The Magic Crane (HK 1992)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 2/11/13
Producer: Tsui Hark
Director: Benny Chan
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Anita Mui, Rosamund Kwan, Damian Lau, Norman Chu (Tsui Siu Keung), Lawrence Ng, Jay Lau

A fabulously rich and vibrant fantasy tale, marred only by an overly convoluted plot and inappropriate goofy humor. Delegates from the nine schools of martial arts are gathering for a meeting to negotiate the recent expansion of Lawrence Ng's evil empire. Naturally, the meeting is just a cover up for him to either buy his rivals' allegiance, or send them to hell. The smallest school is represented by Tony Leung and Damian Lau, who do their best to keep the peace and not meddle in the affairs of others. However, Leung meets a mysterious young woman (Anita Mui) riding a giant crane, and her legendary status in the World Of Martial Arts throws everything into chaos. Adding to the chaos is another superior martial artist named Butterfly Lam (Rosamund Kwan), who shows up to settle a blood feud with the crane lady, related to her father's (Norman Chu) betrayal some twenty-five years ago. Kwan and Mui face off in a sonic battle of lute vs. flute, but then a super villain shows up with a giant deadly bell. Lots of crazy wire fu and blood spurting goodness goes down as the two women unite to defeat their common enemy.

Like most of Tsui Hark's productions in the early 90's, this one is absolutely gorgeous, and the sets, locations, costumes, choreography, lighting, textures, and flowing fabric are breathtaking. It's films like this that remind me why I fell in love with Hong Kong cinema twenty years ago. Unfortunately, it also bears several features of the genre that I dislike, namely goofy slapstick humor and a nonsensical plot. The visual effects are quite good, and while nearly everyone complains about how awful the crane looks, I found it charming. Maybe back in the 90's I would have thought it was tacky, but now I find it extremely refreshing to see actual physical props being used instead of unconvincing and overbearing digital effects. It's a lost art and it looks wonderful. The wire stunts are also astonishing, and the aerial work performed by Anita Mui and Rosamund Kwan is graceful and spectacular. This is a lost art as well, and even with modern digital technology, today's wire stunts look absolutely awful. Damian Lau and Tony Leung play it mostly for laughs and are the reluctant heroes who always find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Leung's constant yelling and running around are annoying, but his character's goofiness is fairly typical for the genre and the time period. Fortunately, within the context of the film he's easily forgettable. It's really all about the intensity of Mui and Kwan, who both personify feminine grace, beauty, and unbridled power. Their kung fu is so powerful that they even use it for birth control. In one utterly bizarre post-coital scene, Kwan says to Leung, "We won't have children. I'll use my kung fu to squeeze out what you left inside of me."

The film speeds along at a breakneck pace, dismissing logic and common sense in favor of rushing towards the next outrageous confrontation or bizarre set piece. But it's so energetic and full of imagination that it doesn't really really matter. Just sit back, relax, and immerse yourself in the experience. Great stuff for fans of high flying wuxia fantasy.