Big Dagger Hon Cheung (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) and his nephew Little Dagger Hon Lam (Jimmy Lin) are bounty hunters who despite their mastery of martial arts keep losing top-dollar fugitives to Big Bewitchment (Sharla Cheung Man) and Little Bewitchment (Gloria Yip), a flirty female duo not above romancing the Daggers to stay one step ahead. When a powerful warlord offers a generous bounty for the outlaw that allegedly raped and killed his daughter along with forty servants, both teams spring into action determined to bag the bad guy first. That outlaw is Nine Tail Fox (Jacky Cheung), a happy-go-lucky fox spirit (yes, he does have nine bushy prehensile tails that double as weapons!), crackpot inventor and notorious thief who along with his formidable martial arts mistress, Flying Cat (Maggie Cheung), realises he has been set up and will not go quietly.
This wild and wacky wu xia swordplay film united two kings of Asian schlock: Hong Kong writer-producer Wong Jing and Taiwanese director Chu Yen Ping, the demented genius behind Golden Queens Commando (1984), children’s kung fu film Shaolin Popeye (1994) and most recently martial arts basketball comedy Kung Fu Dunk (2004). Both filmmakers were experts at tailoring lightweight but high-profit yielding concoctions around popular youth idols and film stars. Sprinkle some comedy, a dash of kung fu, throw in some gravity-defying wire-work, a lot of romantic banter and job done. Who cares about the plot? Two decades later, Wong is still at it with among others, Treasure Inn (2011), proving the formula still packs in the crowds in Asia at least.
For many English fans of martial arts cinema, Jing’s slapstick farces were nigh on unbearable, an affront to those who liked their fight-fests straightlaced and stoic. Yet while critics labelled these films as parodies, humour had always been a distinctive aspect of Chinese swordplay sagas going back to old Taoist fables. Like spy spoofs in the 1960s, this delirously over-the-top style of martial arts fantasy had grown so prevalent in Hong Kong cinema it became hard to discern parodies from more serious examples. These days with the genre mired in solemnity under the auspices of mainland directors like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, one is liable to feel nostalgic about films where Maggie Cheung miaows and claws trees while practicing cat-style kung fu or Jacky Cheung disables one villain with a supersonic fart. Or maybe that’s just me...
With Wong Jing on script duties the humour is undeniably puerile with numerous sex gags and scatalogical references. Things reach a crescendo of bad taste when a poisoned Chun is called on to have repeated sex with Big Bewitchment so she’ll give birth a mutant baby he must then cook and eat! Others are considerably funnier, including the primitive home security system that comprises an elderly hermit in a cave sketching everything that happens, a ridiculous scene involving a gay sadomasochist performing songs by KC and the Sunshine Band, plus the heroes’ hilarious encounter with the villains Die First, Die Hard and Never Dies, whose names reveal their eventual fate. Whilst the convoluted plot only grows sillier as our heroes assemble at an inn run by veteran funnyman Ng Man Tat (eventually unmasked as a master detective) and unite against a freaky transgender Japanese ninja couple (Pauline Chan and David Wu - he’s a woman, she’s the man) deployed by the mystery villain, the real reason to watch are the insane action sequences. Choreographed by veteran filmmaker Ching Siu Tung alongside Ma Yuk-Sing and Dion Lam Dik-On, the wire fu action is wildly fantastical and packs a visceral punch, reaching a highpoint with Maggie Cheung’s incredible treetop fight - a phenomenally well executed set-piece. Chu Yen Ping does a fine approximation of the HK New Wave style (blue filters, wild angles, frenetic editing)
Luckily, Flying Daggers has the benefit of an exuberant, enthusiastic cast who perform as if Wong’s script were comedy gold. No surprise the two biggest stars - Jacky Cheung and Maggie Cheung (no relation) - deliver the most charismatic performances, though Tony Leung is on fine form as the unflappable martial arts hero whose only embarrassment is being a virgin. Although the lacklustre Jimmy Lin is eclipsed by all this big name talent, this being a Taiwanese co-production it is the pop idol who bags the bad guy and saves the day, much as he did in the similarly star-studded Butterfly and Sword (1993). Evidently Lin had one heck of an agent. Music lifted from such disparate Hollywood films as Death Becomes Her (1992), Quigley Down Under (1990), Heathers (1989), and A Fish Called Wanda (1988) although Lin performs the song that plays over the closing credits accompanied by humorous outtakes.