Battle Wizard

It seems like there was a period in the history of Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio when Sir Run Run Shaw had a bright red rotary telephone stored under a cheese dome sitting atop his desk. Whenever a completely loony script landed on his desk, he would calmly pick up the phone and it would automatically dial a pre-programmed number which would be answered by Danny Lee, sitting across the studio, presumably wearing a tight polyester shirt adorned with some distasteful paisley pattern. How else can you explain the man’s appearance in a string of the studio’s first real forays into the world of crazy kungfu? Although the Shaws would produce no small number of truly batty kungfu films, especially during the late 70s and early 80s when the company was on its final leg, their early forays into left field all seemed to have the common denominator of young star Li Hsiu-hsien, soon to become Danny Lee.

Lee is best known for two things: being the determined cop in John Woo’s internationally adored love letter to male bonding and the wholesale slaughter of gangs randomly dressed up as rugby players (The Killer), and his role as the super-powered costumed hero with atomic fists, Infra-Man. But scattered throughout Li’s early career with the Shaw Bros. are films that are just as colorful and bizarre as Infra-Man, only usually with a lot more sleaze and nudity thrown in. It was Danny Lee who was tapped to play Bruce Lee in the studio’s tawdry softcore sexploitation version of the Little Dragon’s final days. It was Danny Lee who became the high-jumping Oily Maniac and ran around town killing rapists before finally succumbing to the temptations inherent in being a creature imbued with all the fearsome powers one attributes to a pile of dirty auto shop rags. And it was Danny Lee who bravely stood by the side of a mostly naked jungle girl as they tried to stem the wrath of the rampaging giant ape known as Goliathon.

Movies were never part of Lee’s plan. As a kid, he idolized policemen and dreamed of one day being able to himself don those khaki shorts and the gun attached to a cord that so identify Hong Kong police of the time. Unfortunately, Lee wasn’t the brightest guy, and he could never successfully pass any of the exams to become a police officer. With few options in his future, Lee entered the TVB Acting School in 1970. By 1971, he was popping up in Shaw Bros. films like Deadly Duo and, a year later, the star-studded epic Water Margin. Lee was not exactly a major player at the studio, at least not when compared to contemporaries like Ti Lung and David Chiang. Though he appeared in many of the studio’s biggest productions, he was usually a supporting player, very often inhabiting a “blink and you’ll miss him” role.

In 1973, he got his first starring role, in River of Fury, though it was less as Danny Lee and more as a guy who could comb his hair into the same style as Bruce Lee. It was 1975’s Infra-Man — Hong Kong’s ode to Japanese tokusatsu heroes like Kamen Rider — that started Lee’s long career in appearing in the studio’s weirdest productions. He continued in this capacity for a while — starring in crazy B films, appearing in small roles in more prestigious films. When the studio hit the skids, Lee started up his own production company and decided that if he couldn’t be a real cop, he would do the next best thing, which was pretend to be a cop in the movies. Splitting his time between acting and directing, Lee produced a steady but somewhat unremarkable string of action and comedy films, the notable exception being the highly regarded Law With Two Phases, in which Lee played the archetypal “hot headed but just” cop role that would come to define his career. In 1989, he appeared as one half of the “male bonding experience on steroids” in John Woo’s The Killer. The movie was an international hit, and it made Lee a familiar face to cult film fans around the world. And then things got really weird.

I don’t know Danny Lee. I’ve never really heard him express his thoughts on political or social matters. All I can do is interpret him from afar, and that leaves me with the following impression: Danny Lee is insane.

After his success in The Killer, Lee appeared as a cop in pretty much every movie made in Hong Kong. Under his own production company’s banner, and often under his guiding hand as director, Lee established the dominance of the sleazy Category III crime film. Cat III films, for those who missed the boat, are often characterized as “Hong Kong’s NC-17 movies.” This isn’t entirely accurate. Many Cat III films could pass for R, and many still could pass for PG. While it is often obvious why a film receives a Cat III ratings, other times the classification of a particular film as forbidden fruit has to be chalked up to some cultural offense lost on overseas viewers or, more likely, the fact that no matter what country you live in, the ratings boards seem to operate without any basis in logic or reason.

In 1992, as the New Wave was becoming old hat in Hong Kong but being freshly discovered in the United States, Lee directed and appeared in Dr. Lamb. The film combined Lee’s beloved police procedural style film with the grotesqueness of extreme horror, then doused it all with the sort of sleazy tastelessness that would come to define much of Hong Kong’s output in the 1990s. Dr. Lamb spawned dozens — if not hundreds — of imitators, many of them made by or starring Lee. It’s willingness to go where no film would dare go before, it’s gleeful embrace of the basest, most irredeemably gratuitous, callous, and scummy aspects of the human condition, made it an instant classic. The Cat III craze was born, fueled by the “we don’t give a shit about anything anymore” abandon of Hong Kong in the years leading up to the 1997 reunification of the British colony with the communist Mainland. Like college students on an “end of youth” bender in Juarez, Hong Kong indulged every vice. Nothing was taboo. Nothing was too extreme or tasteless. And standing in the middle of it all was Danny Lee.

The next year, Lee topped himself, turning the extreme violence and wickedly misanthropic sense of humor present in Dr. Lamb into high art, or at least high low art. Co-directed by and starring Danny Lee, The Untold Story quickly became one of the most infamous films in the world. Telling the story of a completely unhinged killer who dices people up and serves them as ingredients in the pork buns offered by his restaurant, the movie garnered critical and fan acclaim, as well as a passel of awards for Lee and his star, Anthony Wong.

Through his direction and portrayals, Lee continuously escalated the insanity of the “cop on the edge”, and it eventually became impossible to tell when he was joking and when he truly believed the police should be allowed to do things like shove gushing garden hoses up Simon Yam’s ass or rape female suspects with condoms filled with ice cubes. In the end, though, you simply have to go with the flow. Danny Lee was insane, but pretty much all of Hong Kong was insane. I like to imagine that Lee and the rest of the Hong Kong film industry spent June 30, 1997, adrift in Kowloon Bay on a raft covered with screaming monkeys, a la Klaus Kinski’s ill-fated character in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God. But Lee probably just spent it getting ready for some variety show. Whatever. By the time Handover rolled around, Cat III films had exhausted every disgusting, perverse pleasure imaginable. The entire Cat III industry collapsed. The entire Hong Kong film industry collapsed, gutted from the inside by years of corruption, Triad control, and perhaps a general exhaustion brought on by the orgiastic excesses and Caligulan revelry that represented the island nation’s last bash before the more somber, less liberal Chinese government took control and decreed that all action stars should be pretty young male model types with floppy emo haircuts.

Battle Wizard finds the future “crazy cop” smack dab in the middle of his role as the go-to guy for any weird thing the Shaw Bros. threw up on screen. Hot off Goliathon and about to appear in the deliriously torrid Call Girls, this ultra-strange slice of kungfu fantasy casts Lee in a position that might take people familiar with the bulk of his work somewhat off-guard. He’s not stoic. He’s not mean. He’s not pretending to be Bruce Lee while banging Bruce Lee’s real-life mistress. He even laughs and smiles. But don’t worry — his basically likable character is still surrounded by a movie that includes a lascivious green goblin man, a legless fire-breathing kungfu master who has replaced his missing limbs with electrified robotic chicken legs, guys who shoot lasers out of their fingers, and a woman who can throw snakes at you that will burrow through your face and crawl around in your chest as they busily eat your internal organs.

The story begins with hero Prince Tuan Zhengchun in bed with his beloved. However, Tuan proves to be slightly less than heroic when we learn, during a rapid succession of events, that this is a mistress, he’s gotten the mistress pregnant, the mistress’s husband is outside waiting for a fight, and Tuan is more than willing to smugly ditch the mistress as soon as his wife — who doesn’t seem to care that her husband sleeps around — shows up to escort him back to the palace after being nasty to the pregnant mistress. In the fight between Tuan and his mistress’ proper husband, Wong Po-yen, Tuan uses his magical pew-pew-pew finger lasers to blow the poor guy’s legs off. Enraged by everything that has transpired that afternoon, Wong vows revenge on the Tuan family, and honestly, it’s hard not to sympathize with him.

Years pass, and Tuan’s illegitimate daughter grows up. Tuan also has a son with his actual wife. Tuan’s estranged daughter, Xiang Yaocha (Chor Yuen film regular Tanny Tien Ni) has become a kungfu master who has had instilled in her by her mother a burning hatred of all things male in general and Tuan in particular. Decreeing that no man is worthy of seeing her daughter’s face, Xiang is adorned with a black veil and sets out to wreak havoc on the Martial World. Tuan’s legitimate son, Tuan Yu (Danny Lee) has grown into an affable scholar more interested in poetry and philosophy than the martial arts, much to the consternation of his father. When pops insists that his son start taking the physical culture of youth more seriously, Tuan Yu wonders if it is indeed so important in this modern world to know kungfu, or if a man might survive purely on the merits of his refinement, charm, and intelligence.

Not surprisingly, the answer is, “You need kungfu,” but don’t think that this film is given to any deep meditation on this quandary. Tuan Yu’s quest for enlightenment lasts about three minutes, just long enough for him to meet a pretty young woman named Zhong Ling-ehr (Lin Chen-chi), whose martial arts specialty is throwing snakes at people. After Tuan Yu proves himself worthless in a fight and admits that the world is a violent place where even a scholar must hone the fine art of doing something like throwing a gob of snakes at some guy’s face, Zhong agrees to teach him kungfu. As is typical in movies of this type, the lesson begins right then and there, with no real preparation or plan other than for Tuan Yu to hobble, arms flailing wildly, at Zhong so she can toss him around. It’s the martial arts equivalent of looking for a good math tutor, then having that tutor, immediately upon being hired, punch you in the face repeatedly while demanding that you solve the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture.

When the duo is set upon by members of one of what must be eight million Poison Clans that operated in medieval China, Tuan Yu must seek the assistance of Zhong’s friend, Xiang Yaocha. No sooner does Tuan Yu come into contact with the half-sister he does not know exists than they are set upon by old Wong’s chief minion: a green goblin guy with a retractable hook on a chain for a hand. And it’s round about here that the movie starts to get completely weird. Bye and bye, Tuan Yu sucks the blood of a fabled red python that gives a man instant kungfu super powers. He and Xiang Yaocha pledge to marry one another, only to soon discover (thankfully before he’s done anything more than suck some poison out of a wound on her shoulder) that they are brother and sister and Tuan Yu’s parents are the people Xiang swore to her mother to kill. Then Wong, hobbling about on the electrified, extensible chicken legs he used to replace the legs Tuan Zhengchung blasted off, shows up to capture Tuan Yu and Xiang Yaochi, all of which leads to a colossally insane finale full of fire breathing, finger lasers, tornado punches, and poison frog eating. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of it all, Danny Lee and Tien Ni fight a kungfu gorilla.

While Battle Wizard isn’t the weirdest or most outrageous kungfu film ever made (I still think that honor belongs to Buddha’s Palm and collected works of the Yuen clan), it’s still plenty weird. Real martial arts take a back seat to fantasy fu and guys shooting beams at each other, though there’s still a decent amount of foot and fist action. In a fairly rare turn of events for ultra-weird kungfu action, the story itself is pretty straight-forward and simple to follow. There are no secret clans betraying each other, and there’s a fairly manageable cast of characters. The script by Ni Kuang, who wrote every single movie in Hong Kong during the 60s and 70s (or so it seems), is based on the novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, written in serialized fashion over the course of four years by famed wuxia novelist Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) and by Ni Kuang himself, when Jin Yong had to take a leave of absence from his authoring duties. Yong’s novels more famously served as the basis for many of director Chor Yuen’s most complex and intriguing wuxia movies made during the 1970s, and anyone familiar with the convoluted, labyrinthine plots of those movies might marvel at how streamlined, realtively speaking, Battle Wizard is by comparison.

Don’t worry, though. Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is just as fantastically overstuffed with plot twists and confusion as the rest of Jin Yong’s work. When adapting it for the screen, Ni Kuang chose to stick purely to a single character’s story in the otherwise sprawling epic, leaving the myriad dozens upon dozens of other characters, clans, gods, and plots for other movies. I don’t know if the novel explores the hinted at but largely unaddressed moral quandaries of the story as presented in the movie. For example, aside from breezing through the “can a man live without being violent” philosophical question, there’s the question of who here is the bad guy. Tuan Zhengchung certainly acts like a dick when we first meet him, but later in the story he and his brother, the emperor, become erstwhile good guys. He even welcomes his estranged daughter back into the family, though it probably would have been a more admirable gesture if he hadn’t callously abandoned her and her mother in the first place.

Similarly, it’s hard to see crazy ol’ Chickenfoot Wong as a thoroughly bad guy given that he tried to prevent his wife from having an affair and got his legs blasted off by her lover as a result. That’s bound to unhinge anyone at least a little bit. The wife, incidentally, disappears from the movie entirely right after she sends a masked Xiong out into the world to shoot people with laser darts launched out of a femur. Most of this is more hinting at complexity than it is actual complexity. It certainly makes the characters more interesting, but ultimately, it’s less like getting to know the nuances of flawed characters than it is reading the ad copy on the back of a book about these characters. From what I can gather, the elder Tuan is taken more to task for his womanizing ways in the original novel, which spends a portion of time on poor Tuan Yu falling in love with a variety of beauties only to discover that every one of them is his half-sister, since his father apparently slept with, impregnated, then abandoned every comely lass in the Middle Kingdom.

However, such thematic questions are quickly swept under the rug as soon as the fire-breathing chicken-leg wizard, toad eating, and gorilla scuffles parade onto the screen. Given the movie’s slight running time, it’s a wonder that Ni Kuang packed any character complexity at all into the story on its brisk march toward the outer reaches of kungfu insanity. When it arrives at its destination, however, it becomes one for the ages. The studio learned a lot during the making of Infra-Man, and many filmmakers seemed keen on employing the sort of optical and animation effects present in that film. Up until Battle Wizard, director Hsueh Li Pao plied his trade in pretty normal kungfu films. I don’t know the events that lead to his directing Battle Wizard instead of someone like Chor Yuen, but the end result is a satisfying smattering of kungfu mixed in with a whole lot of animated laser beams and random flashes of color.

Wong’s subterranean lair looks straight out of Mario Bava, awash as it is in gratuitous but never the less gorgeous multi-colored lighting. One half expects Reg Park to come swaggering through, stopping just long enough to apologize for the intrusion and ask the direction to Christopher Lee’s similarly lit underground abode. Art director Johnson Tsao, who worked on pretty much every Shaw Bros. movie you can think of, blends the sort of stylized sets such fantasy films demand with a lot of outdoor location work, which is one of the primary reasons Battle Wizard feels similar to but also very different from Chor Yuen’s entirely set-bound wuxia fantasies. When the sets do show up, they’re impressively otherworldly. Aside from Wong’s cave (which is actually a very simple, small, and cheap set made interesting by the way it’s lit and filmed), there’s his weird pagoda of death and, particularly effective, the multi-colored mist enshrouded swamp in which the Poison Clan dwells. The rest of the sets are pretty standard Shaw. Bros. interiors.

The acting is pretty good across the board. Danny Lee, as I might have alluded to earlier, never struck me as a particularly engaging performer. He has more range than, say, Derek Yee would later demonstrate, but very little in the way of true skill or charisma, especially when held up alongside contemporaries like David Chiang, Ti Lung, or Alexander Fu Sheng. However, he works well within his limited range for this movie, creating a character with a decent degree of charisma who teaches us the valuable lesson that you can loaf around all your life, and as long as you eventually bite a snake and swallow a toad, you will become the world’s most invincible kungfu hero. As with many of the films in which Lee was the star, this is a decidedly B-Team effort. There’s no Ti Lung, no Lo Lieh, none of the big names and matinee idols you’d find in films directed by Chang Cheh or Chor Yuen. As is often the case, letting the B-Team be the stars once in a while generates good results. They really put their backs into the effort.

Positioned where it is, Battle Wizard works sort of as a gatekeeper to the even weirder, wilder stuff the studio would find itself producing as it limped into the 1980s. It’s pretty bizarre, but it’s not as bizarre as what was lingering just on the horizon. It comes from the same source material as most of Chor Yuen’s movies, but where as his films focused on the Byzantine machinations of the men and women in the Martial World, Battle Wizard disengages itself completely from reality and dwells within a world populated by, as the name of the source material spells out, demi-gods and devils possessed of expressly supernatural power. One can see in it not just the path that would lead to bonkers affairs like Buddha’s Palm, but also to films like Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and the several other supernatural martial arts films from the Hong Kong New Wave.

For fans of weird kungfu, I can’t imagine the charms of Battle Wizard would be lost upon them. It comes at the viewer with tremendous energy and a willingness to throw onto the screen as much goofy, wonderful nonsense as it can think of. The underlying story — about a man discovering the world beyond the safe confines of his palace home, as well as discovering the sordid past of his otherwise heroic acting father — may take a back seat to all the chicken leg kungfu and lasers, but its presence at all makes Battle Wizard a cut above the usual fare. It’s nice to see Danny Lee shine in a movie which, like Infra-Man, is just as weird as most of the stuff he made but a lot less sleazy. It’s hard to imagine that a few years later, he’d be using condoms full of ice cubes to extract confessions from female bank robbers. And I need hardly even mention that having so much Tien Ni on screen is always a good thing. Her sleepy eyed beauty and willingness to shoot men with a laser dart gun made out of a human leg bone endears her to me endlessly.

Which, I suppose is an apt metaphor for this movie as a whole. It sets out to give you a rip-roaring, high-energy, higher-weirdness kungfu adventure, and it succeeds on every level, especially the level that includes finger lasers and fire-breathing wizards with mechanical chicken legs.