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Holy Flame of the Martial World
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by Jay Seaver

"Yin, yang, magic swords, and forceful laughs."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The Shaw Brothers kung fu movies of the 1980s got pretty strange - between the competition from Golden Harvest with their new young stars like Jackie Chan on one side and the western sci-fi/fantasy movies like "Star Wars" being imported to Hong Kong on the other, the venerable studio had to make some pretty crazy things to stand out. "Holy Flame of the Martial World" is not the most insane thing to come out in Shawscope during that time, it's unusual in that it plays as a pretty good movie when a lot were gluing fight scenes and special effects together and hoping that something entertaining came about.

Some eighteen years ago, a pair of married warriors (Wong Man-yee & Siao Yuk) were on the run, attempting to make sure that their martial-arts manual didn't fall into the wrong hands. Though defeated at the hands of a cabal led by Chief Tsing Yin of the O-Mei Clan (Leanne Lau Suet-wah) and Chief Ku Pan-kuai (Jason Pai Piao), their master Yama Elder (Phillip Kwok Chung-fung) beat them back and took the couple's son to raise on his own, challenging the others to a battle in twenty years time. What the elder did not realize was that the couple had twins, and Tsing Yin would find the daughter. Two decades later, Yin Tien-chu (Max Mok Siu-chung) has grown to be a master of "Devil Swordplay" and Tan Feng (Yeung Jing-jing) is a loyal part of the O-Mei clan, but with the time for the challenge Yama issued coming near, all are trying to find the magical swords hidden by Tien-chu's and Feng's parents while Tsing and Ku consolidate their power.

The quest for a secret manual or weapon is well-enough worn plot for a martial-arts movie that this doesn't sound particularly strange, but it's the crazy but weirdly consistent details that make the actual film a lot of fun: Yama's "ghostly cry", where he laughs his opponents away, is incredibly over-the-top but tremendously entertaining, but for all the silliness of this and some of the other techniques, writer/director Tony Liu Chun-ku and action directors Phillip Kwok Chung-fung and Yuen Tak are very good at staging their wire-heavy action so that the viewer laughs at the staging but enjoys the execution. It's silly, sure, but it's generally slapstick that makes the characters look formidable, rather than inept.

And for as much as a lot of kung fu movies will throw yin-yang symbols into their visuals or talk the idea up, Liu and his crew have a quietly earnest commitment to it, from the opening in which our first impression of the kids' parents has the mother carrying the sword and the father carrying the child to Tsing and Ku teaming up for a fighting technique that often plays as the pair finding a way to have the sexual connection with each other that they crave but cannot allow themselves between their mistrust, dedication to martial training, and the monastic tendencies of their clans. Yin Tien-chu can't hope to defeat them without help from either his sister or the spunky girl (Yung Jing-jing aka Mary Jean Reimer) he meets along the way, both of whom have strengths which complement his own. There's an operatic undertone to the potential tragedy seeded in the opening scene of Tien-chu and and Tan Feng being positioned as enemies, although the film doesn't become nearly so enamored of its own grandiosity as to suck the life out of the action. The story is, for all the insanity it includes, the plot to an actual movie.

Like a lot of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu films, its ensemble cast is likely built with the idea of mixing and matching fighters as much as building an interesting web of character interplay - Candy Wen Xue-er shows up as a mysterious nemesis to the O-Mei clan toward the end with basically zero explanation, for instance - but it winds up being an entrusting group anyway. Max Mok Siu-chung is a charismatic guy, giving a son trying to avenge his parents a laid-back personality that keeps him from being a stiff lead, playing especially well with Mary Jean Reimer and Phillip Kwok Chung-fung as a trio doing some eccentric training. Yeung Jing-jing isn't given an immediate chance to stand out, introduced as one of a half-dozen O-Mei fighters, but she comes into her own quickly. Leanne Lau and Jason Pai are two of the main standouts as the villains, chewing the requisite scenery but getting the absolute most out of their weird chemistry.

All of them get to do a bunch of entertaining jumping around, too. While all the mystical, superhuman combat techniques mean that there's a lot of wire work, Kwok and Yuen keep things fast and impressive when it is straight punching, kicking, slashing, and stabbing. The crazy action is just as carefully done - Liu and how team may have started with crazy ideas and happily play for laughs when things start getting really wacky, but they get away with it better than most (it doesn't hurt that the visual effects, while obviously early- 80 s vintage, have a funky personality to how they're animated). There's a winking light-heartedness throughout the movie that keeps the absurdity from being at odds with what is often presented as a serious story, but not so much that the movie doesn't warm is progress from one scene to the next.

Then it ends on a bit that's part self-referential joke about these movies' questionable morality and part anachronistic comedy, and that's cool - it's mastered the art of being two things and going for the thing that amuses right up to the very last frame. "Holy Flame of the Martial World" is a screwy thing thirty years removed from the forces that created it, but it was probably screwy back then, and it's never making anything less than a full, usually successful, effort to entertain.

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originally posted: 08/17/16 15:07:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/25/16 Matt Great! Future cult film in the making. 5 stars
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Directed by
  Chin-Ku Lu

Written by
  Chin-Ku Lu
  Kwok-Yuen Cheung

  Max Mok
  Philip Kwok
  Leanne Lau,
  Jason Pai Piao
  Ching-Ching Yeung

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