Ju Ma Pao
DIRECTED BY: Yu Chick-Lim
FEATURING: Polly Kwan (as Sun Kuan Rin Feng), Cheung Lik, Li Chung-Chien, Hsiao Wang
PLOT: A teenage princess learns kung fu so that she can return from exile inside a magic mountain to claim her kingdom from usurpers.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This colorful costume fantasy martial arts adventure brandishes a couple of bizarre characters, a convoluted epic plot containing a couple of unintentionally surreal digressions, and editing and dubbing problems that sink below even the usual low standards of the genre. With their warriors flying through the air and doing improbable double backflips while delivering stuttering threats in dubbed English, almost all of the 1970s chopsocky movies are at least a little bit weird; this one contains enough extra strangeness to qualify as a noteworthy movie of its type, though not enough to challenge for a place on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.
COMMENTS: Ah, kung fu, the weirdest of the martial arts! You never see a devotee of judo using her martial prowess to put her hands all over a street vendor’s stock of steamed buns, or a karate master hanging out with an red-nosed androgynous dwarf who looks like Bjork’s stunt double. Even American kickboxers look dignified by comparison. But it’s the on-the-cheap craziness of the comic book kung fu inspired by Bruce Lee’s Seventies box office success that makes this short-lived but demented sub genre so lovable. Return of the Kung Fu Dragon is, at the same time, one of the most ambitious and the least competent of Taiwan’s action offerings of the period. There’s a childishness to the gaudy presentation, with the bright colors and wizards and princesses and invisible dwarfs, which suggests that Dragon may have been aimed at Taiwanese kids, although of course in the US it played drive-ins and UHF “Kung Fu Theater” venues rather than kiddie matinées. Dragon is constantly throwing so many new characters and twists at you that, if the story wasn’t ultimately such a generic rightful-ruler-returns-from-exile-to-depose-tyrant affair, it would be nearly impossible to follow. Much is made of certain plot devices—e.g. a magic jade dragon staff that somehow allows the evil interloper to finally attack the peaceful island kingdom—that simply disappear later in the tale. The editing doesn’t help the continuity: the aforementioned staff is seen in closeups alternated with shots of a bunny running through the underbrush (to show, we eventually gather, that the wizard is ambushing a hunter as part of the invasion scheme). The schizophrenic editing serves the castle-storming sequence well, at least, as the camera cuts from one individual melee to another and captures the chaos of battle. But even here there are odd inserts, such as when an archer shoots a flying man (?) out of the sky. Neither character was seen before that shot, and neither is seen after. The most jarring moment comes in the middle of the film, when one of the characters, who has taken time out for some martial training, suddenly starts popping into frame, high-kicking in front of a Chinese chess board backdrop, then disappearing. We assume this expressionistic sequence means to stress the analogy between learning to fight and intellectual tactics. But immediately afterwards, another set of characters stumble upon an actual game board set up in the middle of the wilderness—and when their evil imperial pursuers find them the ensuing battle is a stylized kung fu/chess hybrid. It’s that kind of movie; the disdain for realism is amusing and refreshing, but it can also be frustrating and disorienting. Dragon‘s wild cast of characters include, among others, two princesses (well, one is a fake princess who’s also referred to as “the Black Girl” for reasons that are never explained) and an evil usurper who’s given to highly inappropriate bouts of maniacal laughter. The chief bad guy is a wicked old wizard with a beard so long that he has a servant girl whose sole job is to carry it around for him twenty four hours a day; but, he’s not even the weirdest character. That honor goes to the comic relief, an effeminate dwarf with bizarre ponytails and a red nose who can turn invisible (although we in the audience can see him perfectly well whenever he does). In the eyes of the filmmakers, of course, all of this plot and characterization was just necessary filler and carrier for the fight scenes. They are frequent and energetic and, although they lack the athleticism you’d see in some of the better Shaw Brothers productions of the period, they should satisfy chopsocky fans. All in all, Kung Fu Dragon is a frantic, somewhat disorienting experience that should appeal to gonzo martial arts fans; if you’re not already a devotee of the genre, or if you require a plot that makes sense, you should stay far away.
Return of the Kung Fu Dragon is in the public domain in the U.S. and can be viewed at the Internet Archive, among other Net sources. I viewed it on Mill Creek’s fun Martial Arts 50 Movie Pack Collection, which also contains the action oddities Kung Fu Arts and Ninja Champion.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Everything is thrown into the cauldron for this one (dig the magic mirror & the burning gravel!), which means there are enough crudely imaginative elements to make Return of the Kung Fu Dragon strangely viewable at best.”–Joe Burrow, The Action Mutant Reviews (DVD)