Reviewed by YTSL
Not so long ago, I thought that any cinematic
effort which Tsui Hark had a hand in fashioning would be guaranteed to
be wonderful; and this especially so with regards to fantasy dramas replete
with scenes of spectacular action. These days, although quite a few
of the auteur’s offerings remain among my favorite Hong Kong films, the
realization has struck that he (too) has brought into being lesser as well
as greater works. Considering how prolific he is (e.g., in a single
year, Tsui was the producer -- but at least not officially the director
-- of “Swordsman III: The East is Red”, “Green Snake”, “Iron Monkey”,
“Once Upon a Time in China IV” and this fantastical period piece helmed
by Benny Chan), I suppose that this ought not be an unexpected state of
Looking back at the man’s early 1990s output,
I’m happy that there are as many Film Workshop offerings as there are but
also have a nagging inkling that the company’s chief may have spread himself
too thin plus significantly contributed to over-flooding the market --
over a short but intense period of time -- with “flying people” movies.
In his 1993 review of THE MAGIC CRANE, Paul Fonoroff railed against that
summer’s large tide of -- not just trend for -- “look-alike, lackluster
action epics” and “big budget, classically garbed clones” (See his “At
the Hong Kong Movies”, 1998:328). While I am temporally removed from
that bygone era when wuxia and other wire-fu works were the genre(s) du
jour of Hong Kong filmmakers (something which helps explain why the director
of the original -- and best? -- “A Moment of Romance” would try his hand
at making something like this one), I have to admit to thinking after watching
this sprawling work that the often grouchy critic may well have had a point
More specifically, although their plot lines
do differ somewhat, THE MAGIC CRANE does possess scenes -- and a cliff
location or two plus props (notably one sailing ship) too -- that are reminiscent
of at least a couple or so that are to be found in the (nonetheless) more
colorful “Swordsman II” and “The East is Red”. My sense too is that
this visually -- but less so in other departments -- creative production
shares more than two actors (Norman Chu and Damian Lau) with the older
and better “Duel to the Death”. Additionally, perhaps it’s a case
of like minds thinking similarly that besides their sharing the same male
lead in Tony Leung Chiu Wai, such as an eye-catching sedan chair borne
by qigong practicing carriers appear here as well as “Butterfly and Sword”
(yet another wuxia work made and released in 1993).
THE MAGIC CRANE’s overall story is something else
that’s hardly original; as can be seen by one of its primary strands involving
ambitious kung fu masters (the two most ruthless of whom -- So Pang Hoi
and General Tsao Hung -- are played respectively by Lawrence Ng and Kelvin
Wong) who want dominion over the jiang hu realm and go about trying to
fulfill their ambition by ways of deception, betrayal and murder.
The seemingly requisite comic relief of sorts comes in this movie by way
of the familiar figures of a sifu and sole disciple -- this time, of the
poor and justly obscure rural Tien Chong School -- who get in the way as
well as involved in the affairs of more powerful plus devious others at
a big “reunion of the world of martial arts” (IMHO, Damian Lau was an uninspired
choice to play the elder Yat Yeng Tze while Tony Leung Chiu Wai gives a
disappointingly sub-par performance as the younger Ma Kwun Mo).
The need for the insertion of some shock value
as well to this at times workmanlike film seems to have been recognized
by its makers, and gets attendantly supplied -- more than by any other
individual, despite her having only limited screen time -- courtesy of
So Pang Hoi’s exhibitionistic nymphomaniac sister (The outré Lady
Jade Flute is rather daringly played by Jan Lau). With regards to
the two women who had bigger parts to play in THE MAGIC CRANE: Anita
Mui does shine as well as is suitably charismatic as the enchanting maiden
named Pak Wan Fai whose mount of choice is the creature who gives the movie
its English title; but Rosamund Kwan looks to have been badly miscast as
Butterfly Lam, whose fluttery name should not belie the fact of her possessing
a deadly “sound wave” kung fu technique that rivals that of Pak Wan Fai
as well as a twenty-five year old revenge-seeking mission.
On a more positive note: The battles involving
THE MAGIC CRANE’s two main female characters -- both of whom have important
connections with a possessor of still greater martial arts knowledge named
Lam Hoi Ping (portrayed by Norman Chu) -- are the sections of the movie
that have been imbued with the most imagination and are correspondingly
that which makes for the most exciting viewing. With this point in
mind, I’d thus conclude that: Even while this offering is hardly
the most innovative one around, it probably still contains enough to temporarily
satisfy those fans who yearn for yet one more revival and wave of the eye-catching
effects filled genre that drew many of us to the world of Hong Kong movies
in general (and Tsui Hark’s in particular).
My rating for the film: 6.5
Reviewed by Brian
Though this film does in fact take on the guilty
look of the "hand me downs" of many superior fantasy films - add Green
Snake and Deadful Melody to YTSL's list - and the plot and characterizations
are as thin as a model's confidence, this film does have some solid visual
pleasures within. There are a few absolutely lovely wuxia fantasy sequences
and some of the most graceful flying/wirework put on the screen. This film
and the characters are constantly in motion - either effortlessly flying
or spinning like a mad dervish or being flung back and forth like yo yos
on spools of colored cloth. Even after winessing many similar films, there
are moments in which I just thought "how cool was that!".
As is often Tsui Hark's habit, the women completely
dominate the film with terrific performances while the men - Tony and Damian
in particular - are around more for comic relief than anything. Anita is
at her most elegant and serene, Rosamund spends much of the film bleeding
from the mouth but looks lovely nevertheless (and one does not feel too
much sympathy for Tony who has to sacrifice his virginity in order to save
her life!) and in a smaller part Jan Lau is an unforgettable eyeful. The
giant crane on the other hand looks to have been rescued from a flea market!
The plot is clearly being done by the numbers,
nothing unpredictable really occurs, the attempts at humor often fall flat
and it has more characters than you can keep track of the first time through.
But it all happens at the speed of light and for those who enjoy the beauty
of a well designed wuxia film this is worth searching out for.
My rating for this film: 7.5
Distributed by Ritek
The transfer is decent - my guess is that it
is from the Laser Disk.
Only the Mandarin language track and it is
quite odd hearing these actors not speaking Cantonese.
Subtitles are burnt on Chinese and English.
There are no extras - only a chapter index
with 9 chapters.