Our narrator informs us the ancient Chinese valued crystal sculptures above all others, but were wary because human blood could bring such statues to life. Long Fei (Jason Pai Piao) fashions just such a sculpture that, unbeknownst to him, comes alive as a supernatural swordswoman in a shiny mask and kills his three uncles. The living statue also slays the only son of masked martial arts master Poison Yama (Dang Wai-Ho), right after he invents a venom-spewing new super-weapon. Worried the entire Martial World is under threat, Prince Tian Di (Wang Jung) tasks Yama to retrieve the venom and avenge his son’s death. Meanwhile, Long Fei and his portly brother Fatty (Chun Wong) also set out to find the killer and clear their names. On their journey they meet the prophetically-named Crystal (Liu Yu-Po), a mysterious girl who bequeaths them a map leading to the mystical Du Residence where silver-haired witch Du Sha (Chan Si-Gaai) presides over an all-female army of assassins, including friendly Jade (achingly lovely Lam Sau-Kwan). Everyone there insists Crystal has been dead for years. What is going on?
Cinematographer and director Hua Shan concocted some of Shaw Brothers’ craziest movies, including the fan-favourite Super Infra-Man (1975), sexploitation kung fu horror quickie Bloody Parrot (1981) and the charming fairytale love story Little Dragon Maiden (1983), but Portrait in Crystal is arguably his most deliriously imaginative effort. Having studied his craft under Tadashi Nishimoto - the Japanese cinematographer Bruce Lee brought to Hong Kong to shoot Way of the Dragon (1972), who wound up influencing a generation of Chinese cameramen - Shan conjures an otherworldly atmosphere and serves up a sumptuous banquet of gravity-defying swordplay, gross-out horror and mind melting weirdness.
Portrait in Crystal races from one outrageous incident to another: Long trapped and driven insane inside a giant ringing bell, Jade bound naked to a crucifix for some graphic S&M torture, a human ribcage strung like a lyre to induce psychedelic illusions and more exploding heads than one would have thought possible. Shan goes wild with zany cel animated pyrotechnics and electronic sound effects and turns each set-piece into a mini LSD trip. Yet the mystery remains compelling and stands up to close scrutiny. The ever-stoic Jason Pai Piao is a solid lead and generously shares the limelight with a diverse array of talented leading ladies. Taiwanese actresses Liu Yu-Po and Chan Si-Gaai were no strangers to surreal kung fu fantasies, having appeared in cult classics like The Weird Man (1982) and Bastard Swordsman (1983). Yu-Po later gave up acting and became a missionary alongside her husband.
Though a regrettably large number of live snakes, chickens and frogs are graphically disembowelled for our dubious viewing pleasure, the film also features some of the most impressive latex effects in a Hong Kong movie. Notably when the venomous dart makes one victim’s chest swell and explode. Zombie hands explode from the grave (which bleeds when stabbed!), skulls fly through the air, and the heroes narrowly escape an inn where customers are butchered and served up as cannibal meat. Yet away from the candy-coloured depravity, the film is loaded with clever concepts and some truly poetic images, including the climax where the surprise villain absorbs the power of the rising sun and a lovely moment where Crystal plucks the moon from the sky and hands it to Long.