The Bad Movie Report

The Miracle Fighters

Own It!

The onset of an addiction is a terrible thing to behold.

Some stick with you for life - for instance, they'll get my cola when they pry it out of my cold, dead hand. Others fade with time; for another instance, I remember the first, deadly time I held a McFarlane figure in my hand (the Wetworks Vampire), the start of a feverish collecting binge. Now, five years hence, I blithely let entire series of the things pass me by with nary a pang...

But nothing matches that sweaty, excited feeling that hits the pit of your stomach when you realize you've taken the bait, and the hook is now firmly set. That time I popped the package open on my first purchase, Viking Spawn (yes, dammit, opened - toys are meant to be played with!) and what would become the unmistakable, pungent odor of the fresh McFarlane, a mixture of plastic and paint, wafted to my nostrils. When my wife wistfully speaks of the "new doll smell" of Christmas mornings past, I quite understand what she means.

And there was the time, my belly full of dim sum, I idly leafed through the DVDs at a nearby Asian video store, and found Miracle Fighters.

You see, it's just like my flirtation with action figure collecting - I wasn't hooked the moment I picked up Dr. Weasel's Vampire, no, it wasn't until I became a willing participant in my own degradation that I was an addict, not until I made theEVERYBODY was kung fu fightin'! conscious choice to bring not just the Vampire, but the others, into my house. It's a slow process; it begins small.

Let's look at how we got here.

A couple of years ago, Andrew (or, as his friends know him, Sgt. Borntreger) posted his review of Drunken Wu Tang, which intrigued me enough to seek out the movie, give it a watch and eventually write my own review. It's interesting that I still occasionally drag it out for entertainment, not something I do with a lot of the movies reviewed here. Meantime, Keith Allison of Teleport City was urging me to check out Young Taoism Fighter, which Arena had just released as Wu Tang Temple (and Keith has also deconstructed Xenon's tendency to pump out substandard dubs and change the names to Wu Tang Dawg Chow far more effectively than I could).

What these movies have in common - besides astonishingly fresh (and goofy) kung fu - is the Yuen Brothers.

Yuen Siu TinThe Yuen family runs deep in the realm of Hong Kong cinema, and I wish I knew more about them. We should start with the patriarch, Yuen Siu Tin (and special thanks to for the pic), or as we gwailo tended to know him, the old, probably smelly, unkempt beggar/drunk who always turned out to be the master of some incredibly powerful kung fu. He crops up in this capacity in movies like Shaolin Challenges Ninja, Buddhist Fist, the first Drunken Master, and whatever the hell movie it was Xenon changed to Ol' Dirty Kung Fu.

Siu Tin's eldest son is a chap named Yuen Woo Ping, and even if you have only seen movies playing in American theaters for the last couple of years, you have seen his work, as fight choreographer for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Woo Ping is a proficient film director in his own right; if Buddhist Fist and Iron Monkey mean nothing to you, perhaps Tai Chi Master/Twin Warriors or Wing Chun do - they can even be rented at your local BlockWood. And he is the director of tonight's movie. More Yuens as they occur.

Miracle Fighters starts with a typical enough opening ploy for a fu flick, Dastardly Things Done To A Good Guy. The Good Guy in this case is Kao, the Chief Instructor for "The 8 Banners Army", who is dressed down by an imperial eunuch for marrying the wrong woman - or, as the eunuch succinctly puts it, "Manchus do not marry Hans." Kao is given the typically evil eunuch offer: if he will execute his wife, he can walk. Kao seems to consider it for a moment, then decides he cannot. So, naturally, the eunuch orders his guards to kill the woman immediately, and orders the execution of Kao's entire clan as "an example to the others".

And this, naturally, is the cue for Kao to show why he was the instructor and everybody else was his student; after dispatching every guard in the immediate area, he prepares to turn his blade on the eunuch - and there would be eunuch cutlets on the steam table that evening were it not for the intervention of (are you ready?)... Sorcerer Bat!

Sorcerer Bat (Yuen Hsin Yee) expresses his regrets (so he sneeringly says)Aaaaa!  Mime in a Jar!  With a paper sword!  Run! to Kao, but an order is an order; he and the eunuch disappear in a cloud of smoke to be replaced by what appears to be at first a funeral urn, though it seems capable of rolling about on its own, smashing furniture and chasing Kao. Then it sprouts a head and arms, revealing itself to be a Mime in a Jar! I realize the makeup is meant to signify a ghost, but I can't help it. I'm an American, and I hate bad street mimes, so it is simultaneously chilling and satisfying to me to think of this creature as The Mime In A Jar. Indulge me.

Did I mention The Mime In A Jar weilds a paper sword? A paper sword that can cut through solid wood and bone? And Kao has a very narrow time of it, barely escaping as Every Guard In The Province descends upon him? Kao escapes only by taking the young Prince (where'd he come from?) hostage and threatening to kill him unless he is allowed to leave in peace... but when he reaches safety, and attempts to release the prince, he discovers he accidentally killed the boy in the scuffle. Sorrowfully, Kao consigns the child's body to the ocean, keeping only the Prince's jade amulet.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the first five minutes of the movie. The. First. Five. Minutes.

Now let's move forward fourteen years, and forget about Kao for a bit. We have to meetRANDOM ACT OF VIOLENCE TO A BAG OF RICE! The Old Spinster and the Dotard Bastard, as the subtitles refer to them. I've always referred to the woman as Granny and the man as Quentin Tarantino, due to the slightest of resemblances (and this will doubtless give rise to many sentences following that will seem quite humorous when taken out of context! Collect them all!)(Indulge me!) . Granny is played by Yuen Woo Ping himself (a special waaaa! to Pete L. Lee for pointing that out to me)(Future Freex: waaa retracted; it's not Wo Ping, but another Yuen, whose name I forget. One day, we'll get back to that), and Quentin Tarantino is played by Yuen Chung Yan. The two share a compound which is literally divided down the middle; they constantly squabble with each other. They are both powerful kung fu sorcerers, students of the same master, whose shrine straddles the border (appropriately, the portrait in the shrine is of Yuen Siu Tin in his familiar Drunken Master garb; he had died in '79 of a heart attack).

Okay, now back to Kao. In the intervening 14 years, Kao has found and raised an orphan called Shu Gun (sorry, I've run out of easily identifiable Yuens); Shu Gun wears the Prince's medallion. Besides training Shu Gun in the ways of swordsmanship, Kao has also spent the last decade and a half investing in becoming an alcoholic. One night, bellowing in a drunken rage, he boasts of being the imperial kung fu instructor; a boast that is heard by two of Sorcerer Bat's agents. Attacking that night, the thugs throw lime in Kao's eyes, but retreat when Shu Gun takes up his master's sword and begins to fight them - spotting the medallion, they believe him to be the kidnapped Prince, and dare not harm him. They retreat and report to Sorcerer Bat instead.

Searching for medicine for Kao's eyes, Shu Gun stumbles upon Granny & Quentin Tarantino's compound, where he is suitably spooked by their witchy antics - paintings of candles that actually light, disembodied hands offering him a lamp; Quentin Tarantino, however, feels the meeting is destined. He gives Shu Gun medicine and ominously tells him to return... if he survives the night.

Which he may not, when Sorcerer Bat comes a-callin' at their hideout. After Squeak!  Squeak!paralyzing Shu Gun with deftly thrown needles, Sorcerer Bat and Kao finally have their showdown, and we discover why he's called Sorcerer Bat. There are these lacy wings that hang down from his arms, see? And he likes to flutter them a lot while squeaking. Like a bat. And fly around. And hang from rafters. Like a bat. Weird damn kung fu. But it's more than enough to best Kao (well, the fact that Sorcerer Bat has a sword-on-a-string that allows you to stab your opponent in the back helps, too), leaving Sorcerer Bat with who he thinks is the Prince.

Until he notices that Shu Gun does not have the Prince's birthmark on the sole of his foot; that is cured by some improvised tattooing. After all, a living Prince is necessary to Sorcerer Bat's plans to rule the world, or something. He leaves Shu Gun in the care of The Mime In A Jar, which proves to be a mistake, as our hero manages to appeal to the creature's emotions, and it allows him to escape - an act which will later cause the wrathful Sorcerer Bat to drop a bomb in its jar.

Ah, now that's comedy.Shu Gun returns to Quentin Tarantino as instructed, but in vaulting the wall, he has unknowingly straddled the border, which means that Granny is threatening to cut him in half with her trademark Komedically Large Axe. What follows is basically an entirely horizontal kung fu fight, as the off-balance Shu Gun and Quentin Tarantino desperately try to avoid Granny's axe and only wind up moving farther and farther down the border until Shu Gun is kneeling before the shrine. And it is this act that brings the fight to an end, as it means he has, unwittingly or not, joined their family - and now he is the apprentice of both.

In the following scenes, Shu Gun is taught the tricks of the fightin' sorcerer trade by the squabbling sorcerers, either by getting his ass kicked by Granny or undergoing the usual tortuous training (Quentin Tarantino, in particular, orders him to study texts while Waaaaaaa!sitting in a chair studded with nails - "When you concentrate on the text, the pain will stop."). The constant cartoon character bickering finally gets to Shu Gun, though, who angrily announces he's leaving... only to have his way blocked by Sorcerer Bat, who has come for his Prince. This has the effect of causing Shu Gun to decide apprenticeship ain't quite so bad, and Sorcerer Bat and the two sorcerers to exchange heated words ("You think he's the Prince? You can only fool people, not the gods." "I don't fear either!"). Sorcerer Bat, however, realizes that he can't fight the combined might of both Granny and Quentin Tarantino, and so decides to strategically disappear in a puff of smoke.

Sorcerer Bat, you see, is the apparent creator of Mission: Impossible technology, as he devises a mask that will let him look exactly like Quentin Tarantino. This allows him to sneak into Granny's house under the guise of improving their relationship, and then killing her when her back is turned by throwing some sort of spinning, drill-bit equipped flying top at her head (Damn! he also invented Phantasm technology!). Then, donning his Granny mask, Sorcerer Bat walks across the compound to complete part two of the evening's agenda- but Granny, with her dying breath, sent a wisp of her gray hair flying directly to Quentin Tarantino, who, snatching it from the air, realizes exactly what has happened..

What follows is a kung fu battle so full of surprises, it is literally impossible to describe here. Quentin Tarantino seems to sprout arms and legs as needed, and even withdrawsNot a midget - but an incredible simulation! his head into his robes, like a turtle, to avoid blows; Shu Gun does one section of the fight doing that old Ed Sullivan show trick, with his head stuck through a curtain, wearing shoes on his hands while Quentin Tarantino's hands double as his. A tiny costume completes the ensemble, and Sorcerer Bat appears to be fu-fighting with a midget standing on a tabletop (this scene alones guarantees that Andrew will own a copy of this movie). Then it all comes down to swords-on-a-string, of which Shu Gun has become a master. Deprived of his back stabber and outnumbered, Sorcerer Bat splits, leaving Quentin Tarantino and Shu Gun to mourn the departed Granny. And Shu Gun decides he will fulfill Granny's last wish, the feat for which she had been practicing for years - to enter the once-in-a-decade Sorcerer's Competition and win the "Supreme Command".

It is this Competition that comprises the final half-hour of the movie, and it's a stunner. The Competition is opened by a Blair Witch 3 will kick ass.  Literally.delegation of Peking Opera acrobatic demons, who tell the assembled (and handcuffed) sorcerers that they must overcome three obstacles: first, they must retrieve the key to their shackles from a vat of boiling oil, before an incense stick burns out; second, they must cross a paper bridge suspended over a pit of poisonous serpents; and last, they have to divine a proper ceremony to finish up, or they must face the wrath of a wooden stick man who knows excellent kung fu (unfortunate thoughts about The Blair Witch Project are unavoidable, I'm afraid).

Suffice to say that Shu Gun is going to have to employ each and every trick Granny and Quentin Tarantino taught him, because, naturally, Sorcerer Bat is there in a really bad disguise - I guess he used up all his liquid latex on the earlier masks - and he wants the Supreme Command, even to the exclusion of his earlier plans that required Shu Gun be alive. Wizards. Go figure.

Miracle Fighters seems to embody exactly what drew most of us into the realm of bad movies in the first place: watching it, one slowly succumbs to the delirious feeling that we are in the hands of a madman with a movie camera. It's like that first time you watch Glen or Glenda and find yourself thinking, "What the f@#k???!!!". It's very entertaining, but the difference is, Glen or Glenda does not entertain us in the way it intended - and Miracle Fighters does.

Foreign comedies rarely appeal to me, especially comedies done in polytonal languages like Chinese - any subtlety in the dialogue or wordplay is going to defy translation (and here in 2001, even more than my flying car, I want the chip that I plug into my head that allows me to instantly comprehend Mandarin) - yet Miracle Fighters, with its slapstick and goofy cartoon humor, appeals to me immensely. Of course, those two elements alone would simply give us a Hong Kong version of Dumb and Dumber, and there is far more on the plate here. The characters are colorful and intriguing, and the fights highly creative.

The Quentin Tarantino character comes off especially well; he has an entire segment devoted to him in the first third of the movie, where he employs his magic to break the area's drought while at the same time fending off the attacks of a larcenous priest who was extorting gold from the village to do the same thing. The priest defeated and water raining down from the heavens, Quentin Tarantino throws the gold into the crowd, returning the village its life savings. It's too bad that Granny doesn't have a similar scene, but Woo Ping spends most of his time behind the camera.

Yuen Woo Ping, like Lam Ching Ying, being thin and slight of build, probably played the female roles in his Peking Opera days, and it shows in his portrayal of Granny, rendered even more difficult by making her a victim of the bizarre practice of foot-binding, The cat's cradle...of calamity!meaning he plays all his scenes on tip-toe. This might even be some sort of stock character - as I recall, Lam Ching Ying effects a similar disguise in Exorcism Master (unless that was a parody of Woo Ping's character here - oh, reasoning like this makes my head hurt!). Granny would return in this movie's sequel, Taoism Drunkard, or as we know it here, Drunken Wu Tang.

Woo Ping is willing to parody himself, too - in his more serious films, like the aforementioned Buddhist Fist and Dreadnaught, there's a plot device that recurs: an assassin disguised as a tradesman. In the former film, it's a fortune teller, throwing deadly yarrow sticks as he divines the I Ching; in the latter, a tailor come to make folk hero Wong Fei-hung a new suit, with a strangling measuring tape and whirling shears. Woo Ping offers a sly riff on this trademark with a traveling barber/beautician - again, a man dressed and dubbed as a woman (it's one of those assassins that reported to Sorcerer Bat)- whose fight with Granny resembles nothing so much as a rough-and-tumble game of cat's cradle. Between two men in drag.

Sunny YuenYuen Hsin Yee, or Sunny, would also return in the sequel, but not as Sorcerer Bat. He would instead be that picture's villain, Old Devil (Sorcerer Bat is pretty definitely Raider-of-the-Lost-Arked when he undeservedly grabs the Supreme Command - oh, like I'm spoiling anything for you here). Considering that he's also best known as the psychotic killer White Tiger in the Woo Ping-directed Dreadnaught, it's hard to believe that he was once ballyhooed as a new Jackie Chan-type heroic lead - check him out in (again) The Buddhist Fist. Sunny excels as a villain, all sneers and evil laughter, and he's especially good at making the outré weapons given him seem plausible and deadly.

And I especially want to devote some space to Quentin Tarantino, or more appropriately, Yuen Chung Yan. You're probably more familiar with his work than you think; even if you are Tarantino could play this role, but it would be a lot snottier.the type that does not watch fu flicks (and if you are, you probably haven't read this deep into the review, anyway), he was the fight choreographer for the 2000 version of Charlie's Angels. In Tai Chi Master (released direct to tape in America as Twin Warriors, with packaging that de-emphasized the movie's period costumes and heavily emphasized the then-current Romeo Must Die!), he was the ball-rolling priest Ling, trying to attain harmony; in Once Upon A Time in China, he was the boastful swordsman who loses a duel with Iron Vest Yin; I even believe he was Ratface in Taoism Drunkard. The man is a chameleon onscreen, and you have to concentrate, to peer past the varying mannerisms, body language, and facial hair (and different voices dubbing him, when I can't avoid that) to discern the actor beneath.

Of course, in the week following the initial posting of this review, I re-watched Buddhist Fist and Iron Monkey. I had forgotten how powerful a protagonist Sunny Yuen could be, and then he surprised me again when I realized he played Fox, the slightly crooked but likable (and ultimately righteous) captain of the guard in Iron Monkey. Fox's kung fu ain't so good, and Sunny winds up getting knocked around more than he does any knocking, quite a departure for a guy who so often plays a powerhouse - so Chung Yan isn't the only chameleon I should be complimenting here.

So this is where the addiction comes in - these madcap movies by and featuring the Yuen brothers are like a breath of fresh air to me. Movies seem less and less interested in surprising me these days, and these odd movies, all but unknown in these parts, have me gawping in amazement for their running times.

Obviously, the hero.No doubt a goodly amount of the surprise factor comes with the seeming indifference to plot in this movie. You remember how we follow Janet Leigh for a half-hour in Psycho, and then suddenly she gets killed? (Oops, sorry, guess I ruined that one, too) Well, pretty much the same thing happens to the plot in Miracle Fighters - we travel along with it for over an hour, and suddenly it gets knifed in the shower and we never see it again. Apparently, Kao has some sort of plan to pass Shu Gun off as the Prince, but gets too involved in destroying his liver to do anything about it; then Sorcerer Bat has a similar plan, and goes through the whole Ethan Hawke/Falseface thing to get his fake Prince; but once we get to the Sorcerer's Competition, all that goes in the nearest recycling bin with a gorgeous shot from mid-court. In fact, the first blow Sorcerer Bat lands on Shu Gun shatters the Prince's medallion, as if to demonstrate the filmmaker's discarding of the rest of the movie. I've been told that quite often, HK movies are made without any script written beforehand - and I think Miracle Fighters stands as Exhibit A for that supposition.

"HEE hee hee!  Hee hee!   Hee!"  "Shut up or I'll have Keanu Reeves kick your ass."  "HAAAH! Hee hee hee haaa!"Not that it matters, in the final analysis. I have developed a raging taste for these things, and I must have more of the Yuens, pure and simple. And if American movies had this much fun and exhibited a fraction as much playful creativity (they already have a glaring disregard for cohesive storylines), I wouldn't have to go looking on foreign soil for my entertainment, now, would I?

In other words: indulge me.


Love them Yuens!

- April 2, 2001