One hundred and seventy years ago a wise monk made a section of land known as Villains Valley into a sanctuary. Anyone who comes to the valley and sincerely repents their crimes is protected and safe from the law. Yet now Mistress Eva (Sharla Cheung Man), ruler and most powerful fighter of the Martial World, blithely ignores the ancient law in pursuit of the so-called 10 Untouchable Villains, who were once heroes until framed by two of their number. Believing in their innocence, Swordsman Yin (Michael Miu Kiu-Wai) defends them against his own wife, Eva. He ends up in a comatose state but the grateful 10 raise his only son as their own. Years later, the now grownup and peculiarly named Fishy (Andy Lau) accompanies two of his adopted parents, Big Mouth Lee (Ng Man Tat) and Sissy To (Deannie Yip) to a madcap martial arts tournament which he hopes to win and become master of the Martial World. Things are complicated when Fishy not only uncovers a conspiracy among the tournament organizers but also discovers his chief opponent is Mistress Eva's number one student, the beautiful More (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia), with whom he falls in love.
1992 was the year Hong Kong cinema went well and truly wu xia crazy. After Swordsman II: Invincible Asia broke box office records everyone from the loftiest art-house auteur to the lowliest schlock merchant began cranking out fast-paced fantasy flicks featuring flying swordsmen. Portly comedian turned acclaimed actor-director Eric Tsang threw his hat in the ring with Handsome Siblings, a farcical fantasy based on the novel Juedai Shuangjiao by prolific wu xia writer Gu Long. The story had been adapted twice before by the famous Shaw Brothers studio as The Jade Faced Assassin (1971) and most notably The Proud Twins (1979), a vehicle for much beloved martial arts star Alexander Fu Sheng. Its jocular tone proved a fine fit with Tsang's comedic background though in spite of a career laden with comic classics like Aces Go Places (1981) he often dabbled in drama and actually debuted as a director with a period martial arts film, The Challenger (1979).
Tsang translates Long's already episodic story into a series of lively skits punctuated by breakneck martial arts set-pieces. Which means a lot of bawdy sex gags and scatological humour liable to annoy those that prefer their kung fu films stoic and serious. Admittedly some of the humour errs on the side of bad taste, notably the dubious scene wherein Big Mouth Lee suggests Fishy rape the deceptively androgynous More to expose her as a woman. Happily the scene takes a far funnier turn leaving the film forever infamous as the one where a drug-addled Ng Man Tat shags a horse! Yuck! This marked a rare excursion into comedy for superstar Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia although she still ends up more or less playing straight woman to a bunch of goofballs. By contrast Cantopop icon Andy Lau delivers a boisterous comic performance, donning a succession of outrageous outfits, taking pratfalls, spitting wisecracks a mile a minute and mugging enthusiastically.
Essaying the most challenging role is the lovely and oft-underrated Sharla Cheung Man. In some ways her spiteful martial arts matriarch proves the most significant character in the story. Eva's prejudice against the 10 Untouchable Villains leads her to ignore their warnings whilst mistaking father and son conspirators Kong Pi Hawk (Chang Kuo-Chu) and Yuk Long (Francis Ng) for allies. The central theme of pride leading the self-righteous to believe they can tell good from evil at a glance reflects a familiar anti-authoritarian bent found in many wu xia novels as well as those films based on them. Time and again wu xia stories show how absolute power and arrogance go hand in hand which was likely the reason why these novels were often banned in mainland China. It took the more stately and politically conservative wu xia epics of Zhang Yimou to re-popularize the form in China even as these perversely found more favour in the west than the more frenetic Hong Kong films. There is also an element of sexual hypocrisy as Eva forbids More from wearing women's clothes so she won't be eclipsed by her beauty. She also insists More remain a virgin, ostensibly so she won't lose her martial arts superpowers though the climax calls bullshit on that theory with the lovers canoodling to replenish their Tantric energy. Does that mean those studying martial arts are wasting their time doing arduous exercise when they could just get it on with some hottie? Dang it!
A versatile filmmaker, Tsang ably handles the requirements for a fast-paced New Wave swordplay film doling out delirious visuals and wildly surreal wire fu choreographed by the great Philip Kwok Tsui formerly one of the Five Deadly Venoms (1978) and best known as Mad Dog in John Woo's heroic bloodshed classic Hard Boiled (1992). The action, which encompasses exploding earth, swords burrowing underground, water droplets used as lethal projectiles and heads ripped off shoulders, is insanely imaginative with imagery straight out of a scroll painting. Tsang doesn't manage to sustain the pace and the third act collapses into a round of shock revelations, twists and why-I-did-it speeches like some kind of parlour room mystery. However the spectacular climax, pitting the flying lovers against a white-haired supervillain who shoots fire and ice from his palms, proves worth the wait.