Fed up with Dragon Fighter Lo Han (Stephen Chow Sing-Chi) tormenting them with practical jokes insisting he can do a better job guiding humanity, the ancient Chinese Gods beseech the Jade Emperor (Lau Tin-Chi) to teach him a lesson. However the Goddess of Mercy (an in-joke cameo from Cantopop icon Anita Mui) intervenes. Sparing Lo Han's life she instead challenges him to alter fate of three seemingly doomed mortals: a beggar (Anthony Wong), a prostitute (Maggie Cheung) and a villain (Kirk Wong, better known for directing gritty crime thrillers). All whilst walking the Earth in mortal guise with no magical powers. Reincarnated as a baby the now mortal Lo Han matures rapidly, to the dismay of his hapless human parents, and together with his amnesia-riddled heavenly sidekick Tiger Fighter (Ng Man-Tat) muddles his way through one fine mess after another.
A rare Nineties release from Hong Kong's then-mostly defunct Shaw Brothers studio, The Mad Monk saw Cantonese comedy icon Stephen Chow Sing-Chi tackle material previously adapted by legendary auteur Li Han-hsiang back in the Seventies. At the time Chow, already a huge box office draw, was on the cusp of becoming Asia's foremost comic auteur. Meanwhile director Johnnie To was another genre-hopping work-horse still a good few years away from a run of acclaimed crime thrillers that eventually established him as arguably HK cinema's most feted filmmaker in the early twenty-first century. Star and director clashed behind the scenes to the point where To considered quitting the industry altogether. Happily he stuck it out and was rewarded with a substantial hit while Chow moved on to directing his own vehicles so this kind of creative conflict would never hamper his art again.
Inspired by the Chinese folk hero Ji Gong - a twelfth century Buddhist monk renowned for his dedication to fighting injustice and protecting the poor, supposedly supernatural powers, and wildly eccentric behaviour (you can see why they cast Stephen Chow) - The Mad Monk is a zany, likable comic fable much beloved in its native land. Yet likely to prove hit or miss with viewers less versed in the source material. In many ways it is a forerunner to Chow's superior subsequent vehicle A Chinese Odyssey (1994) where he played another mythological hero (Sun Wu Kong the Monkey King) also reincarnated as a mortal and embroiled in a star-crossed romance and supernatural shenanigans. The plot, which only barely coheres, is largely an excuse to string together a bunch of skits with Chow doing his patented fast-talking schtick opposite perennial comic partner Ng Man-Tat. Much of the humour derives from the anachronistic clash between the prim period setting and Chow's rowdy Cantonese street humour, as Lo Han takes a decidedly unorthodox approach to spreading peace, love and enlightenment. Most of which involve bullying, hectoring or punching would-be converts in the face.
Refusing to fade into the background as a token love interest: beautiful Maggie Cheung, an excellent comic actor in her own right (reunited with Johnnie To after the fine martial arts actioner The Barefoot Kid (1993)), yokes pathos and sympathy for her tragically abused prostitute. However the romantic subplot is a stranger beast than in Chow's past and subsequent ventures. Lo Han is less interested in wooing Maggie than redeeming her soul. Though the tone remains largely breezy, in true schizophrenic Hong Kong filmmaking fashion the plot often lurches into disarmingly darker territory culminating in a grisly sequence where key characters are respectively beaten to death and raped before Lo Han's horrified eyes. Johnnie To also throws in sporadic high-octane wire-fu set-pieces choreographed by Ching Siu-Tung, director of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). While entertaining these do not gel satisfactorily with the bulk of the plot. Unlike Stephen Chow's later triumphs, The Mad Monk is a little too disjointed. Nonetheless the plot's musings on the subject of karma are compelling, even moving at times, foreshadowing To's later, more artful genre mash-up Running on Karma (2003). And the third act kicks things up a considerable notch plunging Lo Han into hell itself to confront a wall of human bodies writhing in mud, dramatic twists that raise the emotional stakes for our flawed hero, a spectacular battle with a giant demon rampaging through the city, and a hilarious parody of the Miss World final.