There are times when I'm simply floored by the lack of availability of certain games and movies that I put on during lazy afternoons to simply pass the time (confounded recently and often due to my now busy schedule). One of these is presumably Kung Fu Cult Master (Wong Jing, 1993) which shouldn't be labeled as obscure, as the film has seen release in the US. Several, in fact, eaked out into stores througout the years, retitled "Lord of Wu-Tang" or "The Evil Cult" (the latter is better). None of them are official releases except for World Video's, which doesn't look like an official release even if it is.
I don't advocate buying bootlegs. It hurts the industry and the market for further releases. So I understand that when a long bootlegged film that has such an impenetrable plot based on a novel that's never been adequately translated into English doesn't get a legit release, there are good reasons. I, however, did not buy a bootleg. I bought the Hong Kong DVD from Mei-Ah. It's remastered, it's inexpensive (although you'll pay out the other end for shipping) and it has one of Jet Li's most endearing performances from the nineties in one of the least coherent movies of his career!
One of the problems alluded to above was it's source material, a wuxia novel by Jin Young (aka Louis Cha) named in English "Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber." Wuxia novels by authors like Jin Yong, Liang Yu-Sheng, and Wen Rui-An (among others) can extend for hundreds of pages in multiple volumes; much like adventure-story, fantasy, and historical fiction authors like Alexander Dumas and Robert E. Howard, many of these authors first saw print in serialized form through newspapers and magazines. To put it mildly, these stories are dense with historical as well as fictional back-story. Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber is like that, and each of the films based on it have had to wrestle with ponderous story of the two magic weapons, the Persian cult that protects one of them, the myriad of absurdly powerful martial arts warriors contending for the swords, the invading Mongols and inter-clan rivalries.
Kung Fu Cult Master stars Jet Li as Chang Mo-Kei, whose parents came from rival martial arts clans and were thus pursued and punished by the other clans, injuring Mo-Kei, who was taken into the care of Chang San-Feng (Sammo Hung) and his Wudang sect. Because of the damage to his nervous system, Chang must pump his chi energy into Mo-Kei daily in order to keep him healthy, and even as an adult, Mo-Kei is sickly. All this changes when San-Feng and the clan elders leave for a retreat, and a jealous student attempts to kill Mo-Kei. But Mo-Kei escapes with the help of a mysterious woman (Chingmy Yau) who happens to be the made of the Ming Cult's White Lion king. Falling off of a cliff, Mo-Kei and the woman named Siu Chiu find an old rival of Chang San-Feng who was defeated twenty years before. Having broken his back, he strapped himself into a boulder and rolls around on it in order to stay mobile.
I'll let that last one sink in.
He posesses the "Great Solar Stance," a form of magical martial arts that will cure Mo-Kei of his injury if he learns it. Tricking the crippled master into teaching him, Mo-Kei not only cures himself, but now has super kung fu powers. In the meantime, the other clans are preparing to go against the Ming Cult, who they believe to be evil due to their foreign (Persian) nature and some ghoulish masters within their ranks. They also have the Dragon Saber, while the other clans control the Heaven Sword, and the two together are supposedly unstoppable. Did I mention that Chang Mo-Kei is the heir to the leadership of the Ming Cult? Bare in mind, all this is happening in the first twenty minutes.
It's a messy movie from the king of messy, incoherent 90's Hong Kong movies, Wong Jing. Wong has the sort of talent that would be enviable if he actually put it to good use. But like Jess Franco or Takashi Miike, Wong Jing can only be counted on for making semi-creative shit. There's a creative shooting techniques throughout Kung Fu Cult Master, specifically during the huge battle sequence when the martial clans attack the Ming cult. Obtuse camera angles, tracking shots, hand held camera work, snappy cross cutting and montage (what David Bordwell would describe as "intensified continuity") as well as optical movement and camera movement at the same time combine with practical effects -- like wire work to propel both actors and props and dummies that frequently get their heads lopped off by flying, flashing blades -- along with limited (though spectacular by the standards of HK in the nineties) visual effects work. The armies are made up of hundreds of color coordinated extras that march in unison and in formation. It's a glorious, wacky, violent, ridiculous aussult on the eyes, and it is spectacular.
The smaller scale fight scenes are just as good. Jet Li and his much celebrated skill with Wushu needs little extrapolation, and Sammo Hung is as legendary a fight choreographer as he is a martial artist and actor.
As much as I would praise the efforts put into the action scenes, I would be lying if I said that the movie itself was anything but preposterous, potentially annoying, and pointless. It was planned as the first part of a series, but performed badly and so its ending is abrupt and solves none of the dramatic arc created up to that point. The writing is absolutely dreadful at times, the film is filled with anachronism and coincidence. Explanations for why there is so much fighting with the Ming Cult are in short supply. The comedic elements are often jaw droppingly inappropriate, including rape jokes. No shit: a rape jokes.
Even with all its faults, there are plenty of reasons to watch Kung Fu Cult Master. Outside of the justly praised martial arts and visuals, the performances from the leads are endearing. Jet Li has recently garnered attention for his role in Peter Chan's The Warlords, in which he plays the role of a greedy and licentious general. This role is the exact opposite of that, and he's excellent at it. Li is believably innocent, which has as much to do with his physical features as it does anything else. In spite of not being a classically trained actor, Li manages the difficult task of conveying the innocent interest and curiosity of a chaste romance that most people go through as scarcely more than children, while still showing himself to have very grown up concerns -- like revenge and reciprocation of good deeds for those who have treated him well.
It's not Shakespeare, but as a flatly drawn pulp novel superhero, Li is actually quite good.
The supporting performances are fine, mostly. The real standout is Chingmy Yau. Based on her work in movies like Raped by an Angel and Naked Killer, it would be easy to say that Yau is not really cut out to play the object of Chang Mo-Kei's mostly chaste interest. But to be honest, she does innocent really well. She's virginal, but with a knowing smirk and flirtatious body language. She's charming, she's adorable.
But there's still the issue of marketing the film itself. Could it really be done? It still surprises me that Swordsman 2 -- with its trans-sexual villain played by Brigette Lin and assortment of disfigured, maniacal warriors -- was not only already released on a cleaned up, Region 1 DVD, but that it was released by Dimension along with less bizarre fair like Fist of Legend and Bodyguard from Beijing. Surely if that movie can be localized than this one can be too.
Don't count on it though. It doesn't really matter with the state of genre films on DVD. Dragon Dynasty (subsidary of the Weinstein Company) recently put a copy of My Father is a Hero on DVD, retitled as it was ten years ago, as "The Enforcer." It has only the English dub; without even an option for the original Cantonese or even a Mandarin dub. I'd be happy if such a fate did not befall Kung Fu Cult Master.