Watching this movie took me back to the late ’90s, when I was discovering the delight that is Hong Kong action cinema, specifically the martial arts films of Jet Li. Most of them had barely comprehensible plots, where logic and continuity were often thrown out to make way for yet another crazy, physics-defying, wire-enhanced fight scene. I remember finishing New Legend of Shaolin, one of the craziest Jet Li films I’ve seen, and knowing that my mind had officially been blown away (or melted, as the case may be). But even New Legend of Shaolin might be hard-pressed to beat the sheer insanity of The Kung Fu Cult Master.
When he was a child, Mo-Kei (Jet Li) and his parents were attacked by representatives of the six martial arts schools, who have been seeking the whereabouts of Mo-Kei’s godfather, To Lung. Supposedly, they want to punish To Lung’s Evil Clan (who, as it turns out, really aren’t all that evil, just misunderstood) for their crimes. But in reality, they just want Lung’s magical sword, which makes its holder the most powerful warrior in the world. They escape to Wu-Tang with the help of Chang Sun Fung (Sammo Hung), the master of Mo-Kei’s father, but Mo-Kei is mortally wounded by the “Jinx Palm.”
The schools surround Wu-Tang and demand that Mo-Kei’s father tell them were to find To Lung. Rather than betray his best friend, Mo-Kei’s father commits suicide (which involved an exploding chest cavity and geysers of blood) before everyone, including Mo-Kei. Mo-Kei’s mother commits suicide as well, but not before making him promise to avenge his father’s death and passing on a little nugget of wisdom: don’t ever trust a pretty girl. Now there’s some motherly advice for you!
Mo-Kei grows up at Wu-Tang, but because they can’t cure the “Jinx Palm” (apparently, the only thing that can, the “Golden Solar Stance,” was lost when the mad monk who created it committed suicide after losing to Chang Sun Fung), he’s unable to learn martial arts. Although the monks, including the head student Ching Yu, claim to be his friends, they really despise him for being Chang Sun Fung’s favorite. When Chang Sun Fung goes into meditation for 100 days, they take the opportunity to play a cruel prank on Mo-Kei with the help of a visiting priestess (should’ve listen to Mom, Mo-Kei) and start abusing him.
Mo-Kei is saved by the spunky Siu Qiu (played by the Wong Jing’s muse, Chingmy Yau). Attempting to escape Wu-Tang, they’re cast off a cliff, and everyone believes they’re dead. However, the two have actually been saved by the “Golden Solar Stance” monk, who is now encased in a boulder and can only move by rolling around. Oh yeah, and he can also shoot out vines to capture people. Seriously! He agrees to teach Mo-Kei the “Golden Solar Stance” as a way to get back at Chang Sun Fung, but Mo-Kei tricks the monk into teaching him so he can avenge his parents’ death.
Meanwhile the six martial schools are heading to Bright Summit to destroy the Evil Clan. But Mo-Kei and Siu Qiu learn that the schools and the Evil Clan are being manipulated by the emperor so that they’ll destroy each other and no longer threaten his power. Mo-Kei realizes the Evil Clan and the six schools need to form a truce, but old suspicions die hard. And that’s when the movie starts getting really wierd.
This being a Wong Jing film, you can’t expect everything to make sense. Heck, you can’t expect anything to make sense. Jing is easily one of Hong Kong’s most erratic directors, and his movies are some of the most nonsensical to come out of the Orient. But The Kung Fu Cult Master might be too much, even by Jing’s wacky standards. Towards the end, the movie’s plot becomes a complete mess; it’s almost like they hired 5 different writers (assuming there was even a script to begin with) and just pulled random pages from the different scripts as they were shooting.
One minute, Mo-Kei is avenging his parents’ death. Then he’s teaming with his enemies against a common foe. Then he’s learning some new martial arts technique with some insanely complicated name. Then he’s back to avenging his parents’ death. Then he’s leading the Evil Clan, and so on. Naturally, this means the film’s tone fluctuates wildly to say the least, from slapstick comedy to irreverent sexual humor (a Wong Jing specialty), from cheesy melodrama to brutal action. And then there’s the ending, or complete lack of one. Originally, this movie was supposed to be the first in a two-part series, but it did so poorly at the box office that the sequel was scrapped. As a result, the movie ends on a cliffhanger, but it’s so abrupt and confusing its laughable, which perfectly fits the zaniness that’s come beforehand.
Although one has to believe everyone involved in the film knew they were making a complete mess, the cast throws themselves into their roles with gusto. I do love watching films starring the younger Jet Li. Even back then, he could pull off the stoic act just as well as he does now (think Hero or Kiss Of The Dragon), but these earlier films find Li equally talented at bringing a youthful naivete and befuddlement to his character. His interaction with the female characters is always a hoot, and even when he becomes an unparalleled martial arts master, he’s still a kid at heart.
You either love Chingmy Yau or hate her (I love her), and her role in The Kung Fu Cult Master won’t do anything to change her mind. Unfortunately, Mo-Kei and Siu Qiu’s burgeoning relationship gets bit too serious and tragic in the last third or so. When they first meet, it’s a sweet, flirtatious thing, which plays a lot better to the actors’ strengths, especially those of Yau, who doesn’t have a serious bone in her body it seems. And besides, this is The Kung Fu Cult Master! Save the melodrama for a Wong Kar-Wai movie! As always, Sammo Hung never disappoints, and his Chang Sun Fung has some of the movie’s funniest bits.
Action-wise, The Kung Fu Cult Master has some pretty impressive scenes. The early training sequences, as Ching Yu leads the Wu-Tang in the sword stances, are pretty cool to watch. There’s tons of wirework, even more than New Legend of Shaolin, and Jing throws in a ton of Zu-like special effects. If you’re looking for realistic, down and dirty martial arts, look elsewhere. But if you’re a fan of action so unrealistic that it sets your head spinning, then The Kung Fu Cult Master is right up your alley.
Still, there’s no denying that The Kung Fu Cult Master is a complete trainwreck of a film. One can literally hear the collison as Jing tries to pile on the zaniness in order to hide the fact that the film has completely lost its way (or that it had no way to begin with). In the end, The Kung Fu Cult Master is one of those films that you watch when you just want to be reminded of how bizarre Hong Kong cinema can be; if you’re disappointed, your expectations were too high, and that’s never a good thing with a Wong Jing movie. However, newcomers might want to try tamer fare first. The Kung Fu Cult Master might do irreparable damage to their fragile, uninitiated minds.