Two years ago kung fu monks Peacock (Yuen Biao) and Lucky Fruit (Hiroshi Abe) defeated the freak-show legions of hell, leaving only hell-spawned but angelic natured young Ashura (Gloria Yip) on Earth where she enjoys elephant rides and making mischief amidst her Tibetan retreat. Unfortunately, Ashura’s awesome supernatural powers mean every evildoer is out to recruit her to their side. Believing it’s better to be safe than sorry, the stern High Abbess (Yuko Natori) attempts to imprison Ashura inside a mystical portal within a giant Buddha statue, but sagely Abbott Ji Ku (Shintarô Katsu) takes pity on the innocent child. He grants Ashura seven days to somehow gain a soul whilst protected by her friends, although the High Abbess despatches three super skilled Moon, Star, Sun Abbesses (Yukari Tachibana, Mariko Arai and Lam Gong Wai Ji) to kill her if she fails.
Meanwhile, a hapless tourist (Loletta Lee) mistakenly brings Ashura’s childhood friend, a magical little imp called Genie, back home to Hong Kong where her scientist brother Tan (Lawrence Lau Sek-Yin) is hard at work on his “super-dimensional transporter.” Ashura and Lucky Fruit are quickly on Genie’s trail, but Peacock is waylaid by subterranean dwelling ice-demoness Hell’s Concubine (Ngai Suet) who commands her goblin army to bring Ashura back to hell.
Crazed semi-genius Nam Nai Choi is responsible for some delirious Hong Kong movie gems, including The Seventh Curse (1986), The Story of Ricky (1992) and The Cat (1992) among many others. Saga of the Phoenix was the sequel to Nam’s big-budget fantasy hit Peacock King (1988), only this time round leading man Yuen Biao is frozen in ice and out of action for two thirds of the movie, leaving the bulk of the story to co-star Gloria Yip. Yip was a twenty-something actress whose childlike features led to a string of schoolgirl roles, most notably in the superb Saviour of the Soul (1991). Her exuberance and fresh-faced charm compensate for the crass comedy that bogs down the film’s middle third. Much of this centres around the Tom & Jerry like feud between naughty Genie and obnoxious Tan. Between torturing the Mogwai-like puppet inside a hot oven and washing man, Tan repeatedly tries to score with the three comely abbesses in juvenile scenes that take their toll on the plot. However, the film does have an interesting theme in whether free will or spiritual guidance are the best pathways to enlightenment, even if it is buried beneath scenes where Genie farts toxic yellow gas at people.
Like its predecessor this was a Japanese co-production, hence the presence of co-stars Hiroshi Abe (rather wooden in an early role, compared to the demented charisma he displayed in The Sword of Alexander (2007)) and erstwhile Zatoichi Shintaro Katsu, coming to the end of his illustrious career. Also along for the ride is Loletta Lee, an incredibly prolific actress once voted the sexiest woman in Hong Kong. However, compared to her exuberant turn in Mr. Vampire 4 (1988) and her critically acclaimed role in Final Victory (1988), she has far too little to do. The Japanese were also responsible for the film’s special effects which are often very impressive: stop-motion animation, puppet monsters, vast supernatural storms and colourful energy beams that turn the screen into a light-show. As fantasy extravaganzas go, Saga of the Phoenix is feather light and inconsequential but brevity works in its favour (it runs a mere eighty-six minutes). And it is full of eye-catching incident, especially the exciting climax where our three heroes morph into a spectacular cel-animated phoenix and battle an impressive, death-ray spewing, H.R. Giger styled animatronic monster.