Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Magic Crane (1993)

We are in martial world China. The Emperor has ordered a meet-up of the nine great martial arts schools, so that the groups can peacefully arrange those things which usually end in large fights between them.

Alas, being peaceful is not in the program of the upstart Dragon School and their master, the nastily disposed So Pang Hoi (Lawrence Ng). So Pang Hoi wants to become the master of the martial world, and what better way is there to achieve his goal than to attack the congregation with poisoned rubber bats? The bats of evil nearly do everyone in, but an oversized crane (doll) kills them all.

The crane belongs to a girl named Cloud/Pak Wan-Fai (Anita Mui), excellent martial artist and kung flute player. Her further assistance is needed, because all masters of the various schools, except for Yat Yeung-Tze (Damian Lau), the "leader" of the very insignificant Diancang School, have been poisoned by the bats and now need all their concentration to stave off death. Fortunately, Yat Yeung-Tze's only student, the loveable-but-only-mildly-competent Ma Kwun-Mo (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has already had several meet-cutes with Cloud and asks for her help in curing the poisoned. So Ma Kwun-Mo and Cloud ride off on the crane to kill a giant fire-breathing turtle whose bile is the only cure for the poison. At the same time, Yat Yeung-Tze will take care of business at the home front.

Both projects shouldn't be much of a problem, but Cloud, or rather her master Lam Hoi Ping (Norman Chu), has an enemy the girl does not know about: Blue Butterfly (Rosamund Kwan), who has sworn to kill Lam - her father - for having left her and her mother to die in a burning palace he rescued Cloud from (further explanation not forthcoming). Blue Butterfly uses her superior lute fu to make everyone's life miserable.

At the same time, Yat Yeung-Tze has to fight through the usual squabbles and conspiracies amongst the martial artists and against the ambitions of the power-hungry General Tsao Hung (Zhang Tielin). And it's only getting more complicated from then on.

Benny Chan's The Magic Crane seems to be the Tsui-Hark-produced--and-written wuxia nobody likes to talk about. That's patently unfair, because this is an absolutely awe-inspiring film.

Sure, Chan is a gun-for-hire director without much of a personal touch, but Tsui Hark's hands-on production approach prevents the film from ever becoming boring or merely competent.

The script is - as is the wuxia genre's wont - telling a basically simple story in exceedingly complicated ways, with a large cast of characters, all of which turn out to be equally important. Depending on how you look at it, it's either sprightly and sprawling or utterly chaotic. I'd go with the former, if possibly only out of thankfulness for The Magic Crane's incessant madness and manic energy. I also suspect that the film was made with an audience in mind that knows at least the basics of the wuxia novel it is based on, making some of its elements less clear to those like me who haven't.

But "Understanding the plot" isn't the point here anyway. Forward momentum rules the screen.

The film just doesn't seem to know where to stop, and if it knew, it still wouldn't do it as a matter of general principle. There's something absurdly wonderful or wonderfully absurd to be experienced in every scene. Besides the lute fu and the flute fu, the ridiculous crane and the possibly even more ridiculous turtle, there's also sex fu, a lady fighter with underwear trouble (feel the power of Hong Kong "humour"!), a deadly poison that can only be cured by sex, an utterly random evil old guy who is chained up in a hole in the ground and feeds a magic martial arts manual to someone (with terrible mutation consequences, of course), bell fu, a peculiar tornado, a wonderful sound wave stance fight - it just goes on and on. Whatever weird thing you want to imagine is in here, so many weird things even that the usual scenes of people flying through the air (which is of course in here too) seem perfectly quaint in context.

Oh, and did I mention that the film's big bad is disposed off by being blown up with a flute? Or that the film ends with the sweet, sweet promise of legal polygamy (oh, the wonders of Chinese culture!)?

Of course, this high concentration of madness leads to a certain lack of depth in characterization (although the actors are doing what they can), and doesn't exactly help to make the film's themes clear, but complaining about it is like complaining that there are noodles in your instant ramen.

I'm pretty sure the world would be a much better place if everyone would just go with the program and watch The Magic Crane.


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