from Philip Kwok Chui as living statue that drinks human blood. Chang Cheh was never among the most visually gifted directors, but catches the storybook tone with a deliberately artificial world of painted backdrops and surreal sets overflowing with dry ice. One suspects this was a popular film for Chinese parents to show naughty kids since, after being swallowed by a giant lotus flower, Hung Hai-erh emerges as a paragon of goodness. A word of warning though: the film runs a mere sixty minutes. It is accompanied - as in the original Hong Kong screenings - by two short excerpts from traditional Chinese operas. They’re fascinating, but alas do not feature English subtitles.