What happens when you cross a female Zorro, campy sets straight out of late Sixties’ kids TV, a barely coherent kung fu plot and a wholly unexpected gay rights subtext? You get psychedelic weirdness that’s what, in the directorial debut of actress and all-round dingbat genius Pearl Chang Ling. Pearl stars as Black Butterfly, a costumed superheroine in ancient China, who cuts quite a dash in her purple cloak and glittery butterfly mask while she robs from the rich to feed the poor. She runs rings around the local law. Klutzy Sheriff Feng puts a price on her head and hires a nameless swordsman (“Name is my surname and my first name is… no! Ha, ha, ha!”), only for him to be bested by B.B. who brazenly claims her own reward money. Ah, but Pearl also plays a scruffy beggar girl, leader of a ragtag mob of street children. Could she and Black Butterfly be one and the same? Hmm…
Between bathing (fully clothed) in her trippy hideout and practicing kung fu with her stone robot, beggar girl earns a crust by working as a human “whack-a-mole”. Seriously, she sits in a box and challenges swordsmen to chop off her head before she ducks away. Profits from this rather dangerous job allow her to take the kids out to a glam-rock medieval-themed restaurant, lorded over by pink-veiled mystery woman Mistress Kim and her scheming father, Simon (Tien Feng). Also running rampant are a cadre of gold-caped warriors led by Master Wu the Killer Prince (Wong Hap), who is bested by broody swordsman Shadow (Tien Peng), so-called because he hates people stepping on his silhouette.
Amidst the fracas, beggar girl notices Shadow carries one half of a valuable talisman called the Blue Rose, which supposedly contains a secret formula. She and her crew discover the second half hidden inside a corpse, by nefarious secret agent Cool Hand Luke (Wong Chi Sang). Now pay attention. Cool Hand Luke is supposed to be working for the imperial government, but is really serving Simon, although he’d rather run off with Mistress Kim. Eventually, he comes a-cropper by revealing: “I know your secret! You’re androgynous!” That’s right, Mistress Kim is a closet hermaphrodite. Meanwhile, in her twin guises as Black Butterfly and beggar girl, our heroine helps Shadow track down his crazy father, Mr. Sing, who is secretly building a super-duper giant cannon for evil Simon. In need of that elusive formula, Simon arranges for his brother Houdini, a magician with a detachable head, to torture beggar girl. Except she escapes and persuades Kim, Shadow and the beggar kids to help storm their underground fortress.
Hoo-boy, where to begin? In this remake of an old, black and white adventure serial, Pearl Chang Ling tries to revive the masked superheroine genre popular during the 1960s. However, the mind-boggling plot lapses frequently into incoherence and dwells heavily on juvenile comedy antics. What ranks in its favour is the sheer weirdness onscreen: candy-coloured storybook sets, surreal slapstick fu rendered in stop-frame animation or Benny Hill-style fast-motion, and completely bizarre characters spouting wild dialogue (“I come from heaven, therefore, I am very gifted!”). Watching Dark Lady of Kung Fu is like tripping acid at Disneyland and its kitschy set-pieces float by like warped versions of It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean theme rides.
At the centre of the whirlwind lies another gutsy and likeable turn from Pearl Chang Ling. As director she delivers some limb-lopping, body exploding gore that jars with what is essentially a Jackanory version of a wu xia (Chinese swordplay) romp. She also delivers a transgender and gay rights message that takes viewers completely by surprise: “I hope you will learn to love yourself. Except yourself as you are, because you are lovable!” Listen out for the five-note tune from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) that heralds the arrival of some hopping vampires, plus the Tardis sound effect stolen from Doctor Who. The eclectic soundtrack includes themes from The Pink Panther (1963), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), some familiar spaghetti western cues and - most memorably - Eighties pop hits “Body Rock” and “Caribbean Queen”!