In February 1983 Tsui Hark’s Hong Kong fantasy Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain brought Hollywood visual effects to Hong Kong fantasy cinema, revolutionising the form and invigorating the genre. Yuen Woo-ping’s comedic fantasy The Miracle Fighters was released seven months earlier, and as such could almost be considered the last gasp for an older, more practical style of visual effects picture. It tells a rambling, undisciplined story, and its comedy is a combination of slapstick and nonsense that seems to prefigure the mo lei tau style typified by Stephen Chow. This is one genuinely weird movie.
In 17th century China, it is forbidden for Han and Manchu people to marry one another. When Ko Hung (Eddy Ko) refuses to kill his Manchu wife, the Emperor has her murdered in front of him. Ko escapes, taking the Crown Prince hostage during his escape. When the prince dies, Ko kidnaps another baby to hide his mistake. When that baby grows into adulthood, he – Shu-kan (Yuen Yat-cho) – is mistaken for the real prince by the evil Sorcerer Bat (Yuen Shun-yee). To protect himself from Bat’s machinations, Shu-kan trains under the feuding Taoist priests Kei-moon (Bryan Leung) and Tun-kap (Yuen Cheung-yan) in martial arts and magic.
The Miracle Fighters has the kind of story where by its conclusion one might struggle to properly remember how it started, so far off from its original trajectory it goes. Certainly the bulk of the film is dedicated to Shu-kan meeting and training under the priests; everything before and after seems an excuse to throw in some extra kung fu and stunt work. Director Yuen Woo-ping is much more famous internationally as a stunt choreographer, having worked on the likes of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but his long directorial career started all the way back in 1978 with back-to-back Jackie Chan action comedies: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. It is not a surprise to see such crisp and lightning-fast stunt work, but viewers less familiar with 1980s Hong Kong may not be expecting Yuen’s comedy work to be so overt and ridiculous. This is all slapstick and silly nonsense, and the more you open up to the ridiculous nature of it all the more fun you are likely going to have.
Bryan Leung and Yuen Cheung-yan (the director’s brother) are a definite highlight as Shu-kan’s elderly advisors. It is their scenes where the comedy is broadest, and both perform in a pitch-perfect match for the material. Another particularly nice touch is the “clown jar”, a weird enchanted creature used by Bat to attack his enemies that is certainly one of the more unexpected elements of a Hong Kong fantasy picture.
With Hong Kong distributor Panorama recently re-releasing The Miracle Fighters onto home video, there is hope that this impressively unusual slice of whimsy will find a fresh appreciative audience. There may even be a chance that its two thematic sequels Shaolin Drunkard (1983) and Taoism Drunkard (1984) to see the light of day once again.