2 out of 5 stars

For anyone seeking a perfect example of how inventive and irritating Hong Kong action comedies can be, look no further than The Miracle Fighters / 奇門遁甲! This review will likely appeal to those who are already excited and have pre-ordered Eureka Entertainment’s new 2K restoration of the original Hong Kong cut and don’t really need to read it. It might also attract some viewers drawn by the name of martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, thanks to his work on major Hollywood films like The Matrix (1999-2021) franchise and the international hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

The Miracle Fighters is an audacious, non-stop showcase of outrageously over-the-top action sequences unlike anything seen before. For better or worse, it played a part in changing the trajectory of 1980s Hong Kong cinema. Striking a balance between action and comedy is a tricky feat, however, and relies heavily on each viewer’s sense of humour. While I chuckled more than a few times—the rocket-propelled white rabbit being chased by a temple full of Daoist sorcerers had me in stitches—the cartoonish violence, pantomime acting, and fondness for toilet humour eventually grew wearisome.

Those who enjoyed Stephen Chow’s superior Kung Fu Hustle (2004), which also featured action choreography by Yuen Woo-ping, will undoubtedly find this earlier film amusing due to its shared sense of exuberant craziness. The Miracle Fighters certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it remains a must-see for fans of Hong Kong’s distinctively irreverent and knockabout kung fu comedies.

However, one wouldn’t expect a comedy to begin as it does. The first 10 minutes follow the heroic swordsman, Kao Hsiung (Eddy Ko), who is ordered by imperial decree to execute his wife for breaking Manchu law by marrying a Han woman. He refuses but is forced to watch her die and is then condemned to death for his disobedience. Frustrated and enraged, Hsiung deals with the royal guards in a slickly choreographed, tightly edited sword fight, with the action slightly sped up. He’s almost at the throne when ‘The Sorcerer Bat’ (Yuen Shun-Yee) appears and whisks the emperor away with a powerful magical sutra.

Hsiung is left to face a seemingly indestructible ‘clown’ (Yuen Chun-yeung) who resides in a large urn and wields a paper sword that can inflict nasty paper cuts. One supposes this is meant to be funny. But the next few minutes take a much darker turn. Hsiung escapes the urn-clown only to find himself surrounded by the imperial guard. In desperation, he grabs the young crown prince as a hostage. Tragically, the young boy, who clearly idolises him, is accidentally throttled during the escape. Hsiung then disposes of the child’s body in the sea. This, I don’t think, is intended to be funny.

Picking up Hsiung’s story 14 years later, we find him attempting some redemption by raising and training the orphaned boy, Shu Gan (Yuen Yat-Chor), who’s around the same age the young prince would be, were he still alive. Of course, Hsiung has been presumed to have kidnapped the prince and kept him as a form of insurance. So, when his identity slips during a drunken binge, word soon reaches interested parties that the fugitive and the heir to the throne have been located. This presents a problem for the Sorcerer Bat, who has manoeuvred himself into a position of power and plans to seize control of China when the emperor dies without an heir.

After ninjas botch their first attempt to assassinate Hsiung stealthily, Shu Gan stumbles upon a ramshackle dwelling in search of medicines for his injured master. What might have appeared to be a derelict place turns out to be enchanted. He’s welcomed by murals that transform into self-illuminating candles and a levitating roast chicken. These surreal illusions turn out to be the work of an old Daoist sorcerer (Leung Ka-yan), who was introduced in an earlier, seemingly disconnected sequence, where he bickers with his neighbour, an equally magical ‘old witch’ (Yuen Cheung-yan), and then defeats a charlatan priest (Ha Huang) in a rain-making contest. This sorcerer and witch decide to take Shu Gan on as a disciple, whether he likes it or not, and much of the so-called humour arises from their arguments about who is the master. Their annoying antics, such as trying to divide their student between them using a giant axe, are actually their obtuse way of training him.

While the physical comedy didn’t quite land for me, I must admit the three central performances are brimming with gusto. The rest of the film becomes an impressive showcase of the strengths and skills of the top stunt performers of the time. I imagine it’s a similar experience to a particularly good show at the Peking Opera, the martial arts and theatrical schools where I presume most of the cast received at least some of their training.

Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that the Yuen family name has been mentioned a few times already. Miracle Fighters is a family affair of sorts.

Yuen Siu-tien was due to appear in the film but tragically died of a heart attack shortly before production began. He was a prolific and popular star of Hong Kong action cinema, well-known for his recurring roles such as Beggar So and The Drunken Master. I recognised him as the old cook from The Mystery of Chess Boxing (1979)—just one of 18 films he made in his final year. In Miracle Fighters, he appears as an animated painting in a shrine that the old bickering couple have set up for their master. Miraculously, he’s still able to change his expression and drink rice wine.

His son, Yuen Woo-ping, became a legend of Hong Kong cinema in his own right with Miracle Fighters being his eighth film as both director and stunt coordinator. The screenplay is credited to The Peace Group, Yuen Woo-ping’s “family firm.” Born in 1945, Yuen Woo-ping’s arrival coincided with a time of severe unrest in China. The Second Sino-Japanese War—a major part of what is known beyond Asia as World War II—had ended, but the second stage of the Chinese Civil War continued. To symbolise hope for the future, his parents named him Woo-ping, the Cantonese word for “peace.”

He had already established his reputation as one of the best martial arts action choreographers. His method involved observing each actor and stunt performer and assessing their skills and strengths. He would then work with them to tailor each fight sequence to showcase those abilities in a way that best served the narrative. So, while he was known to be decisive, his approach was also collaborative. This time, however, the script for Miracle Fighters was also a collaborative effort, written by a committee that included at least four of his brothers, who were key stunt performers. By the time it reached the screen, it’s clear the narrative takes a back seat to the stunts and ingenious action set pieces.

On-screen family roll call (or should that be role call?) reads: Yuen Shun-Yee, who brings lighthearted villainy to the dastardly Sorcerer Bat and clearly enjoys himself leaping and fluttering his blade-hemmed cape-like wings. Yuen Chun-yeung, who plays the unfortunate ‘child’ trapped inside the urn, performs some extraordinary moves that never quite manage to distract from how irksome the white-faced mime character is. It’s therefore quite an achievement when he finally manages to elicit some pathos. Very much in keeping with panto traditions, Yuen Cheung-yan is certainly spirited in the ‘female’ lead role as the old witch who relies as much on her wits as she does on deceptive fighting techniques that utilise conjurer tricks, false appendages, and fake heads. He provides the necessary foil to Leung Ka-yan’s equally tireless and puckish performance.

Yuen Yat-chor is certainly competent in the lead role as the young and impetuous Shu Gut, who’s inherently good but not averse to a bit of scheming and deception himself. He masters the blend of physical comedy and kung fu for the epic sparring match with the Sorcerer Bat, during which he also pits his kung fu against a giant stick man with mallets for hands and feet (and genitals), an ordeal by fire, and the infamous pit of snakes.

Though puppet snakes were employed for some close-ups and interactions, apparently thousands of live animals filled the pit, and most of them perished. The dry ice appears to have accidentally suffocated them with carbon dioxide vapour. This wouldn’t be permitted these days, but at the time, there wouldn’t have been much concern, as they were destined for food markets where they’d have ended up slaughtered anyway. However, the knowledge does leave a nasty taste in the mouth, and it helped me understand why I didn’t connect with Miracle Fighters. While I enjoyed its absurdist elements, it possesses a brash sense of humour that verges on desperation, alongside an underlying unpleasantness that doesn’t always seem warranted.

HONG KONG | 1982 | 100 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | CANTONESE

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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 copies].
  • 1080p HD presentation on Blu-ray of the original Hong Kong theatrical cut from a brand new 2K restoration.
  • Original Cantonese mono audio and optional classic English dub.
  • Optional English subtitles, newly translated for this release.
  • Brand new audio commentary on the Hong Kong theatrical version by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival). As a professional translator who’s subtitled Asian films, Djeng can explain some of the language and name nuances we wouldn’t guess, including the original Cantonese title, which translates to “Mysterious Gates Escape Technique.” He also shares plenty of analysis and commentary on technical aspects, as well as the cast and crew’s backgrounds. By listening to Djeng, who loves the film and finds it funny, viewers will undoubtedly get more out of rewatching it.
  • Brand new audio commentary on the export version by action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema. There’s no doubt at all that this duo are genuine kung fu cinema enthusiasts and bounce off one another in a lively conversational way. Their knowledge is encyclopaedic, and much of it is first-hand as Mike Leeder has worked in the Hong Kong film industry with the Yuen clan. There are plenty of anecdotes and useful background information on cast, crew, and production.
  • Action Master: An Interview with Yuen Woo-ping—archival 21-minute interview by Frédéric Ambroisine. Discussing the evolution of Hong Kong action cinema, he begins with a chronological overview of some key films. He argues that while the 1970s might be considered a golden age, the genre needed to develop or stagnate. This is why he innovated the kung fu comedy genre. He compares his approaches to different film types and explores how his work as a stunt coordinator differs from directing. He also talks about collaborating with martial arts stars, including “discovering” Donnie Yen, with whom he made several classic films like Iron Monkey (1993), and working with Jet Li on the Once Upon a Time in China saga (1991-97), his breakthrough work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (praising Michelle Yeoh for having “the best moves”), and his later work in Hollywood. He doesn’t believe there was a golden age of Hong Kong action cinema that has since passed. Instead, he maintains that action choreography continues to improve with advancements in technology and VFX.
  • At the Service of the Great Magician: A 17-minute interview with assistant director Fish Fong. Who shares his recollections of working in the Hong Kong film industry as an assistant to Yuen Woo-ping. He recounts their meeting, while he was working as a photojournalist, and mainly stays relevant to the lead-up to, and production of, Miracle Fighters. He is relaxed and conversational, sharing plenty of behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
  • The Shakespeare of Yuen Woo-ping: A 17-minute interview with John Kreng… who remembers how, as a journalist, he met Yuen Woo-ping to interview him for Kung Fu magazine. This encounter significantly influenced his decision to pursue a career as an action choreographer. He analyses and appreciates Yuen Woo-ping’s style and methods from his own professional perspective.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original poster artwork.
  • Stills Gallery.
  • Trailer.
  • A limited-edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by James Oliver [2000 copies]. At 14-pages this attractive little volume is rather slight but contains a couple of interesting examples of promotional and one piece of concept art. The essay is a straightforward overview of Yuen Woo-ping’s career, comparing his body of work to that of other action directors such as Summo Hung and Tsui Hark. A few scattered comments discuss his influence on others and the expected potted synopsis of Miracle Fighters. Really, it’s the least one should expect from items included as bonus material for physical media. To put it into perspective, the booklet is lighter on wordage than the review you have just read!
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Cast & Crew

director: Yuen Woo-ping.
writer: Peace Group.
starring: Leung Ka-yan, Yuen Cheung-yan, Yuen Yat-chor, Eddy Ko, Yuen Shun-yee, Yuen Chun-yeung, Ha Huang & Chan Tin-lung.