A recent viewing of Yuen Woo Ping’s True Legend (2010) reminded me that I have a number of his earlier films on DVD. So I pulled out The Miracle Fighters to give it another spin. This is part of a trilogy of sorts that he made with his brothers, with the other two films being Shaolin Drunkard (1983) and Taoism Drunkard (1984). These films are famous for mixing hyperbolic martial arts, slapstick comedy, and supernatural fantasy in a crazy stew that’s difficult to categorize but is familiar from other ’80s Hong Kong films like Mr. Vampire (1985).
The Miracle Fighters tells a more or less coherent story, but the plot feels ad libbed. A major character dies midway through, and another character becomes the protagonist, for example. Most of the plot — about a young man who is substituted for an abuducted prince by an evil sorcerer with political ambitions — feels like bits and pieces of other stories all jumbled together. What holds it together is the wild imagination and visual invention of the Yuen Clan, all of whom get both writing credit and action choreography credit.
My own background is literary/textual, and I don’t have much training in the visual arts, so it’s difficult for me to analyze visual style. When I look at the stills from this movie and try to analyze why I find them so appealing, what I see is a highly stylized, distorted, eccentric approach to framing, staging, composition, and camera angles that creates a funhouse-mirrors visual world.
This kind of whacked out martial arts movie appeals to me in much the same way that pulp science fiction does. The main goal is outrageous and eccentric invention, with ideas and bodies flying fast and furious. The lack of plot consistency creates an even more dreamlike world than usual in the Dreamland Cafe. Everything is an illusion, a reflection gone askew in the rush to find a new move, a new joke, or a new gimmick to bind the audience’s attention.
Indeed, like the best pulp fiction this movie is a kind of collective dream — a culture spewing up its archetypal images in their most vivid, feverish form. The finale is a competition between sorcerers, each trying to defeat the others with his idiosyncratic technique. It’s perhaps a fitting metaphor for how the Yuen Clan produced this movie, conjuring a story from the clash and synthesis of their inspired and flat-out stolen ideas. Whatever it takes to get a laugh or create a thrill.