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‘Battle Wizard’ is like magic: it’s fun though nonsensical

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Battle Wizard
Written by Ni Kuang
Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li
Hong Kong, 1977

Articulating one’s thoughts and emotional response to a film can be an unexpectedly challenging task. If a movie’s thematic and emotional texture is deeply layered, ambiguous or produces conflicting reactions then the redacting  process poses a problem. Other instances present an entirely different obstacle insofar as the reviewer is wrestling with why they responded positively or negatively. Such is the predicament with this week’s movie, Battle Wizard from 1977.

To summarize the plot of Battle Wizard would be a disservice to the picture’s cacophony of sounds, epileptic barrage of sights and ludicrous misadventures the cardboard cutout characters find themselves mixed up in. There are so many twists and turns it becomes genuinely difficult to guess what might happen next, less so thanks to intricate and well devised screenwriting and more because of the nonsensical sequence of events in the story, suggesting that the filmmakers made things up on the fly just to reach the finish line. For those who require a synopsis, Battle Wizard sees a young, intellectually oriented son of a governor, Tuan Yu (Danny Lee Sau-Yin), become the target of his father’s old rival, Yellow Robe Man (Shut Chung-Tin) and Xiang Yaocha (Tanny Tien Ni), the daughter of the woman his father had an affair with and who swore an oath to destroy the Tuan family. The problem is that neither Yu or Yaocha is aware of the other’s identity at first and they begin to fall for each other (yuk!). Another young lady, Zhong Ling-erh (Lam Jan-kei), lover of snakes, also vies for Yu’s affections. Magic powers, berserk gorillas, a baddie with hooks for hands, ‘Red Python Soul’ style, attack snakes…the movie is a pot pourri of everything a 6 year old boy would instinctively find cool in a martial arts science fiction cartoon, only this is no cartoon.

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Battle Wizard is not a film one sits down to merely watch unfold before one’s eyes for amusement’s sake or for a stimulating tale of vengeance, family ties and discovery of one’s self in a hero’s journey. Rather, Battle Wizard is something one experiences. The viewer need let the picture’s uncontrolled, untethered zaniness sink in with each assault of aural and visual mayhem. Logic need not apply, it is a burden, a restriction that would deprive the movie of its devil may care attitude. Resistance to accepting it for its true nature and trying to evaluate it like other martial arts film is, ultimately, futile. In depth criticism is almost beyond purpose for a movie like this, for what is there to critique in the traditional sense as critics are wont to do? Battle Wizard is utter nonsense from the opening scene wherein one man cuts off another man’s legs with laser beams emanating from his fingers right after his own wife calmly taunts the woman he was having an affair with moments ago. She barely seems concerned with the matter of infidelity.

Enough hyperbole for one day however. Obviously any movie can be the subject of critical evaluation, regardless of how unstructured its story and themes may be, but that does not make the task a simple one. The script faintly alludes to a possible hero journey for Tuan Yu may be tested with when his father insists that he compliment his scholarly knowledge with the martial arts, much to the protagonist’s irritation. Further suggestions of such a story arrive when Zhong, whom Yu stumbles upon in a forest as he plays with her snakes, offers her friendship and the opportunity to train him in Kung fu. She scolds him for his lack of patience and enthusiasm. ‘It can’t be learned in a single day!’ she tells him. That potential for character development is squandered shortly thereafter once Yu bits a huge python and sucks his blood, an act granting him magical powers and knowledge of Kung fu (insert obligatory ‘Woah’ joke here). Later he eats a poisonous frog which makes him invulnerable. So much for raising stakes and putting the hero through a challenge.

imageBy all accounts, director Pao Hsueh-Li’s objective, seeing as there is no solid foundation to build upon as far as a script is concerned, is to provide as much action and comedically inclined stimuli as his budget permits. Credit to him and his team’s efforts who pull out all the stops even though some decisions backfire in the most boneheaded ways. The subplot involving an enraged gorilla in a dungeon is so incongruous with anything that preceded it can only support the hypothesis that a lot of what the viewer sees on screen was created impromptu. The godawful gorilla suit the stuntman dons does not help things either.

If one is willing to go along with Battle Wizard’s tomfoolery, there is some amusement to be had, depending on what tickles one’s funny bone of course. Laughs erupt all too often because what happens on screen is so unreservedly silly whereas the actual attempts at making jokes ironically fall dead flat. It really makes one wonder if the movie was the product of children’s imaginations rather than seasoned filmmakers. Verdict: Battle Wizard is the cotton candy of Shaw Brothers films.

-Edgar Chaput

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