Magic Crane

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 affairs.

Tony Leung and Anita Mui
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 there.

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).

Tony, Damian Lau and Jan Lau
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).
Rosamund Kwan and Norman Tsui
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

DVD Information:

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.