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The Sword of Many Loves
  AKA: The Story of the Flying Fox
Cheung Man and Leon Lai
  Year: 1993  
  Director: Poon Man-Kit  
  Producer: Johnny Mak Tong-Hung, Stephen Shin Gei-Yin, Raymond Chow Man-Wai  
  Cast: Leon Lai Ming, Cheung Man, Michelle Reis, Tsui Kam-Kong
  The Skinny: Especially silly wuxia fantasy that, despite its many faults, has enough charm to win through.  


     Wu Fei (Leon Lai) and his uncle Ping are a pair of wandering brick salesmen (Brick salesmen?), who are delivering bricks to the home of exotic hinterland beauty Ling (Michelle Reis). The bricks are for the grave of Ling's recently deceased master, who was chief of a sect of poisoners and possessor of a "medical manual" (distractingly subtitled in English as "medical manure"). Other members of the sect want to get their hands on the manual, and Fei and Ping witness an attempt on Ling's life by a scorpion-eating, tarantula-wielding, underground-burrowing dwarf. After some slapstick involving accidental poisoning and pig's urine, Fei and Ping run away.
     Our brickies wander to Nanking where they find that their friend Chung has been framed by Young Fung, son of Master Fung (Tsui Kam-Kong), chief Bad Dude of the area. (Incidentally, the film's most unnecessarily violent scene occurs here when Chung's maddened wife kills her young son. Be warned.) Fei and Ping intervene, leading to a confrontation with Master Fung in which Ping is killed. Fei vows revenge but wisely retreats to fight another day. Along the road Fei meets the beautiful Purple Yuen (Cheung Man), who is attempting to stop the various martial arts leaders from being distracted from their proper task of restoring the Ming Dynasty by a government-sponsored martial arts contest. Her strategy is to beat everyone and win the title herself. Traveling together, romance develops between Fei and Yuen. In a scene that is both silly and erotic, Fei seduces Yuen by covering her in molasses (?). At the last minute, Yuen shows magnificent self-restraint, leaving Fei bewildered.
     After washing up, Fei confronts Master Fung. Armed this time with molasses and watermelons, Fei nearly kills Fung but is stopped at the last minute by Yuen, who turns out to be Fung's daughter. However, because Fung killed her mother's family and caused her mother to commit suicide, Yuen only stops Fei so that she might later have the opportunity to kill Fung herself. Yuen is poisoned by Fung's trickery, and Fei takes her to Ling to be cured. Despite her earlier contempt, Ling now fancies Fei and tells him she will only cure Yuen if Fei gives Yuen up. There follows some classic HK relationship comedy hijinks involving a put-upon Fei and two pouting, grumpy women. Then an accident reveals that Yuen, not a man, but a nun! After some angsting and an amusing cat fight, our heroes attend the martial arts contest and find a plot to kill all the martial arts sects. Pandemonium ensues, culminating in a final showdown between Master Fung and Fei in a sandstorm.
      Putting it mildly, the plot of The Sword of Many Loves meanders a little. It's not quite picaresque, but it takes its time to get to the point, which is fine. You can probably tell that the film does little to steer away from wuxia clichés, but avoiding them would be like having a US action film without a revenge motive or a token love interest. Director Poon Man-Kit does a pretty competent job, including the requisite skewed angles and ebullient kineticism. The editing is something of a tour de force, being so frenetic that it's often hard to tell what's going on. Though it might seem strange, I always see this as a plus; it gives these films an impressionistic quality that fits well with the subject matter. The action scenes are also engaging. Though not as flashy as other films, the set pieces at least don't bog down the film.
      The performances are pretty good. Those who have seen Leon Lai in recent dramas and romantic comedies might find this hard to believe: his acting is usually uncompromisingly wooden. But in Sword of Many Loves he projects the persona of a happy-go-lucky swordsman with apparent ease. Leon, what happened? Cheung Man is Cheung Man—one of the leading wuxia starlets of the period. However, here she gets to appear in some really great scenes, especially the one with the molasses. Yes, yes, the molasses...
      Anyway, Michelle Reis also does well as the scheming siren Ling. At its core the role of Ling is pretty much the Kiddo role Reis played in Swordsman II. You wouldn't want to cast her in Hamlet, but she does this sort of thing pretty well—and she looks great in Minority People's clothing. Tsui Kam-Kong is the villain, as he was in so many other films at the time. Perhaps the only unusual aspect of his role here is that he has to convey a very unhealthy relationship with his son, which he does convincingly, to the discomfort of all.
      But the genius of Sword of Many Loves lies not in its acting, nor in its story, nor in its action scenes, but in its many surreal and scatological moments, i.e. the dwarf, the molasses, the pig's urine, Cheung Man and Michelle Reis together in a bath while poison rains around them, the melting spiders, the scorpion mastication, the horse that cries "Help me!" at a time of stress, the unexpected moment of noble self-sacrifice, the bit where Leon Lai gets pushed in a ditch, the poison-induced body part inflation, etc. Yes, it's low humor, but low humor at its finest. It's also completely incidental to the plot, which on paper looks more like a tragic bloodbath ala The Barefoot Kid. Consequently, the presence of humor is all the more surprising and welcome.
      It's fair to say that they don't make them like this anymore (they were pretty hard pressed to make them like this back then). Recent "historical" Hong Kong comedies like Chinese Odyssey 2002 and Cat and Mouse, while possessing their moments, seem self-conscious and leaden compared to the eye-popping craziness of Sword of Many Loves and other films of its ilk 10 to 15 years ago. In those days they could make crazy films without even trying.
      And Sword of Many Loves is also the complete antithesis of the current "Holy T
rinity" of arthouse-wuxia films: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. For instance, Sword of Many Loves totally fails to muster any symbolic use of color, any exquisite landscapes, any quiet, brooding performances by veteran megastars, or any coded ruminations on contemporary Chinese politics. It doesn't even have any tasty shots of Zhang Ziyi. Similarly, Crouching Tiger et al completely fail to manifest a fast-tunnelling dwarf or a hero who skates into battle on watermelon rinds.
      Of course it's hardly fair comparing a non-serious film to a deadly serious one. But in my mind, the wuxia classics of the early 1990s are better than the "Holy Trinity" films, simply because they're fun and unpretentious. Well, you could debate this forever, but I can honestly say that if you like early 1990s HK wuxia films, you really should get your hands on a copy of Sword of Many Loves. (Stuart McDonald 2004)

   Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen