High atop the mystic mountains, Li Chou-Shui (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) and Mo Han-Wen (Gong Li), two martial arts maidens with godlike superpowers, wage an ongoing magical duel. Mo Han-Wen's omnipotence is compromised by her lesbian yearning for Chou-Shui's saintly twin sister Li Chong Hoi (also Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia). However Li Chong Hoi is devoted to their all-powerful yet curiously ailing master Siu Yiu Tze (voiced by an uncredited Jackie Chan!) who, you guessed it, is also loved by her evil twin. Meanwhile in the mortal realm Yiu Tze's former student Ting Chun-Chou (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung), chief of the Sing Suk sect, consolidates his power by eliminating other martial arts clans and stealing their secret kung fu techniques. Yet Ting's plans are undone by his ambitious underling Purple (Sharla Cheung Man) who snatches a sacred scroll containing the all-powerful Yi-ken sutra along with hapless monk Hui Chok (Frankie Lam) to decode it for her. On the run from the vengeful Sing Suk sect, the reluctant companions stumble into the middle of a cosmic conflict between two unstoppable women.
Adapted from Louis Cha's classic wu xia novel Demi Gods and Semi Devils this is one of the most spectacular Hong Kong fantasies from the New Wave era. Those versed in the traditional tropes (some would say: eccentricities) of wu xia cinema will find Dragon Chronicles: The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain a heady delight, but the uninitiated will be left bewildered. The source material remains a staple of Hong Kong television to this day. Most likely because, truth be told, Cha's mind-bogglingly complex storyline is better suited to the mini-series format. This lavish, beautifully designed big-budget film adaptation was intended to kick-start a trilogy that sadly never materialized. Frenetically paced and dizzyingly imaginative the plot barely manages to make sense even with occasional input from an off-screen narrator. If you found Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) too esoteric for its own good, Dragon Chronicles' flamboyant mix of high-flying action sequences, psychedelic special effects and dense metaphysical drama will leave you completely flummoxed.
Just hold on to the spectacular visuals, frenetic wire fu and super-charismatic performances from three powerhouse, remarkably beautiful actresses. Headlining a pretty starry cast are Hong Kong superstar Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia (by this point no stranger to far-out fantasies) and international art-house favourite Gong Li in one of her rare HK roles. Well-cast as immortal super-beings locked in a cosmic conflict beyond the grasp of mere mortals, these two legendary screen divas imbue the film with an emotional charge that keeps the drama compelling even for those bemused by the plot. While Gong and Brigitte spend a fair amount of screen time flying across rainbow skies zapping each other with cel animated laser beams, a substantial portion of the story is shouldered by the oft-underrated Sharla Cheung Man. She more than holds her own with the more celebrated duo as the feisty, wily Purple whose self-serving exterior predictably masks a heart of gold.
Screenwriter Charcoal Tan has been a dab hand at costume fantasies for decades. He scripted the likes of New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), Swordsman III: The East is Red (1993), Blade of Fury (1993) and Chen Kaige's lavish fairytale epic The Promise (2005). Plus more recently An Empress and the Warriors (2008), The Treasure Hunter (2009), The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011), the remake of A Chinese Ghost Story (2011) and League of Gods (2016). He also penned the fun Jet Li action comedy Badges of Fury (2013). Unfolding from multiple perspectives Tan's ambitious script interweaves multiple storylines detailing shifting alliances and characters who change from good to bad and vice versa. To its credit, rather than settle into a soulless special effects-fest, the film adds a welcome dose of humanity with the flustered semi-romance between Purple and Hui Chok and the progressive sapphic love story between the two leads. No doubt their sensual flirtation got a lot of fans hot under the collar. Interestingly the characters all exhibit multiple facets, neither all good nor all bad. Andy Chin Wing-Keung's background in crowd-pleasing comedies and sleazy exploitation films with all-female casts made him unusually suited to handle this decidedly feminine fantasy adventure. His unusual floating camera technique proves oddly effective in immersing the viewer in the story in contrast to the tendency in most mainstream fare to view things from afar. Indeed in its most imaginative moments Dragon Chronicles: The Maidens of Heavenly Mountains stands as a reminder that while many Hollywood fantasies remain frustratingly mundane, the Hong Kong New Wave era reached for the stars.