As punishment for his pranks and mis-steps, Dragon Fighter Luohan (Stephen Chow) is sent down to Earth to be re-incarnated as a human. He is tasked with saving the souls of three people: one an unrepentant sex worker (Maggie Cheung), one a feeble-minded beggar (Anthony Wong), and the third a bullying villain (Kirk Wong).
The history of Hong Kong cinema can essentially be divided into two halves, divided by the formal handover of the city from the United Kingdom back to China in 1997. In the lead-up to the handover a generation of top notch talent effectively bailed on the city for Hollywood, opening up opportunities for a fresh generation of actors, writers, and directors back at home. One of the big winners of Hong Kong cinema during this period was director Johnnie To, whose innovative and energetic crime films pushed the genre in a bold new direction and advancing them for the first time since John Woo has reinvigorated things with the likes of A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. To’s films have a strong cult following around the world, and he remains one of the most acclaimed directors of contemporary Hong Kong cinema thanks to the likes of Election, Life Without Principle, and Drug War.
What can be a surprise for Hong Kong film enthusiasts raised on To’s post-handover films is experiencing the director’s earlier works. His debut was 1980’s The Enigmatic Case, and he spent more than a decade-and-a-half directing a variety of features that lacked the specific loose and improvisational tone of his later famous works. The Mad Monk was released back in 1993, and was one of four films he directed that year. It is a bawdy comedy that simply fails to stand out from the crowd, and displays a level of mediocrity that one simply does not usually associate with Johnnie To’s later filmography.
Star Stephen Chow is also associated with much stronger material than this. His personal brand of ‘mo lei tau’ comedy broke box office records through the likes of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, but here it feels loosely thrown together and scattershot in its approach. While he does still cut a charismatic figure throughout, there is a curious lack of energy that prevents the film from ever really taking off. Co-stars including Maggie Cheung and Anthony Wong likewise fail to achieve any work of note here, and Anita Mui’s brief cameo as the Bodhisattva Guan Yin comes and goes without making an impact. A few jokes work through the film, but an alarming number do not; a few scenes actively offend with garish displays of sexualised violence.
The film’s visual effects are largely risible, with an ambition that vastly exceeds the production budget. A late appearance by a giant demon actually comes off the best of them all, simply because it does not attempt anything too extravagent and instead relies on a sort of old-school charm. The film’s denoument is perplexing in how out-of-synch it is with the rest of the story. The Mad Monk feels as if the material has been flung against the wall to see what sticks, and simply that very little has stuck. It is a frustrating minor work by a lot of artists who had and would later do much, much better.